October 18, 2017
Pakistani society is one which has been marred badly by religious extremism since the 1980s. The underlying cause of religious extremism in Pakistanis is the employment of religion for strategic, political and vested interests by the institutions by it’s authorities.
-The more worrisome point is that when one client faction becomes a threat to it’s former patrons, a new group is created to counter the dissident group rather than rectifying its policies. When a state counters or tries to counter the first faction with the assistance of a second group, then that second one occupies the space vacated by first one. This cycle of religious extremism and counter extremism has been continuing since the 1980s.
After 2001, Pakistan began the process of politicising Sufi Islam by empowering Barelvis — followers of Sufi Islam, to counter Wahabbi extremism. However Barelvis too starting engaging in militancy.
This was seen during the Musharraf regime when it began institutionalising Sufi Islam in Pakistan by establishing the ‘National Council for Promotion of Sufism’.
The notion behind this step was the perception that Sufism is based on tolerance and harmony. Even the United States took great interest in and even sponsored the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) — a Barelvi religious party which was primarily established to incite Barelvis to counter the influence of Wahabbi ideologies.
After the Musharraf regime, the Pakistan People’s Party, which mainly consists of the descendants of Sufis such as Pirs (saints) and Pir-landlords, also started to promote Sufi values to counter the threat of extremism and terrorism by renaming the council to the‘Sufi Advisory Council’ (SAC).
These steps emboldened Barlevi clerics who then started to openly term Deobandis (another sect of Sunni Islam) as the perpetrators of violent extremism in the country.
Things changed suddenly when the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer gave statements in support of Asia Bibi — a Christian women who was jailed under charges of blasphemy.
Taseer suggested amendments to the blasphemy law. The Barelvis who were considered peaceful, abruptly turned against Taseer and declared him a ‘blasphemer’ over his suggestion of amending the blasphemy law.
It is worth noting that Barelvis, who consider themselves as Aashiqan-e-Rasool (Lovers of Prophet) believe that it is their duty to stop blasphemy.
In response to Taseer’s statements, Barelvi clerics began provoking their followers with slogans like “Gustakh-e-Rasool ki aik saza, sar tann say juda” (There is only one punishment for a blasphemer, he/she should be beheaded).
This slogan garnered wide acceptance and later on became the narrative of Barelvi extremists.
Some clerics even set a bounty on Taseer’s head. And soon after the world witnessed how the former Governor of Punjab was assassinated in broad day light by a member of his own elite security force. His assassination was celebrated by a majority of Barelvi clerics and followers alike.
However, as soon as Mumtaz Qadri (Salman Taseer’s assassin) was arrested, the SIC started a movement for his acquittal. However it bore no results. Qadri was executed in 2016. It was then when Barelvi clerics saw their true street power as well as a lack of any specific resistance from the state to their operations.
They formulated a politico-religious organisation named Tehreek Labaik-Ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYRA), a coalition of religious organisations, dedicated to incite people to kill ‘blasphemers’.
They also arranged religious gatherings across the country, the most famous of which is the one held in Islamabad in March 2016. TLYRA is guilty of hate speech and provoking people to directly violate the Nation Action Plan (NAP).
The emerging trends of Barelvi extremism, specifically on the blasphemy issue have shaken Pakistani society. Instigative speeches by members of TLYRA have resulted in a number of horrendous incidents where violent mobs have killed people. This mob justice was witnessed during the Mashal Khan murder.
Most alarming is that TLYRA wants to register itself as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan. Recently, TLYRA party members secured the third position with 7130 votes in the NA-120 by-election and left the Pakistan People’s Party, far behind. During their election campaign they openly used Mumtaz Qadri posters to attract voters.
The salient features of their main political manifesto are to impose the Nizam-e-Mustafa (government system of the prophet) in the country as well as securing the sanctity of the Prophet (PBUH) which means if anyone commits blasphemy, he or she will be declared wajib-ul-qatal (deserving of death).
Most alarming is that TLYRA registered itself as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan. Recently, TLYRA party members secured the third position with 7130 votes in the NA-120 by-election and left the Pakistan People’s Party, far behind. During their election campaign they openly used Mumtaz Qadri posters to attract voters.
Muhammad Suleman is a Research Associate at the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (Islamabad), Pakistan. The views are those of the author and not CPGS, Islamabad.