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The Sunni Tehrik (ST), a Barelvi Islamist organisation, announced last Sunday that it was converting itself into a political party. To quite a few Pakistanis the ST comes across as being another sectarian outfit triggered by the controversial Islamisation process of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s.

It is true that the ST was a consequence of the legacy of the sectarian mess Zia’s divisive policies had created, but it must be emphasised that during the dictator’s regime the Sunni sectarian outfits that emerged were almost all ideologically orientated towards either the Deobandi school of thought or the Salafi doctrine. The majority of Pakistani Muslims belong to the Barelvi school of thought – an 18th century emergence that fused elements of Sufism with rituals and beliefs of the faith being practised by Muslims of undivided India in the rural areas.

That’s why some scholars have also defined Barelvism as a kind of ‘folk Islam’, that may be riddled with some superstitions but is said to be far more moderate and pluralistic than the faith advocated and interpreted by its Deobandi or Salafi counterparts. According to sociologists like Abdul Qadeer and author Hassan Abbas, it is this perception that made Zia (and his intelligence agencies) concentrate on patronising political and militant outfits representing the more puritanical Sunni sects.

It was felt (by the dictatorship) that the Barelvis’ theological disposition was not suited to be transformed into the kind of jihadist fervour Zia was funded and directed to ferment (in Afghanistan) by the US and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Unlike the majority of Pakistan’s Sunni sectarian outfits that emerged during the Zia era, the ST was formed in 1992, four years after the end of the Zia regime.

Its formation was explained as a reaction by Barelvi political-religious organisations to the rising influence of Deobandi and ‘Wahabi’ outfits that worked closely with the country’s military-establishment during the anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad.’ But even though the ST surfaced as the Barelvis’ first expression of sectarian militancy, the theological and ritual diversity found within the Barelvi sect has restricted it from turning into the kind of militant outfit its Deobandi or Salafi counterparts (such as Sipah Sahaba) have become notorious for.

Analyst Murtaza Haider recently reproduced the doctoral thesis of Syed Ejaz Hussain in Dawn that analysed the religious characteristics of the 2,344 terrorists arrested between 1990 and 2009 in Pakistan. The sectarian breakdown of the arrested terrorists revealed that more than 90 per cent belonged to the Deobandi school, whereas only five per cent were from the Barelvi sect.

It is interesting to note that till the 1990s, whereas religious minded Deobandis had well oiled political parties like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) , and the more urbanised Sunni puritans backed mainstream fundamentalist entities like the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the majority Barelvi population were hardly ever organised on a cohesive political-religious platform.

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan was considered to be the prominent Barelvi party, but a majority of Barelvis have (ever since the 1970s) largely been seen to be supporters of ‘secular’ parties like the PPP (in rural and semi-rural areas of Sindh and southern Punjab) and the MQM (in Karachi). Political Economist, Boris Rumer, in ‘Asia at the end of Transition’ suggests that the JUP was strong among religious minded Barelvis in urban Sindh and parts of Punjab, and though it opposed the PPP regime of Z A Bhutto, it did not support the Zia dictatorship, denouncing his Islamisation policies as being pitched against the Barelvis.

With the rising belligerence of Deobandi militant organisations during the Zia regime and the state-patronage that these outfits enjoyed during the Afghan war, the JUP disintegrated — especially when members of its youth wing and some elements of the Barelvi student organisation, Anjuman-i-Taleba-i-Islam (ATI), began forming more radical Barelvi outfits.

Many of these outfits came together in 1992 to form the ST. In Karachi, MQM militants who’d fallen out with the party’s leadership (claiming it was too ‘secular’ and ‘pro-Shia’), also began joining the ST.

However, in spite of using the Sunni prefix in its name, the ST’s programme was geared more towards combating Deobandi and ‘Wahabi’ militant organisations whom it accused of being agents of Arab monarchies, and of being backed by Pakistan’s military-establishment. After the tragic 9/11 episode, the ST stood out as the only large religious outfit in Pakistan that openly opposed the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and violent sectarian groups like the Sipah-i-Sahaba.

Drummed up (by the West and Pakistani liberals) as being the more moderate face of religious radicalism that was openly critical of the violent tactics of jihadi organisations, the ST’s comparative charm suddenly collapsed when a Barelvi fanatic shot dead the former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 after accusing him of committing blasphemy. There is evidence to suggest that a number of Deobandi militant outfits were funded by puritanical Arab monarchies and had contacts within Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

The ST, on the other hand, has been collecting funds from its followers (especially from Karachi’s trader classes). However, according to a US report, the ST received $36,000  from the US government for standing up to the Taliban, but further funding was suspended after some members of the ST praised the killing of Taseer. Nevertheless, in spite of the growing militancy and hate crimes surfacing from within the ST, its recently unravelled programme suggests that it plans to continue opposing the Taliban and Deobandi outfits like the Sipah-i-Sahaba/Jamat-ud-Dawa. Little was said in its programme about certain thorny issues (the blasphemy law, the anti-Ahmadi legislation, etc.) whose blatant misuse over the past decades has instigated violence and hate crimes against minorities and liberal Pakistanis. The ST has demanded the release of Governor Taseer’s under-trial murderer.

Ironically, such are the issues on which the ST sees itself being on the same page as those it detests.