Dilemma of Barelvi politics

Updated 24 Aug 2014

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The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

Irrespective of what Allama Tahirul Qadri is destined to achieve through his politics of agitation, he is injecting a sort of activism among disillusioned Barelvi religious organisations with a political orientation.

Most religio-political organisations subscribing to the Barelvi school of thought do not have organised structures and networks. Pirs, or custodians of shrines, and influential religious scholars constitute the local power centres and seek strength from the followers of their respective shrines.

They hesitate to pool their local political resources to form a mainstream party fearing it might compromise their authority. Also, they think it will curtail their bargaining position in local politics used to make alliances with mainstream political parties. Eventually, they tend to secure their local interests that are largely linked to maintaining their influence over their followers. Although they sometimes succeed in getting electoral tickets from mainstream political parties, this factor has been largely responsible for the weak electoral performance of Barelvi parties in Pakistan.

But a prominent Barelvi scholar and leader Tahirul Qadri has successfully managed to build and develop the structure of his organisation along the lines of the Jamaat-i-Islami and similar groups following the Salafi and Deobandi schools of thought. He has developed separate organisational structures for the charity, religious, educational and political wings of his movement. Organisations of this sort not only appeal to the urban middle classes in Pakistan, their different wings and departments also create the synergy needed to sustain and develop them.


Qadri’s dilemma is how to capitalise on the religious and political support base he has developed


Minhajul Quran International, headed by Tahirul Qadri, is running a large chain of schools and madressahs across the country which help it garner public support and attract funding from the upper middle classes and Pakistani diasporas in the West. Students and teachers of these schools and those working in charities operated by the organisation are political assets of Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek. In the recent PAT demonstrations, most of the participating families, including women and children, are either students, employees or other beneficiaries of the schools and charity institutions of Minhajul Quran.

Many other religio-political organisations are doing the same. Qadri’s dilemma, however, is how to capitalise on the religious and political support base he has developed over the past two decades or so. Many factors have contributed towards strengthening Salafi and Deobandi groups and parties in Pakistan. Many of them have gradually become part of mainstream politics. On the other hand, the Barelvi groups and parties have weakened over time. Their share in the sectarian and militant discourse has also remained minimal, even when Salafi and Deobandi organisations were thriving in this area.

Though Barelvi scholars and leaders project themselves as peaceful Sufi believers, they felt marginalised during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. They had then blamed the security establishment and Saudi Arabia for discouraging their participation in the Afghan jihad. Many Barelvi leaders also believed that the insurgency in India-held Kashmir was their front to fight from, but they were ignored there too.

They claim that the groups who had instigated the insurgency in India-held Kashmir were indigenous, nationalist and followers of the Barelvi school of thought but the security establishment replaced them with groups belonging to other sects who had experienced fighting in Afghanistan.

Such claims made by Barelvi leaders previously suggested that they had the desire and potential to become proxies in regional insurgencies. Some even felt that Barelvi organisations had paid a political price for staying or being kept away from the jihadist discourse while rival sectarian groups had successfully generated and spent funds on developing their religious, social welfare, educational and political infrastructures.

This perception has created an impression among some Barelvi religio-political groups that they can regain their political share in the power structure through establishing good relations with the establishment and developing militant credentials. In the recent past, Barelvi parties have paid less attention to restructuring and organising themselves along modern lines. Nonetheless, their prime emphasis has remained on developing good relations with the country’s security establishment. Qadri has managed to achieve both.

However, establishing militant credentials is a difficult task. A Barelvi organisation Sunni Tehreek attempted to do so in Karachi but eventually decided on a political role. It did not have a nexus with militant organisations in the country or abroad which would provide its cadres with militant training and logistics. Secondly, the Sunni Tehreek did not have any tactical sectarian support from an Arab country.

Given that they do not have organised violent groups as do Salafi and Deobandi organisations, it should not be surprising if Barelvi parties start depending on mob violence to achieve their religio-political objectives. But gaining political power through mob protests and violence is a hard task. The reason is obvious; mobs cannot hold their instant emotions over sustained periods. Politics is a rational discourse where people have multiple choices.

Tahirul Qadri has the ability to mobilise crowds for political purposes but is confused about where to lead them. He is unable to transform his rabble-rousing into electoral success. Despite his current clout, he is unlikely to secure even a few seats in parliament and to get a share in the system like the Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl. One obvious reason is that he has gradually detached himself from the mainstream political discourse and built his entire political clout on extra-constitutional and undemocratic narratives.

Interestingly, the late Shah Ahmad Noorani of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan had realised in the late 1990s that the Barelvis’ political survival is in mainstream religious politics as they cannot compete with the well-organised Jamaat and Jamiat through solo flights. He supported political alliances of religious parties and was a major motivating force behind the creation of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in 2002.

Does Qadri have such vision and patience to give direction to Barelvi politics in Pakistan? If not, he will continue acting as a spoiler and a destabilising agent. Certainly, this is not a good model to follow.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2014