The Pakistani state has attempted to counter one dogmatic ideology it has fostered by promoting another, with disastrous consequences
The Director of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), Amir Rana, wrote in his December 30, 2018 article for daily Dawn that the State’s romance with radical Barelvi groups was short-lived because it failed to build a counter-narrative to that of the Deobandi militant groups. This is an accurate observation. But Rana only explores it in the context of the swift rise and equally rapid collapse of a nexus between the State and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
Rana is correct in seeing the above as an experiment that was initiated to counter the militant narrative of the more dogmatic Deobandi groups. The necessity in this context arose when, between 2015 and 2017, the State was largely successful in overcoming the more belligerent expressions of these groups, but struggled to counter the impact of the radical mindset fostered by these groups in the past.
The irony is that the same radical Deobandi segments were created by the State itself from the 1980s onwards to facilitate some of its rather imaginative ‘strategic’ ambitions rooted in the post-1979 civil wars in Afghanistan. In hindsight, most political historians and analysts had lamented that the whole process of forming and funding radical religious groups to fight an insurgency against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan was a disaster. It was perhaps at par with the manner in which the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s was initially ignored by the US and the UK.
Some lessons were learned by Western powers after the end of World War II. Consequently, much was done to limit and erase any lingering impact of Nazism and fascism. But the narrative built during the anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980s was allowed to run amok and permeate both the States and societies of many Muslim countries. From the 1990s onwards, Muslim-majority realms such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria were ravaged by militant religious insurgencies that now saw the States and societies in Muslim countries to be as godless as the Soviet soldiers that they had faced in Afghanistan. One of the worst hit was Pakistan, the country that had become a willing broker-state between the US/Saudi funding and the insurgents. The home-grown sectarian and insurgent groups raised by the Pakistani State for this purpose turned inwards. And as the militant mindset formulated to inspire ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan flooded society, the militants found apologists and supporters within the body politic of the country. Faced by this dilemma and also the fact that, by the late 1980s, the country’s Constitution had lost much of its civic-nationalist dimension, the State attempted to enhance the country’s historical link with Sufism to undermine the onset of the more intransigent strands of faith.
But this was not the first time. The only difference is that, this time, the State tried to tap into the more confrontational aspects of ‘Sufism’ through a populist Barelvi outfit (TLP), whereas in the past the State had banked more on the concept of Sufism that it had formed with the help of progressive intelligentsia and urban middle-class enthusiasts. During her in-depth study of modern-day Sufism in Pakistan, Katherine Ewing, a professor of religion at Columbia University, wrote in Arguing Sainthood that in the 1960s, intellectuals close to the regime described the ancient Sufi saints of the region as men who held an enlightened outlook of Islam and were teachers of progress. She explained that the personalities of the saints were shaped according to the ‘modernist’ ideas of the Ayub regime. According to her study, during the ‘left-leaning’ ZA Bhutto regime, the same saints were given a more populist disposition. They became men who had stood up against economic exploitation and the dogmatic clergy.
Ewing wrote that the saints then became “learned ulema” during the conservative Zia dictatorship. But, as the French cultural anthropologist Alix Philippon noted in the anthology State and Nation-Building in Pakistan, there was never one version of Sufism in Pakistan. As mentioned, there is the Sufism, which was formulated by the State and mainly appeals to the urban middle classes. It describes Sufi saints as people who were enlightened and had spread Islam through tolerant means. Then there is the version of Sufism which was formulated in the mid-1960s by Sindhi and Punjabi nationalists. They, too, described the saints as enlightened and tolerant but gave them indigenous ethnic identities. Phillipon’s study mentioned another brand of Sufism, but one which opposes the version formulated by the State.
This brand of Sufism has been formulated by Barelvi religious parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) and, more recently, by the Sunni Tehreek (ST) and the TLP. It rejects the idea that Sufi saints were entirely peaceful and views Sufism as a militant strand of faith which was embroiled in a theological, doctrinal and political war with ‘deviant sects’. It champions the imposition and continuation of the 1974 Second Amendment and 1986’s Blasphemy Laws in the country’s Constitution. It is willing to use violence against even the thought of introducing minor reforms to these laws.
Goethe University’s TK Gugler in Faith-Based Violence in Pakistan wrote that even though the Zia regime bolstered Deobandi militant outfits, the JUP, too, was given a free hand to radicalise Pakistan’s Barelvi majority. But this saw JUP split into various factions and a manifold increase in the incidents of violence between Deobandi and Barelvi groups. According to Gugler, after 9/11, when the Musharraf regime was once again flexing the state-backed and urban version of Sufism to counter rising incidents of ‘Islamist’ violence, the influential think-tank, the RAND Corporation — in a paper titled “Civic-Democratic Islam” — suggested that the traditionalist Barelvi should be facilitated to counter the militant Deobandi narrative. According to the January 12, 2012 issue of Express Tribune, the US gave the Barelvi Sunni Ittehad Council $36,607 in 2009 to organise anti-Taliban rallies.
The move backfired when a radical Barelvi shot dead former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for criticising the country’s blasphemy laws. Yet, six years later, the State decided to bypass its own version of Sufism and use a radical Barelvi outfit to aggressively counter the more severe non-Barelvi groups. This experiment, too, crashed when this group began lashing out against state institutions. But as Rana notes, the State now wants to move forward with a new and more ‘controllable’ religious narrative. This is yet to be fully understood. But it does need to be clearly articulated and discussed.