Why protests in Islamabad are terrifying Pakistan leadership

The siege also holds lessons for India.

 |  5-minute read |   24-11-2017
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For over two weeks now, Islamabad has been virtually cut off from "Pakistan" (or more appropriately, Rawalpindi). Barelvi clerics, protesting against an insignificant change in the oath taken by candidates that they believe in the finality of Muhammad as the last Prophet of Islam, have sat on a dharna at a crucial intersection that connects Rawalpindi with Islamabad.


Although the change in the oath has been reversed, the Barelvi clerics show no sign of letting up on their agitation. They are pressing for the head/s of the person/s responsible for the alteration of the oath that according to them violated, or at least tried to dilute through the back door, the Islamic principle of Khatm-e-Nabbuwat.

With many analysts seeing the clerics’ dharna as a redux of the Lal Masjid affair just over a decade ago, the civilian government is terrified of the political and security repercussions of using force against the clerics to lift their siege of Islamabad. The real ruler of Pakistan – the military – also appears reluctant to crack down and end the siege partly because of the fear of yet another blowback of the type that happened after the Lal Masjid operation and partly because it would rather want the civilian government to take the call.

As is usual in Pakistan when such incidents happen, conspiracy theories are rampant. One set of conspiracy theorists claim that the civilian government has deliberately allowed matters to spiral out of control. Another set of conspiracy theorists are convinced that the army is behind the clerics’ agitation.

A variant of the theory pointing fingers at the army is that the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa is chary of ordering his troops to move against the Barelvis. Reason? The anti-Ahmadi basis of this agitation tie in with insinuations that Bajwa is a closet Ahmadi, or at least very closely related to Ahmadis.

Meanwhile, with the state appearing paralysed because of the fear of the consequences of any action, the clerics have got emboldened. What was initially a few score protesters has snowballed into a few thousand fulminating fanatics who are openly abusing and defying the administration and the judiciary and seem set on making a show of force that they feel will catapult them on to the center-stage of politics.

They are issuing fatwas against the media and have created a climate of fear in which no one is ready to take them on. The result is that regardless of whether the agitation fizzles out or ends in a violent clash, the Barelvis have already established themselves as a power player on the political scene of Pakistan.

Surprising everyone, the Barelvi party, Tehrik Labbaik Yah Rasul Allah Pakistan (TLP) announced its arrival by putting up a strong performance in two recent by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar, worsting established religio-political parties like Jamaat Islami. The TLP is the latest and most vicious edition of Barelvi politics which until recently had been in retreat.

Earlier Barelvi versions like Jamiat Ulema Pakistan, Sunni Tehrik, etc, either withered away or couldn’t make their mark. Part of the problem was that the Barelvi parties were deeply faction-ridden and couldn’t emerge as a major force. Even when some of the Barelvi parties tried to organise themselves, they suffered major setbacks.



For instance, almost the entire leadership of the Sunni Tehrik was wiped out in one fell swoop when a bomb blast ripped through a rally organised by the party in Karachi in 2006. Later attempts by the Barelvis to make themselves relevant suffered a huge credibility blow when in 2012 it became known that they had received money from the US embassy for organising their political programmes.

The Americans thought that the Barelvis would be an effective counterforce against the rising influence of the Deobandi and Wahabi clergy which had gone from strength to strength with the connivance, complicity, and cash of the Pakistani military establishment.

The assassination of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his security guard Mumtaz Qadri disabused the Americans of the "moderate" nature of the Barelvis. The TLP has in fact been organised around the "martyrdom" of Qadri, who is now the new icon and rallying point of the Barelvi assertion.

Initially, the emergence of the TLP was ignored by everyone despite the fact that the massive turnout at the funeral of Qadri last year, should have served as a wake-up call. Clearly, there was mobilisation at the grass root level that didn’t appear on the radar screen. While the Barelvis are often confused with Sufis, this is a misnomer.


The syncretic tradition is for all practical purposes dead in Pakistan. True, the Barelvis represent a quite different version of Islam from the more puritanical Deobandi or Wahabi schools. They engage in practices that are uniquely subcontinental and have elements of Indic religions. Although the Barelvis of the TLP variety share their doctrines with the Sufi shrines, they don’t control them.

Unlike the Deobandis and Wahabis, the Barelvis are not known to have any military wing or being involved in jihadist activities. But this could change in the near future because, in terms of fanaticism, there is little to choose between the puritans and the "innovators" or Barelvis, who have taken hate-mongering to a new level.

The siege of Islamabad holds lessons for India where the Barelvis have been positioning themselves for state patronage by selling the line that this is indigenous Islam compared to Deobandi/Wahabi schools which have been spreading their baleful influence and taking over mosques with Saudi and Gulf money.

But while the Barelvi pitch is seductive, their track record in terms of fanaticism doesn’t really inspire any trust (remember Azad Maidan incident in Mumbai?). In the end, choosing between different schools of fanatics is a mug’s game. The best way to control radicalism is by marginalising the extremists, not by patronising them or pitting one against the other.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: What Modi government means when it says stronger states make a stronger nation


Sushant Sareen Sushant Sareen @sushantsareen

The writer is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

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