Thursday May 30, 2024

A disturbing trend

By Khalid Bhatti
November 17, 2017
The Pakistani state has mixed religious beliefs and politics to such an extent that it has become impossible to separate the two. The use of religion by the state to gain political mileage has made it easier for religious parties and clerics to exploit people. This is exactly what’s happening in Islamabad at the moment.
A few thousand supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) have effectively besieged the main entry points of the federal capital. The small crowd has blocked the main highways that link Rawalpindi and the airport and are demanding the resignation of the federal law minister for allegedly making changes to the election forms on the declaration of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat. Although the omission or error was immediately rectified, it has failed to satisfy some radical clerics and the government and the state machinery seem helpless in this regard.
For the protesters, the error appears to be a conspiracy to undermine the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat laws. The ‘religious hawks’ in the media have also helped to create this perception. They are using a sensitive religious issue for their own political gains.
The TLY has been emboldened by its electoral success in the NA-120 by-election and wants to cement its position as the leading Barelvi political outfit in the country. Its immediate target is undoubtedly Nawaz Sharif, but it can also target other political forces in the future.
These forces want superiority over parliament. They also want the continued acceptance of their interpretation of religion and the laws on religious and social issues. They want to eliminate any debate on these issues within and outside parliament. Various right-wing political parties and extremist groups have succeeded in their agenda to render the elected parliament ineffective by not allowing it to debate the major political and social issues that the country faces. The current protest seeks to maintain this hegemony over religious matters.
Would our authorities show the same degree of patience and restraint towards trade unions or peasants protests? Would the state show the same affection towards secular or socialist protesters if they do such a thing? Socialist and secular forces have been at the receiving end for nearly four decades while the fundamentalist forces have enjoyed full freedom and impunity.
The Barelvi groups were never part of the jihadi culture promoted by the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s. Jihadi organisations overwhelmingly belonged to the Deobandi sect, which was provided material support and state patronage during the Afghan Jihad. Later, the Salafi sect joined the jihad with the introduction of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the early 1990s.
Both the Deobandis and the Salafis are considered hard-liners as compared with the Barelvi school of thought. For years, the Barelvis have watched from the sidelines as the minority Deobandis have received state and foreign largesse and acquired extraordinary clout and power in return for their support to the state.
The biggest challenge faced by the Barelvi religious-political movement is the absence of an established leadership. There is no national level leadership that can make other small groups and local leaders put up a formidable challenge to political opponents. There is a huge vacuum as the Barelvi political movement has been divided and fragmented since the death of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) leader Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani. Once a considerable political force under Maulana Noorani, the JUP lost much of its political clout. The leaderless JUP is now divided among different factions that are fighting among themselves to gain their own political clout and influence.
Since the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, various religious-political groups belonging to the Barelvi school of thought have gained strength. The TLY emerged as the leading force in this struggle for political gains.
The Barelvis have traditionally been considered relatively moderate and socially liberal as compared with other Sunni sects. But the events in the aftermath of Qadri’s hanging and the current sit-in in Islamabad have sent disturbing signals. It seems that an extremist Barelvi strand has started to emerge and has been allowed to spread hatred against certain political leaders and state officials. While it may not be correct to compare Barelvi extremism to the activities of Taliban-like groups, the consequences could still be devastating for Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance journalist.