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Burgeoning of the Barelvi Beast

by Khaled Ahmed

Screengrab of the TLP sit-in venue at Lahore’s Multan Road

The TLP’s latest agreement with the PTI-led government cements its status as a major player in Pakistan’s societal and political sphere

The agreement Pakistan’s “banned” Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) secured from Prime Minister Imran Khan after a “movement” that started Oct. 22 and “officially” ended on Nov. 1 will be remembered as the lowest point of the governance of the state.

The TLP’s latest protest—its seventh in four years—started from Lahore, blocking half of the Punjab capital’s immensely crowded traffic with heretofore unknown violence; laid waste the economy all along the Grand Trunk Road to Islamabad; and caused an estimated Rs. 4 billion in damages to the national economy. At the end, it allowed the party to achieve a new status that Pakistan will have to learn to respect.

The key demand of the movement was the release of their leader Saad Hussain Rizvi—in detention for inciting violence—while verbalizing, through its high-profile statesman-cleric Mufti Munibur Rehman of Karachi, a most insulting “explanation” of how it all happened. Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed’s comic appearances on TV claiming the TLP’s demand was the expulsion of the French ambassador from Islamabad—there is currently no French ambassador in Pakistan, which he realized very late—were declared by the mufti to be a mere fabrication. And there was ambiguity about whether the TLP was a banned organization or not.

The TLP’s repeated insistence of its “march” being “peaceful”, meanwhile, also came under question, as authorities reported its workers were armed with Kalashnikovs. According to the Punjab government, the “protesters” killed seven policemen, and broke the legs of a policemen in four places.

Rumors of Indian funding

Muhammad Malick of private broadcaster Hum TV reported that the TLP leaders were seen receiving “funds” from their rich devotees, one of them delivering Rs. 30 million in cash. The government of Punjab has likewise made shocking revelations, claiming in a report submitted to court that a secret agency had obtained some credible information that the banned TLP had an Indian nexus.

“The Government of Punjab submitted minutes of the district intelligence committee, which read that a bank account maintained by the brother of TLP secretary finance has been identified. This account maintained in a private bank in Lahore showed significant cash influx and foreign remittances in just a matter of two to three months as TLP started protests against the government earlier this year,” read a report published in daily The News on Oct. 28.

“Foreign remittances are being sent in this account as well and one such remittance on July 5, 2021 is from Rajesh Himat Lal and Mukesh Himat Lal (both Indian) currently residing in U.A.E. This indicates the Indian nexus with the proscribed TLP to destabilize Pakistan,” alleged the report, which was submitted to the Supreme Court as part of grounds for seeking an extension to the detention of Saad Rizvi.

The joint anti-liberal battle

But if TLP is “banned”, how can the government talk to it and concede to its demands? The status of the ban has been a matter of confusion within the government itself, with the interior minister noting that it had not been officially pursued in court. However, prior to the inking of the latest agreement, he had clarified that the ban remained in effect and TLP members arrested on charges of terrorism, including its chief Saad Rizvi, had not been released. The ban, imposed under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, empowers the government to list an organization as a proscribed one if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it is, among other things, “committing or assisting terrorism.”

Mufti Munibur Rehman, recalling Imran Khan’s own diatribes of the past, denounced the “liberals” who tolerated insults to Islam’s Prophet, and declared on Nov. 1 that “the government had accepted all its [TLP’s] four demands.” But the TLP has yet to officially call off the Great Barelvi March of Pakistan’s religious history—merely moving its sit-in to a park from its previously occupied roads—which no one from inside the government minded, suggesting there was no quid pro quo to the “accord.” The TLP has maintained the stance that the “movement” would end only after their leader Rizvi was released.

Kowtow labeled as agreement

Morally, the TLP had the upper hand because of an earlier “agreement” reached with the PTI government in November 2020. That agreement had said that “the government would reach a consensus in Parliament regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months”, and “would not appoint its ambassador to France” and would “release all the arrested workers of the TLP.” The government also absolved the TLP of all culpability for staging the march. The November 2021 “agreement” reached with TLP has “confessed” that the government had not yet implemented the terms of the earlier deal.

Pakistan was habituated to loving its Deobandi non-state actors, pointedly excluding the “pacifist” Barelvi who had stayed out of the “jihad” in Afghanistan and India—the darlings of that jihad were the great Deobandi and Ahle Hadith warriors of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) led by Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Muhammad led by Maulana Masood Azhar—and were not treated well by the state and, at times, allowed to be “downsized.”

When the Barelvis were marginal

There was a time when no one really cared what happened to the Barelvis. Remember 2006, when Pakistan witnessed its biggest-ever sectarian slaughter of a grand Barelvi congregation celebrating the birthday of Islam’s Prophet on Eid Miladun Nabi at Nishtar Park in Karachi? The grand meeting was “suicide-bombed” on April 11, 2006. Out of the 1,500 Barelvi leaders who had gathered there, 57 died while over a hundred others were injured. (Note: The Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan was founded on Aug. 1, 2015 by Khadim Hussain Rizvi at Nishtar Park, with 75 founding members pledging allegiance to him.)

The Barelvis then faded from public view until 2011, when they decided to highlight their “revival” under wheelchair-bound cleric Rizvi, basing it around respect for Islam’s Prophet that no Pakistani could oppose. Then a poor illiterate Christian girl, Aasia, was reported in Islamabad as having blasphemed. As she faced a trial in which was sure to be sentenced to death, then-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer met the poor girl in prison to reassure her against what normally happens to “blasphemers” in Pakistan. In January 2011, a “devout” disciple of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, police constable Mumtaz Qadri—posted as bodyguard of the governor—shot Taseer dead. Driven by “devotion,” he shot him 27 times.

Victory of the wheelchair warrior

This publication, in a report published on Dec. 2, 2017, reported: “On Nov. 27, 2017, a protest dharna (sit-in) came to an end after the state of Pakistan capitulated to around 2,000 followers of wheelchair-ridden cleric Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi—also called “pir” (saint) by his disciples—challenging the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government on having insulted the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) while passing an Electoral Reform Bill in Parliament. For three weeks the protesting acolytes of Rizvi sat down at Faizabad roundabout and locked down all kinds of traffic between Rawalpindi and Islamabad, thus bringing the capital to a standstill. His followers were well looked-after, with food, tents and beddings, and enjoyed the challenge they were posing to an ‘apostate’ government. They were also armed with sticks, slings, and in some cases, with firearms and explosives.”

By this time the TLP was being supported mysteriously by the “powers that be” who had also backed the Imran Khan-Allama Tahirul Qadri “movement” against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s sitting PMLN government. Most Pakistanis were still bemused, refusing to budge from the belief that the Barelvis were “quietist” because they were of no use in Pakistan’s Saudi-funded jihad and were ignored by the great Osama bin Laden.

Submission without stocktaking

Gen. Ziaul Haq, General Zia, who ruled Pakistan from 1977-1988, thought nothing of the Barelvi sect because they were “useless” for jihad. He backed the Wahhabi and Deobandi seminaries, thus forcing the Barelvis to support his rival, the PPP. This led, in 1988, to what is called “the Karachi takeover.” He allowed the Deobandis and Ahle Hadith to grab 700 Barelvi mosques and more than 100 seminaries at gunpoint. This overturned the religious trend started by the majority Karachi population, who had come as refugees from India where Barelvi Islam had held sway.

Now, the Barelvis have proven they can wield the same “street power” as their rival sects—and have brought two successive governments to their knees, raising questions about the state’s ability to enforce its writ. Mosharraf Zaidi, writing in daily The News on Nov. 2, notes: “The only hope of extinguishing the fire of the TLP is the power to shape acceptable religious discourse. This is a power that the Pakistani state gave up in the 1980s so that it could help mobilize for the war against the USSR. Without re-acquiring control over what is sold to citizens as religion, Pakistan will end up like India—a radicalized polity whose liberal elite hide either in Dubai, or the West, or under the protection of the radicals themselves.”

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