In the first week of November, an obscure Barelvi organisation called Tehreek-e-Labbaik ya Rasool Allah (TLRA) came from Lahore to Islamabad and staged a sit-in in Faizabad blocking access to Islamabad from Rawalpindi. The mob worshipfully followed a foul-mouthed wheelchair-riding leader, Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi who wanted the federal law minister lynched for blasphemy against the Prophet PBUH. The dharna went on for three weeks.
The government trapped in the Supreme Court “corruption” cases, which might dislodge it from power, didn’t take any action for over a fortnight. The SC took suo motu notice not realising its writ visa-a-vis religion had died long ago. It sounded comic asking the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government to use force to get rid of the mob.
The mob’s objective was to empower Barelvi Islam, characterised by a culture of devotion to the Holy Prophet and tolerance of sects which is not the strong point of the dominant Deobandi school. The Deobandis possess muscle because of their selection as proxy mujahideen with not a little help from Saudi Arabia and other Arab patrons.
The Barelvis took their disempowerment through Deobandi jihad lying down despite their numerical majority; but they were aroused to rebellion by the swagger of the Deobandis who often grabbed their mosques with state connivance. Then something happened to the Barelvis in Karachi’s terrorist melting pot and they emerged as Sunni Tehreek ready to punch back. The traditional cult of devotion to the Holy Prophet helped them focus on the blasphemy law and the Ahmadi community already apostatised by Pakistan’s constitution. Tehreek’s assault on Islamabad found the government in the familiar posture of prostration.
The “qadris” and “chishtis” of the small cities grew as cults with big money made from selling “miracle-based” religion to a largely illiterate population. Those who thought Barelvis lacked jihadi muscle and generous Saudi funding should have taken a lesson from the 2014 sit-in of the Canada-based Barelvi leader Tahirul Qadri who remote-controls billions of rupees among his well-organised followers. Now, if the country has not realised what it is facing, it should take a closer look at Rizvi and his wicked smile as he shows more Barelvi muscle.
TLRA wants to grab some power to be able to attract all sorts of pious and impious funding, and lift Rizvi to the undeclared pantheon of Pakistan’s religious underworld. Unfortunately, Pakistan is too politically unstable to think clearly about what is happening and is neglecting to come together politically to stop the rot.
One spontaneous citizen’s reaction to the ongoing campaign is that “the state is dead”. For over a fortnight, employees couldn’t commute between Rawalpindi and Islamabad because all modes of transport remain suspended. A couple of thousand devotees of Maulana Rizvi blocked the roads and heard their leader’s obscene speeches.
Pakistan has come to this pass because of decades of policy of allowing non-state actors to have their play outside the writ of the state. By using religion, it has exposed itself to “acceptable” rebuke from the clerics of doubtful integrity. It began by stationing foreign fighters on its soil with exemption from law, opening itself to erosion of authority.The madrasa, once a revered institution of Islamic teaching, was allowed to connect with them and given the impunity from unlawful exercise of clerical authority till the masses accepted it as an alternative to the state itself.
When and if the law took its normal course, the courts were made to realise that the clerics could not be challenged. The government was scared of prosecuting them and the judges soon got the message. This immunity led to the criminalisation of religion in Pakistan. Madrasas, funded lavishly from outside the country, became more assertive and enslaved poor disciple-students through free lodging and boarding.
Today, the government is paralysed because the state has gradually said goodbye to its internal sovereignty somewhat like Afghanistan and Somalia. Only Pakistan is a much larger state with a big population — and its “Islamic” nuclear bomb threatens to become a “Sunni” bomb because of the state’s decline into sectarianism.