THE way a small Barelvi group paralysed Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and eventually forced the government to accept all its demands, was a matter of disbelief even for most Barelvis in the country. But they gradually grew in assertiveness, evident from the unfolding internal power scuffles, including within the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA).
Although seen as a majority sect in the country, the sermons of Barelvi clerics and scholars often impart a sense of victimhood at the hands of rival sects, mainly Deobandis. This perceived sense of victimhood was in particular sharpened after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.
Many Barelvi organisations used Qadri’s death and other blasphemy-related issues to try and gain glory as well as political relevance. But the TLYRA achieved what others could only dream of, and some political analysts are already projecting it as potential threat for mainstream right-wing political parties, mainly the PML-N, in the upcoming elections. The recent by-poll results in Lahore and Peshawar, where TLYRA-supported candidates secured third and fifth positions, respectively, strengthen this perception.
However, it is yet uncertain which Barelvi group will be able to consolidate its position before the elections. It also remains to be seen how growing Barelvi activism will influence overall Barelvi politics in Pakistan — ie whether it will trigger a sense of unity and force Barelvi groups to contest elections from a united camp or further divide them over leadership and power struggles.
It is yet uncertain which Barelvi group will be able to consolidate its position before the elections.
Traditionally, Barelvi parties have paid less attention to restructuring and organising themselves along modern lines which has gradually weakened their political strength. In recent years, their prime emphasis has remained on developing good relations with the country’s security establishment. Interestingly, the late Shah Ahmad Noorani of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) realised in the late 1990s that the Barelvis’ political survival lay in allying with mainstream religious politics, as they could not compete with the well-organised Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. He supported political alliances of religious parties and was a major motivating force behind the creation of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in 2002.
The Barelvi parties have recently formed an alliance, the Nizam-i-Mustafa Mutahidda Mahaz, to maximise their electoral successes. It is led by Syed Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Shah Owais Noorani of the JUP. Seven Barelvi parties have joined the alliance, whereas two more, the Sunni Tehreek and the TLYRA-Jalali faction, are expected to join the alliance. The alliance is to try to influence some influential pirs in mainstream political parties to join it for the greater Barelvi cause. It is also trying to forge an electoral partnership with another recently formed alliance of Sindh-based political parties, the Grand Democratic Alliance against the PPP. The GDA is led by Pir Pagara, a renowned spiritual and political figure of Sindh. It appears as though attempts are being made to form an alliance of all Barelvi parties, excluding Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s TLYRA.
That means that at least three Barelvi groups or alliances will be contesting the upcoming elections: the Nizam-i-Mustafa Mutahidda Mahaz, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek of Tahirul Qadri, and the TLYRA. At least two of them, the Mutahidda Mahaz and TLYRA, will try to capitalise on religious issues.
Some find it hard to rule out the possibility that these two groups can go beyond political norms to mobilise their support bases through launching protest demonstrations in the coming weeks. Protests cannot hold public emotions over sustained periods. Politics is a rational discourse where people have multiple choices. However, these groups will try to run their electoral campaigns in agitation mode, which will keep mainstream political parties on the defensive.
Barelvi activism can transform the political landscape of the country, although to a debatable extent, if all the Barelvi camps remain united. The previous track record of these parties shows that the Barelvis are a disintegrated religious camp, divided along personality and cult lines. Most religious-political organisations of the Barelvi school of thought do not have organised structures and networks. The JUP, which once was the sole representative of the Barelvi sect in mainstream politics, is divided into more than four factions. The same applies to the Jamaat-i-Ahle-Sunnat, which once was the non-political face of the Barelvis, but now has five factions; each faction has political ambitions.
Pirs, or the custodians of shrines, 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. They prefer to form alliances with mainstream political parties. This way, they also feel secure as they enjoy their ‘spiritual’ status in mainstream parties. Apart from egoist issues, pirs know such sect-based electoral alliances do not have the ability to mobilise and secure a better position in parliament.
Tahirul Qadri has successfully managed to develop the structure of his organisation along the lines of the JI and similar groups following the Salafi and Deobandi schools of thought. However, he also prefers not to be tagged as a Barelvi sect leader; rather, he presents himself as a leader with religious credentials acceptable to all Sunni and Shia schools of thought, except for the Salafis.
It is also a fact that Barelvis do not have a charismatic leadership that can unite different groups and factions. The attempt of forming a grand alliance, like the Nizam-i-Mustafa Mutahidda Mahaz, is not a new initiative. Such efforts have been made by concerned Barelvi scholars before every general election, but after initial developments, they failed to become a reality. The leadership issue is also important to Barelvi parties; each leader considers himself capable of leading not only the Barelvi sect but the whole Muslim world. So far, this has proved a dividing factor. For instance, just after the dharna in Islamabad last week, two dissident voices emerged within the TLYRA.
Political analysts fear future political scenarios, but the Barelvi leadership fears its own internal differences.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2017