The Barelvis’ Tilt Towards Extremism in Pakistan

On May 7th, the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) then interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal, was targeted in an attempted assassination for his party’s efforts to amend the Khatam-e-Nabuwat (Finality of the Prophethood) clause in the Election Bill. This clause requires all those standing for office to assert their belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. The attacker was allegedly affiliated with a radical Barelvi organization called Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). The Barelvi sect has historically backed the Finality of the Prophethood clause and defended the country’s blasphemy laws, both of which appear to have played a role in Iqbal’s attempted assassination. Additionally, this is not the first time that a radical Barelvi organization has made such an attempt: in 2011, Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was killed by a member of the Barelvi Dawat-e-Islami organization, for his opposition to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.

These incidents indicate that radical Barelvi groups represent a new wave of extremism in Pakistan. The TLP’s mob violence, vigilante justice towards religious minorities, and its attempted targeted killings of prominent leaders will only increase in the long term, while Barelvi groups vie for control and influence in the country against other Sunni Muslim subsects.

The Rise of Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan

Iqbal’s attacker, identified as 21-year-old Abid Hussain, confessed that he was a part of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) and its political wing, the TLP. The TLP denies links to Hussain, but that is likely to prevent tarnishing the image of the party before the upcoming general elections. Initially formed to support Taseer’s killer, the TLP rebranded itself in 2015 as a political party representing the “moderate” Barelvis. Since 2017, however, the TLP has employed hate speech and propaganda against religious minorities, inciting violence against the state.

The TLP reached its political height in late 2017 when supporters staged a sit-in outside the parliament in Islamabad, demanding a reversal to semantic and structural changes in the Election Bill. More than 2,000 TLP supporters marched from Lahore to Islamabad, engaged in violent protests, and physically blocked a major interchange in the latter for 21 days. During this period, 6 people were killed as a result of clashes between the security forces and protesters. These protests eventually lead to the resignation of the Law Minister on grounds of blasphemy. Incidents such as these highlight the consequences of the TLP’s ideological leanings and the potential for radical Barelvis to mobilize followers and incite violence at will.

Implications of Radical “Barelvization” of the Society

Fragmentation along Sectarian Lines

The mainstream radicalization of the Barelvis could lead to further clashes and violence between conflicting Sunni groups in Pakistan, such as the Deobandis or Salafis. This is dangerous because of the sheer size of the Barelvi population, who make up approximately 50 to 60 percent of the Muslims in Pakistan. In comparison, the Deobandis make up around 20 percent, followed by the Ahl-e-Hadith or Salafis, at 5 percent.

The radicalization of the Barelvis could lead to further clashes and violence between conflicting Sunni groups in Pakistan, such as the Deobandis or Salafis. This is dangerous because of the sheer size of the Barelvi population, who make up approximately 50 to 60 percent of the Muslim population in Pakistan.

The Barelvis and Deobandis, the two largest subsects of Sunni Islam within Pakistan, follow divergent doctrines, which has resulted in an adverse relationship between them. The Deobandis believe that the Barelvis’ Sufi-style veneration of the Holy Prophet and his followers borders on shirk (idolatry), and have labeled them apostates. For this reason, in 2010, the famous Barelvi shrine Data Darbar was targeted in a suicide bombing by alleged Deobandi terrorists, killing 42 people and injuring 175 others. In more recent incidents, the local networks of the Islamic State (IS), which is a Salafi organization, have also attacked Sufi shrines in Pakistan. In part, the threat that Barelvis face from other sects has been a motivating factor for their political assertion through the TLP.

Hate Speech against Religious Minorities

The rise of far-right Barelvi groups spreading hate speech could trigger incidents of violence against other religious minorities in Pakistan, such as Ahmadis. In 1953, members of the Barelvi Jamaat Ulema Pakistan had taken to the streets, with some Deobandi affiliates, to call for the government to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Barelvis, Deobandis, and the Ahle-Hadith assert that Ahmadis are apostates because they deny that Muhammad is the last Prophet of Islam. Later, in 1974, another organization called the Movement for the Finality of Prophet, comprising Barelvi scholars and others, was created to marginalize the Ahmadi community.

The TLP, a staunch defender of the Finality of the Prophethood clause, has followed in these footsteps through their hateful propaganda. On social media, followers of the group have referred to Christians and Hindus as “disbelievers.” TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi is known for his derogatory and bigoted rhetoric towards minorities, which came to light in 2017 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended a Holi event and stated that forced conversions are un-Islamic. Reports later revealed that Rizvi had opposed Sharif’s statement and discouraged Muslims from fraternizing with Hindus and other “disbelievers.”

Dangers of State Patronage

In the 1980s, the state supported Deobandi jihadist groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (now Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and Jaish-e-Muhammad as a part of its defense policy to counter Indian influence in Kashmir. Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, an internationally-designated terrorist, steadily gained traction within the local population and was politically mainstreamed. The state has not been able to successfully detain and convict Saeed, largely due to resulting protests and opposition. 

Historically, the state’s acceptance of the demands of radical religious groups rather than trying them under the law has increased their influence and strengthened their presence.

To counterbalance the corrupting effects of radical Deobandism, President General Pervez Musharraf adopted a state policy of upholding the Sufi Barelvi movement. In 2006, he formed the National Council for the Promotion of Sufism (NCPS) as an alternative to the ideology of the more fundamentalist Deobandi subsect. However, this state patronage of Barelvi organizations is likely to embolden their followers as the flag bearers of their version of Sunni Islam.

Historically, the state’s acceptance of the demands of radical religious groups rather than trying them under the law has increased their influence and strengthened their presence. Additionally, the state’s overt support for one sect over others overlooks heterogeneity within Islam and may alienate other sects. For instance, General Zia’s apparent tilt towards the Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith subsects resulted in disregard for Barelvis during the Islamization process in 1977. Following this, the current state-sanctioned Barelvization could undermine other sects.

Future Trajectory

Even though the Barelvi subsect is responsible for less than 1 percent of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the group has contributed to intolerance through mainstream mobilization of anti-minority and pro-blasphemy law sentiments.

Considering the sensitivity of the blasphemy issue in Pakistan, the TLP will potentially continue to assert its agenda. As such, even though the Barelvi subsect is responsible for less than 1 percent  of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the group has contributed to intolerance through mainstream mobilization of anti-minority and pro-blasphemy law sentiments. However, the TLP and similar radical Barelvi groups are unlikely to organize themselves as insurgent or terrorist organizations. In fact, the TLP has actively participated in the democratic process by contesting elections in the past and will continue to do so in the upcoming elections. However, the party is unlikely to win majority seats, partly because religious parties have historically fared poorly in the elections. If that is the case for the TLP, the ability for more radical Barelvi groups to garner power and put pressure on the establishment electorally will be limited.

Instead, their followers will work within the current structure to defend Islam and the Prophet, further exacerbating sectarian and religious intolerance within the country. This is likely to manifest in continued incidents of mob violence and vigilante justice using the exclusionary propaganda of the organization as justification.

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Image 1: Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Aamir Qureshi via Getty

Posted in , Internal Security, Militancy, Pakistan, Politics, Security

Sara Mahmood

Sara Mahmood

Sara Mahmood is a Senior Research Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research centers on terrorism, religious extremism and political violence. She has also focused on gender and security issues, specifically within Pakistan. Her work has been published by The Diplomat, Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, The News and The Nation in Pakistan. She can be reached at issmahmood@ntu.edu.sg.

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