During the final week of March, a group of protestors, all of them religious conservatives, camped out in front of the Pakistani parliament building in Islamabad. They claimed to represent a movement called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool (We Are Here for You Prophet Muhammad), which sprung up almost a month ago after the funeral procession of Mumtaz Qadri, a former police officer. Qadri was executed on February 29 for gunning down Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab province, for his critical stance toward Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The protestors, who began their march in the city of Rawalpindi on March 27, had advertised their movement as the chehlum (40-day death commemoration) of Mumtaz Qadri. Chehlum is meant to be an occasion for family and friends to get together and pray for the soul of the departed.
However, March 27 marked 28 days, not 40, since Qadri’s execution. The protestors had their macabre reasoning for the discrepancy: Qadri had used 28 bullets to kill Taseer.
Allied With an Assassin
The Islamabad protestors were Barelvis, a branch of Sunni Islam with deep connections to various Sufi orders. Barelvis, who according to most estimates constitute the majority of Pakistani Muslims, are actually regarded as moderates. And yet Qadri himself was a Barelvi.
There is likely a very simple explanation for why the Islamabad gathering took place before the 40-day mourning period had expired: March organizers were intent on maintaining the momentum they had generated from Qadri’s funeral, which by some estimates had attracted over 100,000 people.
The high turnout for his funeral was not surprising. Barelvis are known for their passion for rituals around death and the veneration of saints. Qadri was turning into a living saint for those who felt that his love for the Prophet had so moved him that he killed the person he had been hired to protect. The high turnout for the funeral hastened the beatification of Qadri. Social media was awash with stories of his last meeting with his family, his refusal to ask for mercy, his fasting before his death, and the pristine condition of his corpse. His five-year-old son, dressed up in the same outfit worn by the members of Sunni Tehrik, was featured singing hymns in praise of Prophet Muhammad at his father’s funeral.
The funeral crowd had not gathered spontaneously. The leadership of Sunni Tehrik (ST), a group organized in 1990 to represent the interests of the Barelvis more effectively in the political arena, was in close contact with Qadri’s family and knew several hours in advance that he was going to be executed. ST used social media to mobilize the masses for his funeral.
The Barelvi-Deobandi Rivalry
The current debates over blasphemy laws in some ways are an extension of a century-old rivalry between Barelvis and Deobandis. Both groups take their names from madrassas founded in the latter half of the 19th century in British-occupied India. The difference between the two groups stems from a disagreement about the role and status of the Prophet Muhammad. For Deobandis, the Prophet was bashar, a human being, though a model of perfection for humanity and worthy of emulation. For the Deobandi, it is the texts—both the collection of Hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet) and the Qur’an—that provide the most important guidance for Muslims.
Barelvis, meanwhile, consider the Prophet noor, or light, which guides the lives of believers. For Barelvis, Ishiq-e-Rasool (Love for the Prophet) is the highest form of piety and Tahueen-e-Risalast (insulting the Prophet) is the gravest sin, worthy of capital punishment. The death and birth anniversaries of the Prophet and saints are important events for the Barelvis, who often use music and hymns to celebrate these occasions. The Deobandis, meanwhile, accuse the Barelvis of “tomb worshiping,” and therefore engaging in the gravest sin of shirk (polytheism).
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent flourishing of jihadism in the region greatly boosted the Deobandis because their religious seminaries and political organizations were used to train Afghan mujhadeen. The Deobandis were further boosted by Saudi Arabia’s patronage of their style of austere Islam. Consequently, the increasing political influence of the Deobandis in the last 30 years has been greatly resented by Pakistan’s Barelvis. The Deobandis and Barelvis have engaged in intense competition over mosques and madrassas, and they have all jockeyed for their share of influence over an increasingly religious public sphere in the country.
Blasphemy: A Rallying Cry for Barelvis?
But it is in the Blasphemy law, and particularly section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, expressed in Urdu as the Tahafuz-e-Namoos Risalat (Protection of the Sanctity of the Prophet) Act, where the Barelvis have found a cause that fits their brand of Islam. Though generally friendly to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Barelvis turned against the PPP’s Taseer once he critiqued section 295-C. The ST is confident that in Mumtaz Qadri, they have the martyr that will attract millions to their movement. They are also confident that the depth of the passion for the Prophet will enable them to usher in a new revolution, making Pakistan a true Islamic state. It is this certainty that landed them in front of the parliament, asking the very government that had executed Mumtaz Qadri to officially declare him a martyr and turn his prison cell into a memorial site.
In the end, ST was unable to attract the crowd it was hoping for. For now, the government has successfully negotiated an end to the siege without giving many concessions to the protestors. However, two of the concessions that were made were quite telling: There will be no change to section 295-C, and no one convicted of blasphemy will be pardoned. This can potentially create trouble for the government in future because this gives the Barelvis the platform needed to actively agitate on the issue of executing Asia Bibi, the Christian woman Salman Taseer argued was falsely accused of blasphemy.
Religious conservatives have not been pleased with the government of late, which they believe has pursued a series of anti-religious policies, including banning the use of loudspeakers during Friday sermons in mosques. This could well prompt an alliance of convenience between Pakistan’s Barelvis and Deobandis, and thereby significantly damage the government’s attempts to fight religious extremism.
On the other hand, the feud between Barelvis and Deobandis is deep and their rivalry over claiming the religious public sphere very intense. Pakistan has an opportunity to exploit this rivalry, and use Barelvis as partners in fighting violent extremism. And yet, as demonstrated by the brief protest in Islamabad, Barelvis tend to take hardline positions similar to those of violent extremists themselves.
For Pakistan’s government, this will not make dealing with its terrorism problem any easier.
Farhat Haq is a fellow at the Wilson Center and Professor of Political Science at Monmouth College. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.