External Affairs

Islam Marches On, In and On Islamabad

The latest chapter in the mullah-military alliance marks the metamorphosis of Pakistan’s socio-polity from a post-colonial form to a more organic religious one.

Protests in Islamabad. Credit: Reuters

A protester walks near burning tents during clashes with police in Islamabad. Credit: Reuters

The world watched patiently for 22 days to ultimately see the government of Pakistan surrender to what was literally a handful of mullahs from the Barelvi sect, an ideological group that in the public imagination is not linked with violence.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan led by mullah Khadim Hussain Rizvi initially bayed for the blood of federal law minister Zahid Hamid, and later, the government itself. Their sin? An unproven accusation of tampering with the spirit of the 2nd amendment to the Pakistani constitution that in 1974 had declared Ahmediyyas as non-Muslim and, in the process, linked Pakistani citizenship with the principle of accepting Prophet Muhammad as the last messenger of God.

Notwithstanding the socio-cultural and religious issues thrown up by this issue, the most significant aspect of the drama was the role the army chief played as mediator – negotiating a deal between the protestors and the elected government that was nothing but an embarrassment for the latter.

The policemen who had earlier been asked to clear the protest of a couple of hundred people on the orders of the Islamabad high court were kicked, beaten, tear-gassed and even tortured, while the army and the army-dominated paramilitary force, the Rangers, stood on the sidelines as silent spectators. The Rangers, who come under the interior ministry, refused to intervene. Army chief Qamar Bajwa was of the view that “the army does not want to fight its own people”. If many people were surprised by that statement, the real shock was the sight of a Rangers major general distributing Rs 1,000 notes to protesters.

Worse still, the army-brokered agreement stipulated that the government pay for millions of rupees worth of damage done to public property by the miscreants, release the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) activists from jail, set up a committee of mullahs to adjudicate on whether certain members of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had blasphemed and provide greater flexibility in the use of loudspeakers in mosques – something the government had restricted as part of a 2015 law to curb hate speech. The state of affairs was best summed up by the senior journalist Zahid Hussain when he tweeted: “Who says constitution and parliament are supreme in this country? No more. It is back to Mullah-military alliance. God save this country”.

Where the power lies

‘Mullah-military alliance’ is of course short-hand for describing the changes unfolding in Pakistan that have sapped its already weakened democracy and rickety institutional infrastructure. What we are witnessing is the metamorphosis of the country’s socio-polity from a post-colonial form to a more organic religious one.

There is no doubt in the minds of most thinking Pakistanis that the police had managed to round up and clear the TLP protestors when reinforcements suddenly appeared armed with tear gas, gas masks, batons and even guns. These activists quickly turned the streets into a battlefield. Even the Sunni Tehreek leaders talked about the men who attacked the police not being from among their cadres. Utterly demoralised, the police now have a sense of where actual power lies. All other civilian institutions are equally bruised, including the judiciary that appears divided between not supporting the government and nurturing a soft corner for the Barelvis and other Islamists.

The overall impression created internationally is that a weak and embattled political government backed down in the face of Islamists, who could only be handled by the powerful military. However, the manner in which events unfolded is symptomatic of how tactical moves ultimately result in strategic transformation.

While the internationally popular narrative about Pakistan is that militant groups and the religious right are in bed with political parties and individual politicians, little is said about the penetration of Islamists in other institutions of the state. Since the eruption of the crisis between the TLP and the government, some of the social media accounts of the army’s publicity wing, the ISPR, openly supported the TLP’s claim that the government had tried to change a law pertaining to the finality of the prophet just to save a ‘corrupt politician’, that is Nawaz Sharif.

The spectre of ‘blasphemy’

The manner in which Khadim Rizvi – an otherwise uneducated cleric from Attock who worked at a small mosque in Lahore till 2011 – could analyse and interpret a very small part of the electoral reform bill as a contravention of the 2nd amendment of the constitution is itself intriguing. The larger bill had been negotiated over a period of more than a year by all parties in parliament, which, in the process had agreed to delete articles 7B and 7C that were initially introduced by General Pervez Musharraf in 2002.

Leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz

Leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz

As result of this deletion, the Ahmediyya community could register to vote in the general voters list instead of in the minority list. In the past, due to 7C, the Islamic faith of a voter could be challenged by anyone and the voter would then have to submit a certificate subscribing to faith in the finality of the prophet. While the removal of 7C was not in contravention of the 2nd amendment, it did offer a gentle opening to the Ahmediyya community that since the 2000s has opted as a group not to vote in the elections as protest for being confined to the religious minorities list. All parties in parliament had agreed to the repeal of 7B and 7C, yet in a final civil versus military battle each party seems to have dumped responsibility for the change squarely on the PML-N. The Sharif government backed down immediately and re-inserted these clauses even before the Barelvi mullah and his supporters gathered in the capital city.

Political implications

The forward push provided to the TLP in the short-term may not count for much except for the slap on the face of the civilian government and parliament that it has produced; however, its implications for the state in the long-term are immense.

The TLP’s victory does not in any way mean that it will sweep the 2018 elections, nor will the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ed-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, who just announced his intent to use the platform of the Milli Muslim League (MML) for the purpose. These parties combined may only be able to disturb the vote banks of the PML(N), and to some extent, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In fact, the religious political parties aim to eat into the votes of all national parties and thereby ensure a weak coalition government. A strong government representing a larger majority, especially in Punjab, risks changing the contours of Pakistan’s politics – from a bureaucratic polity to a political polity.

Jamaat-ed-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz/File Photo

Jamaat-ed-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. Credit: Reuters/Caren Firouz/File Photo

The handful of liberals in the country – who are being attacked by Imran Khan as ‘scum of the earth’ – are terrified at the thought of the Khadim Rizvi brigade gaining greater space in the coming days. Such calculations are based on extrapolation: the TLP won approximately 11,000 votes in the September NA-120 by-election and this has been been taken mean that the party has millions of supporters throughout the country. The assessment is based on an understanding that most Muslims in the country are Barelvi and would vote for the TLP. The reality is somewhat different.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and Khadim Rizvi do indeed represent a major milestone in Pakistan’s Islamisation. However, a shift in the electoral scene is the least of all the changes on the horizon. Before 2011, Rizvi was nothing but a petty cleric and an employee of the Auqaf department of the Punjab government at a small mosque in Lahore. He became visible that year after launching an unorganised protest in defence of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed governor Salman Taseer in January 2011. Rizvi eventually lost his job due to the continued use of a loudspeaker in his mosque, something that was forbidden by the government.

The TLP was born subsequently – after Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging in 2016 – as a joint venture between Rizvi and another cleric named Ashraf Jalali, who is considered an even more radical Barelvi than his partner. Between the two mullahs, they managed to excite a section of the urban Barelvi youth, who until then, were depressed by the thought of Deobandis forcibly appropriating space from them.

Impact on sectarian politics

The link between the state and the Deobandi religious and militant groups dates back to the early 1980s. The Barelvis had missed the earlier jihad bus with only one small Barelvi group, which has its origins in Jhang, south Punjab, fighting in Kashmir. The militant capacity of the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith groups made them relevant in the local socio-political space, forcing even some of the big Sufi shrines to either partner with Deobandis or turn a blind eye while Deobandi militants delivered them material gains in return for gaining control over Barelvi mosques. According to journalist Aoun Abbas Sahi, it is this space that the TLP seems to have filled by demonstrating its capacity to be as capable as any other group of taking the battle to the streets and challenging the state.

Nonetheless, the TLP has failed to emerge as a unified force. There is already a breach within the group between Khadim Rizvi and Ashraf Jalali over the division of labour and resources. This means that electorally, the TLP could hurt the PML(N) through its propaganda that Sharif and his party were involved in blasphemy, which could scare voters away from the party. But the bulk of the Barelvi vote will continue to go to local bigwigs, many of whom are also pirs of Sufi shrines around Punjab.

The greatest impact of Barelvi radicalism, however, is long-term, in the form of how it will further cripple Sufi Islam – which in Pakistan’s case is popularly but wrongly equated with the Barelvi sect.

While Sufi Islam revolves around the esoteric, the Barelvi sect has its basis in the reformist movement started by Ahmed Raza Barelvi in 18th century India, which also aimed at rooting out inappropriate cultural traditions from Indian Islam. The Barelvis differed from the Deobandis in insisting upon the centrality of sufis and walis (pious men) in religious discourse. The gradual lack of ideological capacity compounded with growing corruption of the sufi institution not only weakened the shrines but resulted in an ideological merger of the Sufi with the Barelvi. Post-Khadim Rizvi, the space will shrink even further with the pirs forced to conform to Rizvi’s ideological agenda for fear of losing their constituency.

The fact that Shah Mehmood Qureshi of the PTI – the former foreign minister who represents one of the largest Sufi shrines in Multan – joined a TLP rally in his city denotes that surrender. Other pirs, such as of the Golra shrine in Islamabad, are likely to switch from using Deobandi militants to Barelvi radical-street power for sorting out land appropriation issues. In the process, the pir would have to stay within the perimeter set by the acidic TLP’s Barelvi ideology that is neither sympathetic to the Ahmediyya nor the Shias. In fact, un-noticed by many, the Barelvi madrassas are increasingly uncomfortable with Shias and present the 12th Rabiul-awwal (the Prophet’s birthday) as their main marker.

Given that the Barelvi genie is now out of the bottle, it will also have to fight other battles in which the TLP would play a bigger role – especially the fight with the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith groups to recover their lost space. A couple of days after the end of the Islamabad sit-in, there was news of a Deobandi-Barelvi clash in Sindh. The growth of internal conflict is part of the new writing on the wall.

More importantly, in the middle of this space adjustment, there is no room left for any minority, especially the Ahmediyya or the Shia. Not even a miracle can turn the clock back for the former.

The Barelvi rhetoric constructed around the centrality of the Prophet has even narrowed the space for Saeed, who has to look at this principle as a primary rather than a secondary factor. Although Saeed criticised any move to make any changes to the ‘khatme nabuyat’ – finality of prophethood – law, it was perhaps more out of a sense of keeping Pakistan on a religious track and joining the larger anti-PML(N) chorus. Ideologically, the khatme nabuyat slogan is the mainstay of the Barelvis. From there, the principle branches out in all other directions which is contrary to the beliefs of the Ahl-e-Hadith, which is what the LeT/JuD are. Since 1984, Saeed and his group have made considerable gains that they would not want to surrender to any Barelvi cleric.

Ayesha Siddiqa is author of Military Inc and research associate SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute. She tweets as @iamthedrifter