In caving to the demands of a few thousand rightwing protesters, Pakistan’s politicians have relinquished their right to govern. How did this happen and what comes next?
On Nov. 27, three weeks after it started, a protest of 2,000-odd followers led by the wheelchair-ridden Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi—also called ‘pir’ or ‘saint’ by his disciples—came to an end after the state of Pakistan capitulated to their demands and offered the resignation of federal law minister Zahid Hamid. Rizvi had accused the government of insulting Islam’s Prophet through the passage of an electoral reform bill in Parliament—and directly challenged the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to punish any and all guilty parties.
Throughout November, Rizvi’s protesting acolytes camped out at the Faizabad Interchange connecting Rawalpindi and Islamabad, locking down traffic and bringing the federal capital to a standstill. The protesters wanted for nothing: they were provided food, tents and bedding, and were eager to challenge an “apostate” government. They were also armed with sticks, slings, and—in some cases—firearms and explosives.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal’s initial response was one of caution, because his PMLN has often sided with the mob’s position on blasphemy against Islam’s Prophet. To prevent unrest, he first deployed the capital’s police, then the Punjab Rangers, and finally the Army, spending Rs. 10,000,000 a day on their mobilization. He also used shipping containers—rented for Rs. 220,000,000—to block all roads leading from Faizabad to Islamabad to prevent the protesters from reaching the center of the capital. When the parleys with “pir” Rizvi broke down, he ordered punitive action, which provoked an equivalent response from a mostly unemployed underclass of bearded men who clearly enjoyed the “outing.”
For three weeks, Iqbal maintained a steady barrage of statements indirectly linking the lockdown to the 2014 dharna of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and the followers of Allama Tahirul Qadri of the normally quietist Barelvi sect of Islam. He also reiterated claims that the previous dharna had been planned and executed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as disclosed by former PTI leader Javed Hashmi. That dharna, which lasted four months, resulted in loosening the jurisdiction of the courts over Imran Khan, allowing him to walk free despite multiple warrants of arrest. Iqbal’s innuendo suggested the current dharna was a continuation of the same policy of destabilization.
Solitude of the scapegoat
Despite the clear threat to the democratic setup, the opposition in Parliament didn’t side with the besieged government despite PMLN’s overtures to the second largest party in the Lower House, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The PPP refused to support the government despite facing a similar dharna in the Sindh province under its control. As the protests continued, the Barelvi sect brought all major cities of Pakistan to a standstill. What was the issue behind this mammoth show of strength by a sect given largely given to mysticism?
The rage of the shrine—Barelvis being generally associated with the mausoleums of the saints—arose out of a casuistic row over two English words in the oath of the Election Reforms Amendment Act. The phrase “I solemnly swear” in the oath-taking text was inadvertently, or deliberately depending on who you ask, replaced with “I solemnly affirm.” The blame quickly fell on law minister Zahid Hamid, although all parties in Parliament had passed the amendment.
No one in the country paid attention to this picayune matter. Local news channels, already divided between support to the government and the Army, turned against the marooned “caretaker” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and regaled his government to angry, verbal assaults through a dozen retired general commentators, who were quick to unite in castigating the government. This was nothing new. The PMLN-Army feud went public in October 2016, after a report published in the Dawn daily alleged Prime Minister Sharif had accused the Army of subjecting Pakistan to international isolation through its policy of proxy warriors. The situation has only worsened in the ensuing 12 months.
The inimitable inquisitor
The great dharna leader who was soon to bring the government—and an already unstable state—to its knees is a foul-mouthed “pir” whose speech in the name of Islam’s Prophet was occasionally so obscene that it could not be repeated, much less reported. When challenged over his foul utterances, Rizvi trundled out quotes from Allama Iqbal in Persian and the Companions of Islam’s Prophet in Arabic, saying all of them were obscene but “permitted.” Encouraged by him, another bearded “saint” harangued the crowd with details of the bodily fluids of Islam’s Prophet that a normal Muslim would abhor, but which received howls of approval from the Barelvi mob.
Until 2011, Rizvi had been an employee of the Punjab government’s custodian-of-shrines Department of Aukaf and had delivered Friday sermons at Pir Makki Masjid, near Data Darbar in Lahore. That year, he was dismissed by his provincial bosses for demonstrating in support of policeman “Ghazi Mumtaz Hussain Qadri Shaheed,” who had shot dead Salmaan Taseer, then governor of Punjab, “with 15 bullets” for calling Pakistan’s blasphemy law a “black law.” Rizvi’s career took off after that. He refused gratuity from the Punjab government and was compensated generously for his “principled stance” by the many custodians of the shrines of Lahore.
On Jan. 4, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the murder of Taseer, the heretofore-unknown Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah announced a siege of Lahore’s upscale Gulberg-Liberty area, where they thought votaries of the deceased governor may gather to mourn his death. After Rizvi was jailed by the Punjab government for organizing those protests, he went through his “divine initiation,” as recalled by a disciple online: “Finally they put Pir Sahib in a dirty cell the condition of which in Pir Sahib’s words was uninhabitable even for animals. There were cockroaches in the cell. Pir Sahib informed the cockroaches, ‘Do not come near me as you know I am brought here for no crime other than the love of Islam’s Prophet.’ Thereafter, the cockroaches did not trouble him.”
Similarly, the clerics and their 25,000-strong following showcased their outrage at the hanging of Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, in February 2016. That “moral victory” in hand, Rizvi sought to make inroads in politics by having a disciple participate in the September 2017 by-election in Lahore, where the party won handsomely against the PPP and the Jamaat-e-Islami, while losing to the PMLN. His candidate’s posters prominently featured Qadri triumphant after killing Governor Taseer, as the state pretended not to notice the breach of its National Action Plan against Terrorism.
Using Qadri to muster support is, unfortunately, not limited to Rizvi and his followers. Earlier, the Karachi-based Sunni Tehreek, the first Barelvi organization to go violent in the mega-city’s criminal underworld, expressed outrage over the assassin’s hanging by effectively besieging Islamabad under direction from their leader, Sarwat Qadri. The group declared killer Qadri a Barelvi saint and a mausoleum was erected over his grave near Islamabad. Sarwat Qadri helped “pir” Rizvi spread last month’s dharna to Karachi, thus enhancing the Labaik leader’s charisma further.
The Barelvi beast
Barelvis are the majority sub-sect of Sunni Pakistan, practicing a mystical cult based on the person of Islam’s Prophet. Because the Wahhabi rulers of Saudi Arabia were opposed to personality cults, this kept them out of the well-funded covert jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir in the 1980s under General Zia, and thus “disempowered” them. The resultant dominance of Deobandis led to the forcible takeover of Barelvi mosques in the big cities, particularly Karachi, where the top Barelvi leadership was killed by a suicide-bomber in 2006 in the Nishtar Park massacre. In 2017, Pakistan is witness to the rise of the Barelvi sect as a new and more serious threat than the “rebellion” of proxy warriors it sent into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. The Barelvi wave now rising from the obscurity of Pakistan’s saintly shrines will be irresistible, as demonstrated by the capitulation of the state at Faizabad.
Boots of capitulation
Even though the Barelvi sit-in officially ended on Nov. 27, a few holdouts—perhaps liking the power-to-disrupt too much to give it up easily—remain. A government already stinging from its defeat has largely ignored these. Rizvi recently told a local broadcaster that his decision to end the protest was entirely the result of a “peace accord” with the Army, which not only agreed to ensure his demands would be met, but also—through the director general of the Punjab Rangers—distributed handouts of Rs. 1,000 to every rioter arrested and jailed by the police.
The “peace agreement” said nothing about the policeman killed by the mob, or those captured and tortured by them, or even the dozens whose heads were slashed by glass marbles fired from slings. The one-sided accord appeared even more so as the Urdu-dominated TV channels snarled at the PMLN government for its “crimes against Islam’s Prophet” as well as failing to meet the challenge of Pakistan’s most paralyzing dharna. The PTI’s Imran Khan welcomed the triumph of the Barelvis, calling snap elections to set the chaos of PMLN right.
The terms of surrender as signed by PMLN’s interior minister and “pir” Rizvi are as follows: 1) Remove federal law minister Zahid Hamid from his position immediately; 2) Make public within 30 days the report prepared by the Raja Zafarul Haq-led committee on who is responsible for the change in the election oath and act against them under the law; 3) All protesters arrested between Nov. 6 until the end of the sit-in from across the country will be released and cases against them discarded; 4) An inquiry board will decide within 30 days what action to take against officials over the Nov. 25 operation conducted by security forces against protesters; 5) The federal and provincial governments will determine and compensate for the loss of government and private assets caused by the mob; 6) The points already agreed to concerning the Government of Punjab will be fully implemented.
In addition, per Rizvi but missing from the official agreement, the government has agreed to 1) allow a board of clerics to determine the fate of Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah over remarks concerning the Ahmadi community; 2) offer no resistance to anyone desiring to register cases under the blasphemy law; 3) give no leniency to anyone convicted of blasphemy by courts; 4) impose no ban on any use of loudspeakers in mosques or religious gatherings; 5) take steps for the release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui; 6) declare Iqbal Day, Nov. 9, an official holiday nationwide; 7) include two representatives of the Tehreek-e-Labaik on a panel assigned to decide changes to school textbooks. These men will reportedly push for the inclusion of passages from the holy Quran and chapters on Muslim leaders and Islam’s Prophet into the official syllabi; 8) hold a chehlum of martyrs on Jan. 4 at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh; 9) observe Nov. 25 as ‘Martyrs of Prophet’s Honor Day.’
If the agreement appears slanted for the benefit of Rizvi’s followers, that’s because it is. The sole concession granted by Rizvi was agreeing to not issue any fatwa against Zahid Hamid, thereby potentially allowing him to escape the fate of so many accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Oddly, Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, an old Jamaat-e-Islami veteran, who according to the BBC was once rumored to be an admirer of Governor Taseer’s killer, was displeased with the surrender. He rejected the Army’s interference in the matter, which he thought violated the details of an earlier ruling on how the government should go about removing the mullahs from the roads.
Beast or Trojan Horse?
Siddiqui’s outrage over the role played by the military in securing the “peace agreement” highlighted, once more, the claims by several PMLN spokesmen that the Pakistan Army had acted behind the scenes to destabilize the government, starting from 2014. Big money was spent on the cadres of the PTI and Pakistan Awami Tehreek then; big money was also in evidence this time. The intelligence agencies kept mum, and walked gingerly through the rubble of the state, pretending not to know who was funding the protesters. One source went so far as to quote “Pir” Khadim Rizvi as saying that the Army would not harm his great dharna “because we are doing the Army’s job,” a likely reference to the military’s kidnapping of blaspheming bloggers, whom it tortured and let go on the pledge of keeping mum.
Adding fuel to the fire were reports that the Army refused to act against the protesters, with the military chief saying “we will not attack our people.” As the law minister was laid off, and Pakistanis nationwide briefly mourned the death of the state facilitated by the Army, further reports emerged of those who had facilitated the sit-in. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, claiming the Faizabad buildup was yet another assault on the PMLN, recommended flexibility, an advice his brother interpreted as betrayal. That “flexibility” became clear when Shahbaz, claiming things had gone too far and any further confrontation with an establishment unwilling to take on the dharna would be too risky, facilitated the protesters in reaching Islamabad, offering them no resistance from the Punjab police. He also loudly demanded the law minister’s ouster, which eventually emerged after a meeting between the two in Lahore.
Meanwhile, Shahbaz’s friend Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan—now without his interior portfolio—accused his replacement Iqbal of “lying,” putting on notice his disagreement with Nawaz’s policy of defiance yet again. Ominously, 14 PMLN members of parliament and provincial assembly have submitted their resignations to Sargodha-based Pir Hameedud Din Sialvi, giving the spiritual leader the right to make the decision on their behalf.
The challenge of maximalism
Ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned from London to face various corruption allegations at the National Accountability Bureau court, has seen the edifice of his politics falling apart and doesn’t like it one bit. He publicly rebuked the decision taken by Prime Minister Abbasi to summon the Army to sort out the Barelvi beast, and he disagreed with the “surrender” he saw in the resignation of the law minister.
This means he is still in his “rebellious” mood, and wants to continue taking on the Army against the advice of his brother, who is likely more focused on securing a win in general elections due next year. Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam, has backed his stance, which all political observers believe is fatal to his career and, perhaps, even to his life. She must have been aware, however, that her husband, an ex-Army man whom she married out of love, was plowing a different furrow, that of Pir Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the Barelvi beast now challenging the state of Pakistan.
The state of Pakistan is reaping more than it sowed in the rise of the Barelvis as challengers of state governance. The Deobandis, who fought the covert Afghan and Kashmir wars, jumped ship and joined Al Qaeda and, later, Islamic State, squeezing the writ out of the state. In 2014, the Barelvis—represented by Tahir-ul-Qadri’s followers—were called in to force the ruling PMLN to vacate Islamabad, a move that has finally reached its high point of fruition after three years. But it is the ideological state that is the ultimate loser. Pakistan is now ungovernable, victim to maximalist challengers who have tasted victory and will not rest until they are the sole arbiters of the rule of law.
The Pakistan that existed before Nov. 27 is no more; Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his followers may well shape the identity of the one that emerges in the days and weeks to come.
From our Dec. 2 – 9, 2017, issue