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Deobandi and Salafi Extremism Are Very Common In Pakistan

By Zuhaib Ahmed Pirzada

October 21, 2018

Pakistan’s society has been badly spoiled by religious extremism and terrorism since its inception. Due to the extremism and terrorism, religious and social values are hammered, economy has not prospered, political freedom has been curtailed, and sadly, thousands have lost their lives. In this article, it is discussed that how it was ideologically wrong to mainstream Barelvism to counter hard-liner sects and how the rise of Barelvism is threat to peace in Pakistan.

Deobandi and Salafi extremism has been very common in Pakistan. Around 70,000 lives are lost because of their terrorism. Farhan Zahid in his article “The Potential for a new strand Islamist Extremism in Pakistan” writes that prominent among these are Deobandi organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat Ul Jihad-e-Islami, Harkat Ul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Omar and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Wilayat-e-Khurasan, Hizb-ut Tahrir and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) adhere to the Salafist tradition. On the other hand, Barelvi sub-sect is responsible for less than 1 percent of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. They have remained involved in mass mobilization against minorities, spreading hatred and extremism in society, threatening people and arousing sentiments for pro-blasphemy law.

Ideology is believed to be motivating factor for terrorism and when War on Terror started, the then President Musharraf formed the policies of counter narrative against hard-liner sects. In his policies, Sufi Islam was presented as “counter-narrative” by counter-ideology theorists and different literature was produced to show softer image of Islam. After 2008, PPP government followed the same policies of mainstreaming Barelvi sub-sect. It has been the history of Pakistan that in order to counter one group, another has been created against it and in this all when one group is politically and financial supported, chaos, conflicts, extremism, and sectarian strife occurs.

In the recent years with the resurgence of Barelvism, corporate media has exacerbated the situation by giving false binaries between Deobandism and Barelvism but it cannot be denied that the potential radicalization in Barelvi sub sect can be immense threat to peace in Pakistan if not checked.

“Barelvi Islam” or “Barelvism” is a Sunni Islamic movement and school of thought that is widely spread in South-Asia. Its roots can be traced back in 19th and 20th century. The name “Barelvi” traces its history with the Northern Indian town Bareilly where the founder of the sect, Ahmad Raza Khan Bareilly (1856-1921), was born. He was a revivalist and his teachings influenced many. Barelvis identify themselves with his teachings. Nadeem F Paracha writes, “It (Barelvism) was a reaction against the theological onslaught of the Deobandis against the traditions of the majority of Muslims, who, during the 500-year Muslim rule in India, had merged various elements of Sufism with the rituals of pre-Islamic creeds existing in India.”

When Deoband School of thought started preaching their version of Islam; they criticized local shrine culture. To counter this, Ahmad Raza laid the foundation of the Ahl-e Sunnat movement and emerged as leading scholar. He declared Fatwas and refutations against Deobandis, the Ahl-e-Hadithis and Ahmadis and made arguments for shrine-based and Divine Grace through the text. Ahmad Raza was an Anti-Hindu, and it was the Barelvi sub sect which supported the cause of Pakistan’s Independence. It was his teachings which gave theoretical basis for separate Muslim land. On the contrary, Deobandi Ulema espoused it.

Both the Deobandi and Barelvi have different ideological outlooks and they have countered each-others views. Historically, both are dichotomous, and have presented their approach extremely. The formation of Barelvi thought emerged out of Deobandi’s contradictions. In 1906, when Ahmad Raza went for performing Hajj, he asked Ulemas of Madina and Mecca to endorse his Fatwas against Deobandis and other sects. When he returned to India, both the sub-sects started ‘Fatwa War’ and called each other Kafir (Infidel). Hussam al-Harmain is the book of fatwas by Ahmed Raza in which he has accused Deobandis and other sects of heresy.

Both the sects have always taken extreme positions for their religio-political gains. Ahmed Raza declared leading figures of Deoband school of thought as Kafirs, in Fatwa-i-Rizvia, which “declares Deobandis as Kafirs and he who doubts that they are Kafirs are also Kafir” In a same way, Fatwas from Deobadis against the Barelvis have been always there and it can been understood by looking at attacks on Sufi shrines, Barelvi Mosques and Madrasas.

It is commonly believed that Barelvis are pacifists, peaceful, apolitical and tolerant, but it is not completely true. Their language and literature is not apolitical and non-extremist. The myth, they are tolerant, can be busted by looking at their Fatwas against other sects. They do compete with rival sects for space and religious monopoly. Sunni Tehreek, a Karachi based Barelvi group, was involved in violent activities. Muhammad Amir Rana , the Director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) writes. “To further complicate the intermingling of beliefs and practices, the Barelvis, who are considered to be representatives of Sufism in Pakistan, are not free from pro-militant jihadi tendencies. In the Kashmir insurgent movement during the 1990s the Barelvis were quite prominent. Some Barelvi militant groups, such al-Baraq and Tehreek-e-Jihad, are still active.”

Olivier Roy in his book, “Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan” tells how Sufis allied with Talibans to take over the country. There are many examples of atrocities against minorities by Barelvis in Pakistan. Aamir Mughal writes, “The Barelvi text is full of fatwas like any other sect. When it comes to the power and domination of their sect, every group has grown the tendencies to apostatise others, which has affected the common masses,”

There can be different answers to the question that why Barelvis remained quite lesser violent than other hard-liner sects. Firstly, they were scattered and politically weaker after the independence of Pakistan. Secondly, they didn’t believe in concept of Jihad like that of Deobandis. Thirdly, they didn’t affiliate with Saudi’s version of Islam. When the war in Afghanistan started in 1979; foreign funding from USA, KSA and other countries started flowing in Pakistan, and majority of Mujahedeen belonging to Deobandi sect participated in Afghan War. “General Zia’s apparent tilt towards the Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith sub sects resulted in disregard for Barelvis during the Islamization process in 1977” When Deobandi sect was morally, religiously, financially and politically supported, they got powerful in Pakistan’s society in 1980s and 1990s; other sects, like Barelvi felt insecure and deprived.

In 1990s, Barevlis also started practicing Jihad to be at the stage like other sects, but that was Kashmir centric, and after 2001, when war on terror started, they returned Pakistan, and Mubashir Akram says “The ‘returning Mujahideen’ did not sit silent, and joined the ranks of Sunni Tehreek, mostly in Karachi and Hyderabad, Sindh, and thus began the journey of Barelvi extremism that is now much more institutionalised than what it was in the past.”

In 2006, Pervez Musharraf, formed the National Council for the Promotion of Sufism (NCPS) as a counter narrative against Deobandi sect. PPP carried same policy and in 2009, they established ‘Sufi Advisory Council’. This time, Barelvis were being empowered, and celebrated Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa warned, “greater power not only enhanced the greed for more power but also resulted in corrupting of the Sufi order.” State sponsored Sufism started filling the space which was being left by Deobandis. This time Sufis were being seen violent.

Mainstreaming the Barelvi sect to counter Deobandis’ narrative was politically and socially wrong, as their historical and theological rivalry was neglected. Barelvis have historical sense of deprivation as being majority in Pakistan; they were religiously and politically sidelined, and attacks on their shrines, people, mosques and madrasas have given them sense of vendetta. In this all, when recently, Barelvism has resurged; all pre-conditions are present which threatens peace in Pakistan. Its recent example is the rise of Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan.

Muhammad Amir Rana, the Director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies writes. “To further complicate the intermingling of beliefs and practices, the Barelvis, who are considered to be representatives of Sufism in Pakistan, are not free from pro-militant jihadi tendencies. In the Kashmir insurgent movement during the 1990s the Barelvis were quite prominent. Some Barelvi militant groups, such al-Baraq and Tehreek-e-Jihad, are still active”

TLP was initially established to support Salman Taseer murderer, later, it changed into the political party. Within a short span of time TLP has grown up violent, after hanging of Mumtaz Qadri (Murderer of Salman Taseer), different protests and violence occurred in country. In late 2017, for 21 days, TLP ceased Islamabad, roads were blocked, many were injured and 6 people died. Resultantly, Law minister resigned. State accepted their demands.

TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, seems to be anti-civilian-government. Umer Ali, in his article, writes that By using the Barelvi groups, over an issue as sensitive as blasphemy, the establishment might be preparing alternative assets to be deployed against their political rivals in Pakistan. Many of the political scientists believe that due to the tensions between civil-military establishment. P.M Nawaz Sharif’s government was targeted. Historically Nawaz and Deobandis have good ties that is why Deobandis have also lost their power. Yet, many of the Deobandi outfits enjoy soft-corner.

Newly minted religious group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), has made it to power, winning its first two seats in Karachi, Sindh in the general elections 2018. TLP has also emerged as third largest party in Lahore. With 2.2 million votes, TLP had emerged as the fifth largest party in the election in terms of number of votes obtained countrywide, according to official ECP data.

The rise of far-right Barelvi group possess all the elements of violence, they have their interpretation of text, motivated and radicalized members, messengers, message, martyrs, historical sense of marginalization and sense of vendetta. They have theological rivals and spit venom of hatred and extremism. Radicalization of youth in the name of blasphemy. Different incidents of mob based violence are also observed after its rise. TLP’s narrative is extremist and Pakistani society where there is fragmentation along the sectarian lines, it can be very dangerous.

When a group emerges and dominant group loses it ground, due to the greed of power and fear of losing it, violence takes place between the two. When Deobandi and Barelvi are involved in competition for their religio-political gains, there are the signs of violence and sectarian divide. In this all, those who are already marginalized minorities, they have to face the difficulties. When religion is instrumentally used, society is caught by the clutches of extremism. The consequences of Barelvi extremism can be catastrophic as observed in the past. The technology of silencing can be used against the secular voice and critical thinkers.

To counter one group, when other is empowered, and has the violent tendencies, can be fatal for the society. Sufi culture in Pakistan itself needs reforms and because of promoting it against Deobandi, society has more divided on sectarian lines. If not checked now, Barelvism can be a violent reality in future.

Zuhaib Ahmed Pirzada has done a MSc International Relations from National Defence University and M.Phil: International Relations from University Of Karachi.