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Pro-Qadri protests fuel resurgence of Barelvi groups

March 30, 2016

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Participants of a pro-Qadri sit-in at Karachi's Numaish Chowrangi.─ Photo: Facebook
Participants of a pro-Qadri sit-in at Karachi's Numaish Chowrangi.─ Photo: Facebook

KARACHI: As the Islamabad stand-off between the pro-Qadri protesters and the authorities continued for a third consecutive day with charged crowds in Karachi and some other cities holding sit-ins on a daily basis to express solidarity with the protesters, there seems to be a resurgence of the religio-political parties belonging to the Barelvi sect, which had previously remained quiescent, according to political analysts.

In background interviews with Dawn on Tuesday, they said the conspicuous absence of religious parties belonging to other sects at these demonstrations also lent strength to the view that the groups representing the Barelvi school of thought seized a chance to revive themselves by protesting against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri.

An alliance by the name of Ittehad-i-Ahle Sunnat, which had been previously named Tanzeemat-i-Ahle Sunnat, was formed to protest against the impending hanging of the convicted assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer and to put forward other demands including the one not to amend the blasphemy laws.

The Monday congregation comprising workers and supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (Noorani), Pakistan Sunni Tehreek, Sunni Ittehad Council, Sunni Alliance and Jamaat Ahle Sunnat — all Barelvi in their thought and ideology — at the Numaish traffic intersection made it clear that even some major religious parties belonging to other sects preferred to remain off the radar screen over the issue.

Jamaat-i-Islami spokesperson Zahid Askari, however, said they had attended the protest on Sunday as their “local cadre also marched in the protest rally in Islamabad. But they backed off once the protesters went towards the Red Zone, as this was not part of the initial plan we had agreed upon.”

Yet he clarified that the JI had no plans of participating in any of the protest rallies or marches being held or planned by any other religious party in the coming days.

Explaining the idea of bringing together Barelvi groups on one platform, Prof Ahmed Qadri of the political science department of Karachi University said it was more of a “loose alliance” that got strengthened in the wake of Qadri’s execution.

“Since the right-wing Pakistan National Alliance of 1977, there’s not been a strong congregation of religious parties as such,” he explained. However, he did not see an alliance of that stature in the making any time soon. The Lahore riots of 1953, the movement to declare the Ahmadis non-Muslim, the Pakistan National Alliance of nine religious parties during the general elections of 1977 were some of the examples he quoted to drive home the point that an alliance of that sort wasn’t happening once again.

Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, adjunct professor at the mass communications department of Karachi University, believed that the show of strength by the Barelvi groups specifically in Islamabad had the “backing from the establishment in some way otherwise it is not easy to enter the Red Zone the way they did.”

He said the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan had won the general elections in 1970. Its leader, the late Shah Ahmed Noorani, didn’t bow down to General Zia and at the same time remained “a non-committal supporter of the MRD movement,” said Dr Khan. Despite being weakened by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in the 1980s, Shah Ahmed Noorani never reconciled with the party even when the JI did. The formation of another Barelvi group, Sunni Tehreek, soon after the 1992 operation against the MQM, helped the latter as well as the former in gaining a militant network in the city, he argued.

According to him, there are some prominent issues which almost all the religious parties support and agree upon — whether openly or quietly — even if they belong to the bifurcated groups or different sects. These issues, he said, involved the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the demand to not amend the blasphemy laws, and the hanging of Asia Bibi defending whom Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was labelled a blasphemer and subsequently killed. Another issue was the recently passed bill in Punjab called the Protection of Women against Violence, 2015, he added. “Most of the Ulema consider it similar to the Family Law Ordinance, introduced by Ayub Khan in 1962, which was considered anti-Islam. This is one point that will eventually bring many others in the fold if it hasn’t already,” he said. Yet another issue that Dr Khan said could lure in followers was the ‘secularisation of Pakistan’ through the passage of progressive laws. “You can ban the loudspeakers, but you can’t ban word-of-mouth publicity for a cause. You can’t restrict an ideology,” he added.

“This [Qadri’s hanging] is probably one opportunity which only Barelvi groups look determined to seize. But it depends on where it goes from here. The activism of yesteryear religious leaders is not prevalent anymore,” he said.

“A neutral way, which restores the writ of the state, needs to be considered,” he added.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016