The common narrative doing the rounds regarding the rise of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is that the radical Barelvi party was the creation of the military establishment that used it as a tool to undermine the government of PML-N (2013-2018). Even though various rallies by the TLP could not dislodge the government, it did manage to usurp enough PML-N votes to strengthen the electoral prospects of the centre-right PTI.
There is nothing wrong with this narrative. Most political analysts are convinced that the TLP was treated as a clandestine political ally by the military establishment that was at loggerheads with the PML-N regime and wanted to pave the way for the PTI.
But this does not mean that the TLP was a cosmetic construct. It had emerged in 2015 as a movement led by the late charismatic Barelvi cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who was of the view that the PML-N government was trying to undermine the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Ironically, even though the TLP sees itself as a frontline guardian of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, Barelvi clerics were not as active in authoring them as were the Deobandi ulema and political-Islamist groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami.
Traditionally, Deobandi outfits have been theological opponents of the Barelvi, yet both are Sunni sub-sects. The Barelvi religious leadership found itself isolated in the 1980s, when the Pakistani state was aggressively recruiting radical Deobandi clerics from the fringes to beef up the so-called ‘jihad’ against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
But why were the Barelvi theologians absent from the equation? Firstly, the Barelvi do not have the kind of jihadist tradition that the Deobandi have. Secondly, Deobandi clerics were close to Saudi Arabia that was one of the major financiers of jihadist groups fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In fact, the wealthy Saudi monarchy which, at the time, was exporting so-called ‘Wahabism’ in the Muslim world, did not approve the manner in which the Barelvi often expressed their faith. Thirdly, one of the largest political vessels of the religious Barelvi, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), had begun to disintegrate into various factions from the mid-1980s.
Much like the monster you create destroys you, the state surrenders to a radical power by giving it more leeway, while moderate spaces continue to shrink. It’s not the first time
One must also mention that when radical outfits were manipulated in the country by non-Islamist politicians to undermine a political foe the first time, the Barelvi were largely missing from that equation as well. According to the historian Ali Usman Qasmi (in his book Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan), this was when the former CM of Punjab, Mumtaz Daultana, tacitly aided an anti-Ahmadi movement in 1953 to undermine the government of PM Khawaja Nazimuddin. That movement was led by radical Deobandi groups and political-Islamists.
Decades later, because of the manner in which the militant Deobandi were supported by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship in the 1980s, the scattered Barelvi religious leadership decided to regroup. In 1990, a group of radical Barelvi clerics formed the Sunni Tehreek (ST). According to Mujeeb Ahmad in the 2016 anthology State and Nation-Building in Pakistan, ST’s primary goal was to reclaim the ‘Barelvi mosques’ that it alleged had been forcibly taken over by radical Deobandi outfits. Thus began a cycle of violence between the two Sunni sub-sectarian clusters.
After 9/11, because of US pressure, the Gen Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008) began to sideline some prominent Deobandi militant outfits. One way Musharraf did this was by propping-up Barelvi outfits such as ST. This outfit was to be used as a new proxy by the state to neutralise its erstwhile militant Deobandi proxies. The post-Musharraf PPP-led coalition government (2008-2013) continued the policy of quietly aiding Barelvi groups, who were now also up against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, an extremely violent anti-state manifestation of Deobandi militancy.
The regime also convinced the US to tacitly back groups such as the ST because they were militantly opposed to the Taliban. Of course, this by no means meant that ST was a party of qawwali-loving pacifist Sufis, but just that their version of Sunni Islam was not jihadist or internationalist in nature.
In January 2012, the US government website USASpending revealed that, in 2009, the US government handed out an amount of 36,600 USD to the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC). The SIC was formed in 2009 as an alliance of radical Barelvi groups, of which ST was also a member. The money was given as a ‘grant’ to help the SIC expand the reach of its anti-Taliban rallies.
With militant Deobandi outfits gradually losing covert state patronage that they had once enjoyed, the militant Barelvi factions finally found the space they were struggling for to assert themselves. Musharraf’s ploy to switch proxies was continued during the PPP regime, but when the regime began to experience strained relations with the military establishment, suddenly the politician and Barelvi theologian Tahir-ul-Qadri appeared on the scene.
A man whose party — the Pakistan Awami Tehreek — had been an almost insignificant electoral player in the past, somehow managed to gather thousands of people to hold a sit-in against ‘corruption’ in Islamabad. In 2014, Michael Kugelman, the South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, told the German media outlet Deutsche Welle that the “military looks favourably on what Qadri is doing.”
But the pro-establishment TV anchors in Pakistan insisted that Qadri had won widespread support through his network of religious schools in Pakistan. Qadri was out on the streets again in 2014, but this time against the PML-N regime. By that point his aim was to perhaps beef-up Imran Khan’s PTI that had lost the 2013 elections, but was alleging voter fraud.
Even though the government survived the Khan-Qadri onslaught, a new Barelvi group, the TLP, emerged to exhibit immense street power. It has a genuine following, galvanised by the memory of how the Barelvi were sidelined and undermined in the 1980s.
The late Khadim Hussain Rizvi never forgot this. He navigated the emotionalism that is inherent in the nature of the sub-sect to whip out these underlying resentments, and work them as a populist political expression. The establishment and then Khan simply capitalised on this, but only to face yet another episode of a force used to undermine an opponent turning against those who use it.
This keeps on happening, and no lessons are ever learned. Recently it was a besieged Imran Khan regime on the receiving end of a ‘cultivated religious force.’ And also a state, once again underestimating the breakaway capacity of a clandestine ally, was forced to appease it by surrendering even more space to an increasingly radical power. And this always happens without the consent of the polity at large, whose ‘moderate’ spaces continue to shrink, thanks to the stubborn foolishness of governments and the state and the games that they go on playing with radical Islamists.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 7th, 2021