IT seems that the government has eventually decided to confront and neutralise the banned Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The group’s continuous manipulation of deals and negotiations with the state to gain more power has apparently led the government to show resolve which many hope will not prove ephemeral. Strict action will certainly help offset the group’s street power, but it will also entail a political price. The real challenge of deconstructing and countering the TLP’s ideological narrative will also haunt the state for a long time.
The TLP is a product of post-9/11 narratives, which the US and Western powers promoted to counter the ideologies of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. They encouraged so-called alternative narratives, or religious-ideological trends, which they thought could challenge extremist ideologies that justified terrorism. The Muslim elites projected Sufi Islam as an alternative to extremist religious thought and launched ventures such as ‘enlightened moderation’, engaging the clerics and scholars they believed had roots in Sufi Islam.
Before the rise of the TLP, Barelvi scholars and leaders projected themselves as peaceful Sufi believers. But the power elite ignored the fact that many Barelvis did not have a mindset different from that of the followers of other Islamic sects in the country. They are indeed part and parcel of the same thought processes even though their sectarian orientations differ.
Many Barelvis already felt they had been marginalised during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. They blamed the security establishment and Saudi Arabia for discouraging their participation in the Afghan jihad. Several among their leaders also believed that the insurgency in India-held Kashmir was their battlefront, but they were ignored. If we go deeper, we can see the TLP is an anti-Al Qaeda and anti-TTP project gone wrong. One might have thought within the establishment about their political utility much in the same way that they used militant and religious groups in the past. But the TLP proved a costly project, which has brought more embarrassment and harm than advantages.
The TLP has busted the myth about peaceful and Sufism-inclined Barelvis. In search of relevance, the TLP has provided the latter sect a long-awaited sense of power. Many TLP supporters argue no one can now occupy their mosques or forcibly have their shrines vacated.
The TLP has busted the myth about peaceful and Sufism-inclined Barelvis.
The TLP has provided a purpose in life and a sense of empowerment to many people belonging to the lower-income groups and this is a major contributing factor to its rise in a class-based society. It has also provided a sense of relevance to the Barelvi madressah youths, who felt alienated during the decades of jihad, and saw no prominent place for themselves in the religious, political and militant landscapes of the country. The number of Barelvi madressahs, especially those for females, has grown in Pakistan during the last decade. The TLP narrative empowered the madressah youth, just as the Sipah-i-Sahaba had empowered the Deobandi madressah youth. Madressahs for females are strengthening the TLP narrative and students of these religious institutions are also influencing their families in the matter of supporting the TLP.
Religious extremism in society and the nationalism project of the power elites make groups like the TLP more lethal. Such groups use religion for political purposes instead of making it a source of positive social change and character development of individuals. These groups do not even fall into the category of the system which views the existing one as flawed and suggests the Muslim faith as a complete code of life and alternative system. Though such groups seek inspiration from political Islamist movements, their worldview does not match the latter’s and their opinions on statecraft and state institutions are simplistic.
These groups have grown into big enterprises and their power is increasing and state institutions are facilitating them in this process while making deals with them and using them for political purposes. However, they cannot develop a nationalist character or create hyper-nationalism like the Sangh Parivar, which is deeply rooted in India’s culture and social ethos, is doing across the eastern border.
In fact, groups like the TLP divide societies along sectarian lines and damage the image of a majoritarian mindset. Maybe, those promoting the TLP thought that Sufi belief is similarly deep-rooted in our culture and social ethos. But controlling shrines of the secular Sufis does not necessarily make the custodians of these shrines subscribe to moderate Sufism as they seek guidance from more or less the same sources of conventional knowledge as other sects in Pakistan. So Barelvis can be just as exclusive in their approach as others and use the same tactics to gain powers as other sects.
One can argue that Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) cannot gain the same space and glory that it once enjoyed in Pakistan, mainly due to persistent international pressure and the threat of FATF sanctions, but the group’s ideology was very close to the worldview of the power elites. It not only had a militant front but also very active political and charity wings. However, Salafi Islam in Pakistan remains confined to some semi-urban and industry-based urban centres and faces problems in creating mass appeal.
The JuD had replaced the Jamaat-i-Islami on the establishment’s chessboard, as post-9/11 developments had shrunk the spaces for JI’s affiliated groups. Gradually, it has also lost political relevance. However, the TLP would have not been the alternative for the JuD. If there was any such assumption, it was based on a grave fallacy. Its political utility was minimal, but the cost was high, and even when the government has decided to crush the group, its actions will come at a heavy price.
It is not certain if the establishment has another player in mind for future political utility, but one can be fairly certain that many religious figures and groups would be ready to present their services.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2021