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Barelvi Islam, a creed of a Chishtiyya school of Sufi order was established by Ahmad Raza Khan from Bareilly (1856-1921). Ahmad Raza laid the foundation of the Ahl-e-Sunnat movement in the sub-continent. Ahmad Raza Khan repudiated the Deobandis and Ahle Hadiths for their stances on shrines. He also compiled a book of fatwas (decrees) titled as Hussamul Haramain against Deobandi and Ahle Hadiths, terming them infidels and Wahhabis (a derogatory term for Salafis).  Ahl-e-Sunnat or Barelvi, often used interchangeably, supported Pakistan movement whereas Deobandi and Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the creation of Pakistan. Since then Barelvis have almost remained apolitical in Pakistan. Most of the time in the history, they supported state narratives.


However, things have changed abruptly over the years and Barelvi groups are now becoming active in politics. They found themselves under the onslaught from other sects of Sunni Islam, particularly from the militant Islamic groups that propagate Salafist ideology and consider shrines as shriks. Since the rise of Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates, Barelvis and their shrines have come under attack. The other challenge Barelvi school of thought is facing is the emergence of the text-centred approach. The young and educated generation get swayed by text-based interpretation of the religion rather than old shrine-based practices, which Barelvis adhere to and preach. The other problem Barelvis face is the disunity within its ranks. They have not succeeded in galvanising all the Berelvi groups under a united platform. Roughly, there are more than 50 Barelvi organisations in Pakistan. There were times when they tried to come together particularly after the Nishtar Park episode in which more than 50 Barelvi scholars were killed after suicide bombers allegedly from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) ripped through a congregation of the 12th Rabiul Awwal at the Nishtar Park in April 2006. Although they failed again, Barelvis as a community realised that they need a political formation to overcome the weaknesses and challenges.   


However, 2015 was a turning point in the history of Barelvis in Pakistan, whereby they felt it necessary to rely on the violent extremist rhetoric. The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri provided Barelvis an opportunity to get united. The emergence of Tehreek -e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) can also be seen in that perspective, as it emerged after exploiting the popular sentiments that arose after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. A Barelvi follower, Mumtaz Qadri killed Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab over his suggestion to ‘modify’ the blasphemy law and his support for Asya Bibi who has been given a death sentence for committing blasphemy under section 295 C of penal code.


The TLYR was founded on August 2015 at Nishtar Park, Karachi – the same place where in 2006 the Berelvi leaders were killed – spearheaded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a handicapped cleric who is interestingly convicted under the 4th schedule of anti-terrorist law for his hate speeches and anti-state activities. The TLYR came from the Sunni Tehreek that emerged from the Dawat-e-Islami, which was established to counter the infamous Sipah-e-Sahaba in Karachi. The Sunni Tehreek was also propped by many western actors, particularly from the US and UK, in Pakistan to counterbalance the Deobandis and Taliban influence in Karachi. However, Sunni Tehreek could not succeed; rather it failed to stop the attacks on shrines. The two recent developments vindicated that TLYR has emerged as a major political force in Pakistani polity.


A first sign of its political emergence was the NA-120 (Lahore) and NA-4 (Peshawar) by-elections held in September and October 2017 respectively.  Although the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PMLN reclaimed the NA-120 seat and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI’s margin of vote increased as compared to the 2013 general elections; but it was the performance of two religious parties that brought the by-elections to limelight. In the by-elections, there were two independent candidates who were dependent on two known religious outfits and they collectively bagged 10.4 percent (12,952) of the votes. One of these two religious parties’ candidates, Azhar Hussain Rizvi, stood at third position with 7,130 votes. He was supported by the Labbaik Ya Rasulallah outfit that campaigned against the PML-N for ‘hanging Mumtaz Qadri’. The other independent candidate was from the Milli Muslim League, founded and supported by the Jamaat ud Dawa of Hafiz Saeed. The takeaways from these elections were that the TLYR-backed candidate got support from the Barelvi-dominated mosques, which are 100-plus in the particular constituency. The other factor that played an equally important role was the TLYR’s leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s campaign against his opponents, particularly against Nawaz Sharif for hanging Mumtaz Qadri.  In comparison PMLN, PTI and Milli Muslim League, TLYR did tremendously well in spite of the relative lack of resources to mobilise people and most importantly, unlike others, it did not have the women workforce to coax female voters to support it. Otherwise its tally might have improved further.


The TLYR’s Muhammad Shafiq Amini grabbed 9,934 votes in NA-4 seat. The TLYR-backed candidate fared better than the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and its vote margin was almost close to that of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidate. The outcome of the results did give a moral boost to the TLYR. They realised the importance of the political rhetoric embedded with religious idioms, hate speeches and threats to those who are against their religious belief. The second phenomenon was the Faizabad Chowk sit-in that forced the government to capitulate humiliatingly before an enraged TLYR-led mob that was protesting against what they call an alleged attempt by the PMLN government to change the law pertaining to the finality of Prophethood. In a face-saving attempt, the government reached an understanding and accepted all their demands, including the resignation of the law minister, Zahid Hamid. Most importantly, the government agreed to the removal of Rizvi’s name from the 4th schedule.


Be this capitulation of the civilian government or orchestration from the military establishment, Rizvi will reap the political benefits for his successful dharna. What PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) could not achieve in their long sit-in, Rizvi succeeded in just 20 days. He returned as a hero and gave a hope to his Barelvi community that their dream of political power can be realised. After successfully capitalising on Qadri’s execution, it has now emerged as the protector of Prophet’s honour and dignity (Namoos-e-Risalat). Rizvi is likely to create a dent in the vote banks of the mainstream parties. Only time will say, whether Rizvi-led TLYR can translate this success into a political victory in the next general elections but nevertheless it has shown its ability to influence the core policies of the state. The rise of TLYR has intensified the already existing religio-political landscape in Pakistan. Thus, TLYR would be a force to reckon with in the coming elections, likely to be held in August 2018. 


Now the question is not who orchestrated it, whether it was state within the state that did it or was it the capitulation of the civilian government? The major concern is that it has set a precedent that a religiously infused mob can challenge the legitimacy and authority of the state on its will. With Pakistan rulers, particularly the military establishment, wanting to mainstream the Jihadists, this will further weaken the already fragile democratic institutions. One would argue that everyone has a legal right to contest elections but in the case of Pakistan, it is not the first time that Jihadists are being mainstreamed. It has been tried in the past too. It was first attempted in Swat Valley in 1995 when Sufi Muhammad Khan, leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) demanded imposition of Islamic law in the area. Violence followed as the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary force, began an operation against Khan. After the operation, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government agreed to enforce Sharia law in Malakand Division (in Swat District). The second attempt was when the government struck a peace deal with militant commander Maulana Fazlullah, agreeing to implement Sharia law in the valley. It did not succeed; rather Fazlullah utilised this truce to regroup and reorganise its forces to launch further attacks; now more coordinated against the Pakistan military and the NATO forces in Afghanistan.


Those who defend mainstreaming of Jihadists argue that in the history of Pakistani politics, religious parties have never secured more than 10 percent of the votes. But they largely ignore and underestimate the ideological underpinnings these religious parties bring on the streets; which is largely based on exclusive and conservative rhetoric that will further shrink space for the liberals and progressives, particularly those who want madrassa reforms and change in the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan.


Pakistan’s experience with religious politics provides a cautionary note to those who may be willing to play one sect with the other. The present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s openness to the idea of extolling the Barelvi Islam in India has been proven somewhat right by the organisation of the first-ever World Sufi Forum in Delhi in 2016, which was addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It enraged the other sects of Islam in the country, with Deoband, Ahle Hadiths and Tablegi Jamaat criticising the Prime Minister for promoting Barelvi Islam and dividing the Sunni Muslim community. Those who promote this idea should learn from the Pakistani experience. Khadim Hussain Rizvi may or may not win elections in Pakistan but he has emboldened Barelvis of the sub-continent and Indian Barelvis are not necessarily averse to his influence. Sooner or later, they may try to learn from Rizvi’s politico-religious book that is infected with religious zealot and rage against the other sects.  


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.