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PR Insights


Photo Source: Reuters / The Express Tribune

Pakistan Reader# 136, 6 October 2020

From Karachi to Paris

Global fallouts of the rise of Barelvi extremism in Pakistan

The 2018 elections saw the electoral debut of TLP, a successor to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), which translates to "We are here for you, Allah". The TLP mobilized the masses with the emotional rhetoric of Mumtaz Qadri's execution and outnumbered its rivals by a big margin. 

Apoorva Sudhakar

The recent incident of the Charlie Hebdo stabbing in September 2020 and its connection to the Barelvi school of thought draws questions about Pakistan's increasingly radical atmosphere with regard to blasphemy laws. This PR Insight tries to draw links between the State's failure to address the issue of blasphemy and the subsequent rise of Barelvi extremism. 

The rise of Barelvi Right

The 2018 elections saw the electoral debut of TLP, a successor to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), which translates to “We are here for you, Allah”. The TLP mobilised the masses with the emotional rhetoric of Mumtaz Qadri’s execution and outnumbered its rivals by a big margin.

The above mentioned 2017 blockade of Islamabad provided the TLP an opportunity to expand its base and appeal to the emotions of the Barelvi population. Initially, the Islamabad police and other forces launched an operation to disperse the crowd; six people were killed and many injured. Quoting the Army Chief, the Army spokesperson released a statement asking the PM to “handle the Islamabad dharna peacefully" by "avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest.” However, as violence spilled over to neighbouring cities and social media outrage led to PEMRA blocking several TV channels, the Army had to agree to engage with the protest leaders and play the role of a mediator. The government and protest leaders signed agreements and the then Law Minister Zahid Hamid resigned as per the protestors’ demand. Meanwhile, the Islamabad High Court came down heavily on the government and army for assigning to the military the role of a mediator. (“How the Islamabad protests happened,” Dawn, 6 February 2019)

The blockade served as a leverage for the elections. The party’s singular target was the PML-N. In Punjab where Barelvi voters have traditionally been loyal to the PML-N, the TLP was able to sway votes in their favour. In terms of the number of votes received, the TLP emerged as the third largest party in Punjab; the party polled four out of every five votes in the province. Further, the PML-N lost in 14 National Assembly constituencies in Punjab. It finished as the third largest part in the Assembly and as the fifth largest party in the Assembly in terms of number of votes received. (“Mobilising the Barelvi vote: is TLP more than a one-hit wonder?, Dawn, 16 August 2018 and “What is behind the sudden rise of TLP?”, Dawn, 5 August 2018)

This electoral rise of the TLP indicated an aggressive and militant face of Barelvi politics which was previously seen as a soft face of Islam, closer to the Sufi interpretation, in comparison to its Deobandi counterparts. The political trajectory of Barelvi groups shot up after the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri, in 2011. Qadri’s execution on February 29, 2016 witnessed agitations in Pakistan and gave birth to the TLYR which later formed the TLP as its electoral front. (“How religious issues shaped voter choice in the 2018 Pakistan elections,” Scroll, 30 August 2018)


Counterbalancing game gone wrong

In the eyes of staunch Barelvi follower Qadri, Taseer committed blasphemy by criticizing the blasphemy laws and the verdict on Asia Bibi. In 2009, A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in a blasphemy case; she served water to some Muslim women who refused to drink it from her glass. Following an altercation between them, a mullah filed a case against Bibi claiming she insulted the Prophet. The assassination of Salman Taseer highlighted the sensitive nature of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Post 9/11, Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) promoted Sufi Islam to counterbalance the rise of hardliners among Pakistan's proliferating Deobandi and Salafi organizations like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e Jhangvi. This empowered the Barelvis. Ironically, Barelvis turned against the patrons when Taseer who was also a PPP member criticized Section 295-C.


The problem of Blasphemy laws 

The Blasphemy law was introduced by the British to contain communal differences, but under the regime of Zia-ul-Haq, a new clause was added to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986. Section 295-C Protection of the Sanctity of the Prophet) Act deemed derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad as an offense punishable by death. In this section, Barelvis found a cause that fits their interpretation of Islam. It was now easy to target anyone from a different religion or someone deviant from their interpretation of Islam. 

Though the Barelvis cite the blasphemy laws frequently, it is not exclusive to the group. The Deobandis make use, rather abuse the law too. According to the Annual Security Report 2019 by the Center for Research and Security Studies, 28 Shiite and two Ahmadis were killed in targeted attacks and 58 were injured in related violence. As many as 13 blasphemy cases were filed against Ahmadis, nine against Christians, two against Hindus, and one against a Shiite over the period. Further, there have been at least five attacks on Ahmadi places of worship since August 2018, two on Hindu temples and one on a church. ("Killing in the name of God in Pakistan," Asia Times, 15 September 2020)

Matthew J. Nelson, a Professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) says this "worrying spiral" regarding the Barelvis and the Deobandis originates in a "competitive piety" race among the members of different religious and sectarian groups. According to Nelson, Barelvis are just trying to prove that they are better placed to protect, preserve and promote religious values in society than Deobandis. He observes that the TLP channelizes the Barelvis' love for the Prophet into an anti-blasphemy agenda. ("How New Religious Parties Are Breaking Into the Electoral Battle in Pakistan," The Wire, 25 July 2018)


What has the current government done to address the situation?

A country which has a 96.28 per cent Muslim majority population facing a threat of blasphemy from its minorities is preposterous. When Imran Khan came to power, he brought in a promise of tolerance and plurality. In his initial months as PM, Khan took a stand against the country's hardliners and also supported the 2018 Asia Bibi verdict which overturned the previous death sentence, only to face backlash from the TLP. While navigating through the troubled waters of Islamist extremism became difficult for Khan, attacks on minorities continued and increased in number. 

Experts reason out that the trend continues because of Imran Khan's indecisiveness. They say, while he preaches a vision of a tolerant Pakistan, he also bows down to the demands of extreme Islamic clerics. For example, when he first came to power, Khan appointed Atif Mian, an Ahmadi economist from Princeton University in the Economic Advisory Committee. Following backlash from extremists, Khan fired Mian. More recently, when the coronavirus pandemic struck, he refused to shut down a gathering of Islamic missionaries from across the globe until the threat hit Pakistan. On the other hand, the PM also carried seemingly symbolic gestures by allowing visa-free access for Sikhs from India to visit one of their holiest of sites in Pakistan, Kartarpur. But, Executive Director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies Amir Rana says such initiatives are not structural. ("Minorities Under Attack as Prime Minister Imran Khan Pushes 'Tolerant' Pakistan," The Diplomat, 16 July 2020)

Surprisingly, the PM and his party are not victims of this quagmire. PTI ministers themselves, on various occasions, have used blasphemy to silence dissent. 


Who is at a loss in this competitive piety? 

The biggest loss at the hands of Barelvi extremism, apart from Deobandi victims and their families, are the minority communities. 

Since 11 September, Karachi witnessed anti-Shia rallies by different groups - Deobandi, Sufi Barelvi and Salafi - labelling the Shia sect "heretical," its followers' "infidels" and demanding violent action against them. Some chants went like this: "If anyone speaks against the Companions of [the] Prophet, the next step won't be filing an FIR [complaint], but to behead him."

The amicable relations which the Shias shared with the Barelvis is undergoing a change. Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the SOAS says, the Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) joining the Deobandi against the Shias is more dramatic. She says the recent shift is to "get accepted amongst a bigger population base that is now attuned to anti-Shi'ism and also appeasement of a segment of security establishment that is suspicious towards Iran and indirectly Shias." ("The Changing Landscape of Anti-Shia Politics in Pakistan," The Diplomat, 28 September 2020)

What started as a quest to prove who is better has resulted in the two groups behaving in a similar fashion. The narrowing down of differences between extremist Deobandi and Barelvi groups could lead to a volatile internal dispute in Pakistan which could spill over to neighbouring Iran, which has the world's largest Shia population. 

About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar is a research assistant at School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As a part of her research focus at "Pakistan Reader", she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements. 

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