Why are Barelvis wielding new political influence in Pakistan?

The public perception after the crackdown against protestors is overwhelmingly anti-PML(N), while the Pakistan military has gained more sympathy for refusing the act against them. The stage has now been set for the PML(N) exit in the elections next year

Written by Umer Ali | Updated: December 1, 2017 10:43 am
pakistan, pakistan protests, pakistan blasphemy laws, pakistan protests blasphemy laws, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool-ullah, pakistan news, indian express, indian express news Members of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan far right Islamist political party shout slogans during a sit-in in Rawalpindi, Pakistan November 10, 2017. Reuters

The last three weeks have laid bare Pakistan’s claims of countering extremist ideology, both militarily and ideologically. The state shut down social media websites and TV channels in order to counter protesting supporters of the newly-formed religious party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool-ullah around Islamabad, and ordered the deployment of troops to restore order. But as a clear sign of insubordination, the military instead objected to the way the protest was handled.

It is important to explore the genesis of TLYP – a group of Barelvi religious organizations behind these protests. For decades, the Deobandi-Salafist groups championed the cause of violent jihad in Pakistan, while the Barelvi groups mostly remained apolitical and non-violent. However, unlike the common belief that only Deobandi-Salafist groups apostatize other sects, Barelvi literature is also rich with fatwas against the followers of other Islamic sects. One reason why Barelvi groups weren’t radicalized during the Afghan jihad is because the Saudi funding to fight the Soviet Union was directed towards Deobandi and Salafist groups due to their ideological affinity. However, over the past few years, Barelvi groups have gained significant political influence and street power.

It all started with the Salman Taseer blasphemy row. Then Governor of Punjab province, Taseer raised concerns about the way a blasphemy-accused Christian woman Asia Bibi’s case was treated. He visited her in the jail, and promised to appeal to then President Asif Ali Zardari to grant her clemency, while criticizing the controversial blasphemy laws. His statements drew the ire of several religious groups, especially the Barelvi organizations, which accused him of committing blasphemy.

One Barelvi cleric, the Rawalpindi-based Hanif Qureshi incited his followers to murder Governor Taseer. Among his listeners was an elite force soldier, Mumtaz Qadri, who was assigned with Salman Taseer’s security detail a few days later. Qadri murdered Salman Taseer at an Islamabad market, and handed himself in afterwards.

Since then, Qadri, a Barelvi himself, became the poster boy for Barelvi religious groups. They now champion the ishq-i-rasool (love for the prophet), and remain at the forefront of anti-blasphemy campaigning in Pakistan. The much-needed catalyst to bring their followers on the streets was the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri to death. TLYP was born out of the protests against Qadri’s death. The current leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi gained fame through his fiery speeches against the government.

Unlike the several militant outfits which turned on the military after Pakistan decided to aid the United States’ war on terror in Afghanistan, TLYP focuses its criticism on the civilian government, and not the military. Unlike the Deobandis and Salafis, experts say, Barelvi leaders pose as pro-army and pro-state, who want themselves affiliated with the army, thus giving an impression that everything they are doing is lawful.

This stands true in the current fiasco as well, when General Qamar Bajwa reportedly refused to deploy the military to disperse the protestors, saying “they are our people”. Now that a deal has been struck between the government and the protestors with the arbitration of an ISI Major General, and Law minister Zahid Hamid has resigned, several questions arise: why did an ISI General act as an arbitrator between the government and protestors? If the government was willing to accept the protestors’ demand, why wait for three weeks? Perhaps, the military pressurized the government to accept the protestors’ demands.

The deal itself has been subject to severe criticism by various quarters, with leading commentators describing it as “surrender”. Unfortunately, such deals were struck with the likes of TTP leaders Mullah Fazlullah in Swat and Nek Muhammad in Waziristan, but ultimately, the state had to launch military operations against them.

If one was to learn from those experiences, accepting the demands of an outlawed group is acknowledging them as stakeholders, which only worsens the situation. With this deal as well, the government conformed to the outrageous demands of a small group of protestors – setting another very bad precedent.

Now that someone’s faith is subject to suspicion by a mob, it is clear the mob won’t stop with Zahid Hamid. According to some reports, Punjab Law minister Rana Sanaullah needs to testify his belief in the finality of Prophethood in front of some clerics. If this continues, no one even with a slightly dissenting opinion will be able to live peacefully in Pakistan.

However, there is another important factor to be considered. The military in Pakistan has a history of using religious groups to further their agenda. Currently, the establishment is working hard to destroy the PML(N) votebank ahead of the 2018 general elections. What better way to do so but pitting Barelvism – a large part of the Pakistani population adheres to this school of thought – against the PML(N) ?

The signs have been there. In the recent by-elections for the National Assembly seat vacated by the disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, TLYP received more than 7,000 votes, while the Milli Muslim League – a political front of the banned LeT (or JuD) – received more than 5,500 votes. Both parties built their campaigns based solely on anti-PML(N) rhetoric.

One reason the military establishment is now relying on Barelvi groups is because the previous “assets” have now become a liability. Pakistan faces continuous pressure from the international community for not acting against terror groups like Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa, or its previous incarnation, the Lashkar-e-Toiba. By using the Barelvi groups, over an issue as sensitive as blasphemy, the military establishment might be preparing alternative assets to be deployed against their political rivals in Pakistan. The public perception after the government crackdown against protestors is overwhelmingly anti-PML(N), while the Pakistan military has gained more sympathy for refusing the act against them. Pakistan’s ultra-conservative population believe they were fighting for a noble cause.

The stage has now been set for the PML(N) exit in the elections next year, but at a hefty cost. A dangerous precedent has been set, and the majority Muslim sect has been weaponized. History is repeating itself in Pakistan.

Umer Ali is an award-winning Pakistani journalist who has reported extensively on terrorism, blasphemy, and human rights. He tweets @iamumer1

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