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Avoiding theological crossfire in Pakistan

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Pakistan’s political sphere must make space for its moderate majority by pushing back militant Barelvi and Deobandi politics to the theological realm

Last week, a young college student from Bahawalpur emailed me a short story based on a dystopia in Pakistan. The story is set in the year 2050. It’s about a Pakistan that has become a cumbersome dystopia overseen by a ‘totalitarian theocracy’.

The young author employs a most interesting plot tool to demonstrate how his story is actually a commentary on contemporary Pakistan. Among the numerous things banned in this fictional dystopia is any reproduction in textbooks of the speeches of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

In reality, some of Jinnah’s speeches have actually been erased twice. His famous August 11, 1947 speech, which envisioned his idea of a progressive and inclusive Pakistan, was initially not allowed to be published in newspapers. It vanished once again (this time from textbooks) during the reactionary Gen Zia regime (1977-1988).

In his story the young author uses the ban on Jinnah’s speeches as the first step taken by a rising totalitarian set-up. As the absolutist regime grows in power, so does the intensity of the ban. For example, after banning Jinnah’s speeches from appearing in textbooks, in an Orwellian manner, the regime eventually erases Jinnah from the country’s history.

A member of the totalitarian theocracy describes this move by saying, “There is no place for this man [Jinnah] in this new, devout Pakistan. We have to make sure that he never existed. His memory and words are anathema to the sacred mission we are now on.” During the recent sit-in of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) in Islamabad, another young man kept messaging me on Whatsapp about how he was stuck for hours in a traffic jam caused by the sit-in. I finally asked him why on earth he even went out when he knew what the situation would be. His reply: “Nadeem Bhai, I went out looking for Mr Jinnah. But he was nowhere.”

The interesting bit is that Mr Jinnah should have been there. Because the TLYRA is actually an evolution or, rather, a careless mutation of an outfit which, unlike many other South-Asian Muslim groups, was not opposed to Jinnah.

In his essay on Barelvi activism (in State and Nation Building in Pakistan), Professor Mujeeb Ahmad writes that, in the 1940s, an early umbrella Barelvi platform, the All India Sunni Conference (AISC), formed in 1925, supported Jinnah’s call for the formation of Pakistan. On the other hand, Jinnah was labelled as ‘Westernised’ and a ‘secularist’ by Deobandi parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH) and the then ‘pan-Islamist’ Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

The Barelvi Sunni sub-sect emerged in the late 19th century in opposition to the Deobandi Sunni sub-sect. The Deobandi ulema explained the downfall of Muslim rule in India as a consequence of the Mughals’ inclusive policies and tainting of Islam in India due to the ‘innovative rituals’ that had seeped into the Indian Muslims’ practice of their faith.

The Deobandi followed the Hanafi strand of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) but so did the Barelvis. However, the Barelvi sub-sect absorbed elements of the populist “folk-Islam” that had prevailed among the masses in India ever since the emergence of Muslim rule here from the 13th century onwards. The Deobandi claimed that this strand of Islam was merely a corruption of Sufism. The founder of the Barelvi sub-sect, Ahmad Raza Khan (1856-1921), claimed that the Deobandi were undermining the passion of the faith followed by the Muslims of India.

Vicious theological polemics flew thick and fast between the two groups. In 1919, the Deobandi formed their political wing, the JUIH. In the all-important election of 1946, the Barelvi AISC supported Jinnah, whereas the Deobandi outfits — the JUIH and the Majlis-i-Ahrar — completely rejected Jinnah’s claim of being the sole political representative of India’s Muslims — even though some break-away members of the JUIH decided to support him.

After the creation of Pakistan, the pro-Jinnah faction of the JUIH became the JUI, and the remnants of the Barelvi AISC became the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP).

Till the late 1960s, both these outfits remained on the fringes of Pakistan’s politics — which, till then, was dominated by the state’s “Muslim Modernism” on the one side, and on the other, by leftist ethno-nationalist groups and the “Islamist” JI. However, after the 1970 election won in the regions of West Pakistan by the left-leaning PPP, the JUP issued a ‘white paper’ in 1972 which accused the JUI-led provincial government in the province formerly known as NWFP of ‘victimising’ the Barelvis.

Nevertheless, both the JUI and JUP co-operated during the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya movement and the 1977 movement against the ZA Bhutto regime. But both parties suffered multiple splits during the long Zia dictatorship. In the late 1980s, younger members of the JUP’s splinter groups became concerned that radical Deobandi

outfits had been patronised by Zia and allowed to take over

mosques run by the Barelvis. Thus was formed the Sunni Tehreek (ST), which was perhaps the first militant expression of Barelvi politics in the region.

Dozens of ST members and those from radical Deobandi outfits were killed during the 1990s and the early 2000s through assassinations. But whereas the Deobandi groups continued holding overtly political goals, the Barelvi groups concentrated on pushing back Deobandi influence in mosques. The ST was banned, along with a number of Deobandi militant outfits.

In 2009, a part of the ST became the Pakistan Inquilaabi Tehreek (PIK). The same year the Sunni Ittihad Council (SIC) emerged. Both the PIK and the SIC claimed to be working towards an ‘Islamic welfare state’ and against the ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistan which they blamed on radical Deobandi groups.

Then in 2011, a member of the Barelvi evangelical outfit Dawat-i-Islami — formed in the 1990s to counter the influence of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamaat — assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, accusing him of blasphemy. Experts believe that with Taseer’s murder the Barelvi political groups (which, till then, had avoided the moniker of being “militant” in their religious outlook) increasingly begin to adopt a sterner stance regarding the consolidation of the country’s blasphemy laws and the laws enacted against the Ahmadiyya community.

The same experts suggest that this is how these groups — many of whom are now part of the TLYRA — believe they can exert influence and/or counter the political influence of the Deobandi sub-sect, which according to Professor Mujeeb’s study, first gained traction in the 1980s.

At the controversial outcome of TLYRA’s sit-in, observers in the country’s media have advised political parties, the Government and the state to reverse this phenomenon by returning the radical Barelvi and Deobandi conflict back to the theological universe, so that the ‘moderate majority’ of Pakistan and the country’s minority groups do not get caught in the crossfire.

And, indeed, as far as Mr Jinnah is concerned, he really doesn’t live here anymore.

(Courtesy: The Dawn)

 
 
 
 
 

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