Spirituality and power

May 31, 2020

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

The pandemic did not affect people’s fasting and praying activities much during the holy month of Ramazan. At first, provincial governments were a bit hesitant to ease the lockdowns, but soon gave in to an implied national consensus, and Ramazan was celebrated with full religious zeal across the country.

As religious scholars occupied television screens throughout the month, Tariq Jameel, a top religious celebrity in the country, was almost everywhere. At the start of Ramazan, he made some insensitive comments about women and the media, which drew controversy. His comments came during a prayer at the end of an Ehsaas Telethon programme meant to raise funds to aid those affected by the pandemic. Later, in a talk show, he tendered an apology. But his colossal fan club propagated his apology as a high moral act, and launched a social media campaign justifying his arguments. He never forbade his followers from doing so.

The language used by Tariq Jameel’s followers was not much different from that used by other religious activists, especially followers of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, against those who disagree with their views. This is despite the fact that Jameel and Rizvi have very different personas (the former is a soft-spoken orator, the latter a firebrand speaker), varied audiences and, more importantly, different objectives. Therefore, it is natural to draw comparisons between their followers to assess what makes them alike.

Spirituality helps human beings find a purpose in life by relating it to the divine. Religion is the sole proprietor of this domain, though it also has few other functions, including developing the moral character of the individual and society, and bringing about social transformations. Certain versions of religion also seek to ‘purify’ power and thus demand political control. People choose from these versions based on what suits their spiritual, moral, social and political needs. However, religion is also a spiritually transformational force for emerging middle classes and social elites. For lower classes, religion provides not only a purpose in life but also a sense of empowerment in class-based societies. The two religious leaders represent new trends within their sectarian domains.

In this context, both Jameel and Rizvi cater to the religious and spiritual needs of two different classes, which are also divided along sectarian lines; thus, they are also serving the causes of their respective sects. Both represent new trends within their sectarian domains. Whether or not the elders, or traditionalists, of their sects like them, they certainly inspire their sects’ younger generation.

The Tableeghi Jamaat does not believe in charismatic leaders, but Jameel is an exception. The TJ elders have reservations about his way of reaching out to celebrities and the ruling elites. However, their displeasure cannot stop him from continuing his ways as he himself has become a celebrity. Besides cricketers and the civil and military bureaucracy, showbiz celebrities also seek his spiritual guidance.

Not too long ago, Akram Awan had a similar following among showbiz celebrities, besides others, who believed in in his prowess for spiritual healing and resolving family disputes. However, Jameel has expanded his following across the border as well. Like Jameel, Awan also had a following among the civil and military bureaucracy, but he had political ambitions. In 2000, he staged an assault on the federal capital to force the Musharraf regime to enforce Sharia in Pakistan. Jameel has not shown any political ambitions so far, except to maintain ties with the power elites. He has as cordial relations with Nawaz Sharif as he has with Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Interestingly, during Awan’s time, Syed Safdar Ali Bukhari alias Peer Kaki Tar was also famous in the showbiz industry, though his way of engaging the people was different, and he believed in spiritual healing through music and dance as well. His admirers say their prayers to the beat of drums at his shrine in Lilla, Pind Dadan Khan. But the Deobandi elders in Pakistan did not acknowledge Awan; nor was Peer Kaki Sarkar acclaimed within the Barelvi school of thought. While Jameel represents the Deobandi school, Rizvi represents the Barelvi school. Rizvi has a political party that secured over two million votes in the last general election, giving a significant boost to Barelvi politics.

Followers of Rizvi and Jameel often encounter each other on social media. The height of the tussle between them surfaced when Barelvi leaders accused the late pop star-turned-televangelist Junaid Jamshed of having allegedly committed blasphemy. Both have also contributed to the image building of their respective sects.

Before the rise of Rizvi’s Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, Barelvi scholars and leaders projected themselves as peaceful Sufi believers. They felt marginalised during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, and 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, but they were ignored. Though Rizvi’s aggressive posture has damaged the Barelvis’ victimhood card, it has at the same time exposed potential violent extremist tendencies within them. However, Rizvi’s supporters argue that abandoning the victimhood mindset has given them a long-awaited sense of power, as no one can now occupy their mosques and forcibly have their shrines vacated.

On the other side, the Deobandi school had been under pressure since 9/11 since a large majority of the militant groups subscribed to it. These groups caused huge damage to Pakistan’s security and international image. Deobandi scholars and elders have made many attempts to remove this stigma of militancy and sectarian hatred, but they have failed to change this common perception. Tariq Jameel alone has changed this to a great extent, while initiating dialogue with Shia scholars and their institutions.

Jameel and Rizvi are successful orators of their sects and provided what their schools of thought needed most. The character building of their followers is perhaps too big a task to ask of them.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2020