On Sunday night, Pakistan made one of the most abject capitulations to radical Islamists in its 70 year history.
For three weeks, thousands of extremists had merrily challenged the writ of the state by blockading one of the main entrances into Islamabad, the capital. Supposedly protesting against an inconsequential tweak to a law designed to keep a hated religious minority out of politics, the mullahs dared the government to break up their illegal encampment.
An attempt by police to clear the site on Saturday failed and triggered rioting. The army was ordered to end the sit-in. It refused to obey orders, saying it would not use force against civilians. In other words, given a choice of enforcing the rule of law or appeasing bigots, Pakistan chose the latter. It offered the mob the law minister Zahid Hamid, the man supposedly responsible for the great affront to Islam, who has been forced to resign. None of the protesters or their leaders would face prosecution, it was also announced. All those arrested would be released.
The episode is the latest sign of the growing muscle and radicalisation of the Barelvis, a movement that makes up a majority within Pakistan’s Sunni majority. Until recently, they were thought of as the good guys. Sufis, essentially, who are into a gentle, non-violent Islam based around mysticism and seeking divine blessings at the shrines of local saints. For a time after 9/11 Western governments shovelled cash their way in the hope of empowering them against Pakistan’s militant groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, which overwhelmingly draw their support from the Deobandi movement. Deobandism is puritanical and fundamentalist – a sort of South Asian equivalent of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism.
It turns out the Barelvis are not as cuddly as first thought. The issue that really gets them agitated is blasphemy against Mohammad. They have a hair-trigger response to even the faintest whiff of reform of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws. Those laws carry the death penalty in some instances and are widely abused. Crying blasphemy can be a handy way to dispose of an enemy: an allegation, no matter how false or ridiculous, can be enough to get someone locked away or killed by a furious mob. One man was once charged with blasphemy after he threw away a business card on which a man’s name, Mohammad, was printed.
In 2011 the Barelvis found an issue to sink their teeth into when a simple-minded Barelvi police man called Mumtaz Qadri pumped a magazine full of bullets into his boss, a businessman-politician called Salman Taseer. Then the governor of Punjab, Taseer had made a double blunder. He had called for a presidential pardon for a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy despite the flimsiest evidence against her. And he had called the blasphemy laws “a black law”. Qadri became a hero. He was garlanded with flowers when he appeared in court. At least one mosque has been named after him. More than 100,000 mourners flooded the city of Rawalpindi in March last year when his death sentence was finally carried out. His grave on the outskirts of Islamabad has been quickly developed into a major pilgrimage site.
Arif Jamal, an expert on the subject, says that because they are not backed by the state Barelvis are still “far behind the Deobandis and Salafis in radicalisation and violence”. But they will be radicalised nonetheless, “slowly but surely”.
That process is not just bad for Pakistan but also for Britain, because of the UK’s large Pakistani community. Tanveer Ahmed, the man who murdered an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow last year called Asad Shah, is a hero amongst Barelvi hardliners. The BBC revealed Ahmed has made audio recordings in his British jail cell calling for blasphemers to be beheaded which are in circulation in Pakistan.
Ostensibly the Islamabad protest was triggered by a meaningless change to the oath parliamentary candidates are obliged to recite, reaffirming the state’s constitutionally mandated discrimination against Ahmadiyya Muslims. The tiny sect are despised as “blasphemers” because they are accused of treating their 19th-century founder as a prophet, therefore denying the finality of the prophethood of Mohammad, a key point of Islamic doctrine.
In Pakistan, they are banned from calling themselves Muslims, or even doing ordinary Muslim things, like sacrificing animals on Eid or worshipping in a building called a mosque. To stop Ahmadis from running for parliament, would-be MPs are obliged to say “I solemnly swear” that Mohammad is the last prophet. Under the proposals that caused so much trouble they would have said “I believe” instead.
In reality, of course, the whole thing was an excuse for a naked assertion of Barelvi power. The clerics had been unnerved by the efforts of Pakistan’s recently ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif to draw some of poison out of society. Instead of indefinitely delaying the execution of Qadri his government boldly went ahead with it. Sharif also dared to celebrate the work of Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize winning theoretical phsycist and Ahmadi. Under Sharif’s watch Punjab’s police were deployed to remove signs in a shopping centre in Lahore banning Ahmadi customers. It is doubtful Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, will be making any more symbolic gestures. In September, Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, the Barelvi party leading the Islamabad protests, came third in the high-profile by-election to choose a new MP for Sharif’s old seat.
Might the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, stand up to the tide of hate? It was reluctant to take on Deobandi militants when they first emerged as a domestic threat. The army had spent most of the 1980s helping Deobandi mullahs train up mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan and eulogising them as heroes of jihad. For some time after 9/11 the army preferred to strike peace deals with domestic Taliban groups. But a remorseless tide of terrorism changes attitudes. Now the army is quite happy to kill and detain such people. It even produces propaganda featuring brave soldiers fighting against evil bearded, turbaned fundamentalists.
But challenging the Barelvis is harder because their heartlands are in the Punjab, the province from where the army also draws most of its recruits. At the time of Taseer’s assassination the army chief told foreign ambassadors that he could not publicly condemn Qadri because the murderer enjoyed such widespread support within the ranks.
Liberal Pakistanis like to console themselves with the thought that their country only became a radicalised Islamist state because of the ten-year tyranny of military dictator General Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s. And he certainly did enormous damage with his support for the Afghan jihad and his changes to the largely sensible, Raj-era blasphemy laws.
But anti-blasphemy extremism has deeper roots. The antecedent of Mumtaz Qadri is Ilm-Din, an uneducated carpenter’s son who murdered a Hindu book publisher in Lahore in 1929. The publisher had been selling a lurid biography of the Prophet that had outraged the Muslims of British India. As with Qadri, the assassination turned Din into a hero. His defence lawyer was Pakistan’s future founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The man who read the eulogy at his funeral after he was executed by the British was Pakistan’s future national poet, Muhammad Iqbal. The most painful irony of all: the man who helped carry Din’s body was Salman Taseer’s father. Like the grave of Qadri, Din’s burial site in Lahore is a major shrine. Parks, roads and even government buildings today are named after him.
Barelvi extremism is baked into Pakistan’s DNA, even if it is only now flexing its muscles.