By Khaled Ahmed
January 28, 2017
In the first week of 2017, Lahore was paralysed by roadblocks set up by the government to deny entry to mobs opposed to the observance of the day Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed in 2011 by his police guard. Mumtaz Qadri, who shot him 27 times, was detailed to protect him against Islamist terrorists shadowing him for having opposed the blasphemy law. The name Qadri was a giveaway — carried by a sect that kills blasphemers — but Pakistan pretended not to know how murderous their schools of religious thought had become.
Taseer hadn’t insulted the Holy Prophet PBUH but had criticised the law for its flaws of excess, like death as minimum punishment without any room for mitigation. All religious parties backed by their seminaries are against amending the law to remove these flaws, but for the first time the country’s non-jihadist Barelvis had put on the war paint and left the jihadists behind.
The most extreme Barelvis — named after a city, Bareilly, in India where this school was born — are found in Karachi where opposing Jihadi Deobandi seminaries first aligned with the Taliban. Always preaching tough Islam, Deobandis received funds from Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies, occupying “soft” Barelvi mosques through sheer muscle. Deoband, of course, is another city in India that gave rise to hardline Islam in the subcontinent reaching out to their hardline brethren, the Wahhabis, of Saudi Arabia. (Today, confronted by hard-shell Hinduism, the Deobandis of India defend India’s secular constitution!)
The Barelvis, not attractive to the state because of their quietist, mystically-oriented Islam, were crushed by Karachi’s Deobandi power but their instinct for survival gradually toughened them and they started pushing back, becoming violent in the process. The leader in this “rejuvenation” was Sunni Tehreek whose leader, Sarwat Ejaz Qadri, much cushioned by the wealth and power of violence, today challenges the centres of power in Lahore and Islamabad. When police constable Qadri was hanged in 2016, Sarwat shook the capital by remote-controlling a mammoth bearded mob till the rulers quaked with fear and allowed the construction of a magnificent mausoleum to the killer constable just outside Islamabad, ready for pilgrims.
When the Lahore administration learned that Sarwat Qadri was remote-guiding another mammoth assault against a dozen moderate votaries of Salman Taseer observing his anniversary, it deployed containers to block the posh Gulberg area where the human rights workers were thrashed by bearded Barelvi hoods last year. The city was brought to a standstill and many had to spend the day stuck on top of overhead bridges. The local Barelvi organisation deployed was blasphemy-specific Labbaik Ya Rasool (I am ready O Prophet), composed of internal migrants newly arrived from their villages in cities they couldn’t afford to live in — desperate to survive but ready for violence for a religion they hardly understood. And funds are no problem if you have a presence in Karachi, connected with the underworld of target-killers, and have the manpower to offer protection to people who can pay for it. Most charity in Pakistan thus turns out to be protection money.
Governor Taseer’s son, Shaan Taseer, has been speaking out on social media against the persecution of non-Muslims in the name of blasphemy. The minority most often targeted are the Christians whose charity-run schools and hospitals take in the very Muslims who look away when Christians are caught in the death-trap of the blasphemy law. In many cases, blasphemy is applied to entire communities asked to vacate properties “confiscated” under dubious traditions (Hadith) in favour of those who organise the mobs. Shaan has been speaking out in favour of the Ahmadis more dangerously because they are declared apostate under the Second Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan. Needless to say, he got a fatwa of death slapped on him by an unknown cleric and is now in exile. His brother, Shahbaz, kidnapped by Taliban-connected terrorists, had spent several years in captivity in Afghanistan.
The state empowered the seminary by hiring proxy warriors from it. Then those who were un-empowered decided to develop their own street muscle, weaponising themselves through the underworld where jihad and crime meet. There was a time when the Barelvis used to assert themselves peacefully; but in 2006, they received a jolt when most of their top leaders were killed by a Deobandi suicide-bomber at Karachi’s Nishtar Park while the state, beholden to Deobandi jihad, feigned shock.
Lahore’s killer mob was finally defanged through the arrest of 150 Labbaik men, but in Karachi, a repercussion of this arrest pointed to the real ground zero of trouble. Outside the Karachi Press Club, Sunni Tehreek staged a demonstration to counter the gatherings organised in different parts of the country honouring Salman Taseer on his death anniversary. What they did to the club highlights once again the immunity enjoyed by the violent in Pakistan.
They attacked the walls of the press club carrying portraits of men and women who served the people and worked for their rights. They took special pleasure in defacing the likenesses of the ladies who had achieved great status by simply working for humanity. Yasmeen Lari, of the Orangi Pilot Project, Research & Training Institute director Perween Rahman (killed), novelist Fatima Surayya Bajia, T2F founder Sabeen Mahmud (killed) and freelance journalist, Zubeida Mustafa. The press club secretary later played safe by saying: “There were several people here last night, and it was difficult to take note of any particular individual”. And what action was taken? “We caught two of the six vandals but they managed to escape”.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’