Amid all the chaos surrounding the sudden death of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) condolence message has seemingly gone unnoticed, but its impact on religious politics in the country runs deep.
Speaking to The Diplomat, a source in TTP praised Rizvi for his “great work,” adding that “every Muslim should support his movement.”
This comes as a surprise since Rizvi subscribed to the Barelvi movement – an offshoot of the 19th-century Sufi tradition in the subcontinent that emphasizes the veneration of Sufi saints, their devotional practices, and shrine culture. Considered a “soft” face of Islam, the Barelvi sect has emerged as an antidote to religious intolerance.
On the other hand, the TTP is a militant movement largely influenced by the Panj Peer and Deobandi schools of thought. It terms the Barelvis as “innovators.” The TTP has frequently targeted Barelvi mosques and scholars for denouncing Talibanization and issuing edicts (fatwa) against terrorism, particularly suicide attacks.
Almost all the major Sufi shrines, such as Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Data Darbar in Lahore, and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, have come under attack, and more than 600 Barelvi leaders and activists have been killed since 1986.
The Rise of Barelvi Politics
The Deobandi school of thought took center stage in religious politics post-partition. When military dictator Zia ul Haq propped up “Mujahideen” in the 1980s to fight the wars in Afghanistan, madrassahs served as “jihadi” recruitment and training centers.
The 2007 Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incident forced the state to rethink its support to Deobandi groups and instead allow space to Barelvi groups to bolster counterterrorism initiatives.
But things took an adverse turn in 2011 when a devout Barelvi youth murdered Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer over his support of Asia Bibi – a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
What initially began as a movement to free the murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, transformed into Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah (TLYR) after his hanging in 2016, when about 2,000 protestors staged a sit-in in Islamabad, demanding the government recognize Qadri as a martyr and expel Ahmadis and non-Muslims from key posts.
The protest ended after the government assured the demonstrators that the blasphemy law would not be amended and withdrew cases against protesters. In 2017, the group again paralyzed the federal capital over a change in wording to an electoral law changing the religious oath to a simple declaration.
Unable to disperse the crowd, the Nawaz Sharif government sought help from the Pakistan Army. But the army refused, saying it would “not use force against our people.” Instead, it brokered a deal under which the law minister had to resign, and the government had to withdraw police complaints against protestors and pay for damages caused to public and private properties.
This marked the TLP’s entry into mainstream politics.
Although many Barelvi groups and parties disagree with its hard-line politics, the TLP has garnered support from major Shia and Sunni organizations alike for its stance on blasphemy. In its condolence message, the TTP described Rizvi as a “resilient voice” in support of blasphemy laws and Aafia Siddique, a Pakistani neuroscientist currently serving 1n 86-year prison term in the United States.
“The gesture shows TTP has modified its ideological narrative and is widening its scope,” said Khadim Hussain, an expert in the militant discourse. “Perhaps, they have added to its discourse that those who challenge the present constitutional state structure through violent means are closer to them than those who struggle within the constitutional framework.”
But TLP leader Usman Ali was dismissive of the condolence statement. “We have received condolence messages from people from all walks of life and various sects. The army chief, the prime minister, even people from the entertainment industry have condoled the death,” he told The Diplomat. He reflected that despite differences, all sects are united when it comes to the seal of prophets.
Hussain says the TTP leadership must be campaigning hard to bypass the decade-old sectarian disputes between the Barelvi and Deobandi sects.
“It shows TTP’s negotiation skills,” he continued. “And its mature political move to bring together all those groups who oppose the Constitution of Pakistan in one way or the other.”
Entering the Mainstream Political Fold
Historically, religious political parties have done poorly in elections. But the last general election saw several far-right parties run credible campaigns, with the TLP emerging as the fifth largest political party in the country with 2.2 million votes.
Although the TTP has previously shown a soft spot for political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in elections, it has kept a distance from those with whom it has religious ideological differences.
Under Noor Wali Mehsud’s leadership, that policy seems to have changed as he amends ties with estranged commanders and reins in elements from sectarian outfits including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – a formidable foe to Barelvi politics.
The TTP source told The Diplomat that the militant outfit is “trying to find a way to gain TLP’s sympathy” and “seriously considering bringing TLP among its ranks.”
“By coming closer together, the TTP might also jump into parliamentary politics,” says Hussain. “TTP might try to specify a group and some of its leaders from within its rank and file to have a say in contemporary politics the way Afghan Taliban have done.”
Recently, there were reports that the Pakistan Army has initiated talks with the militant outfit. But a statement by the TTP spokesperson issued online said that “the top leadership has not communicated about talks with Pakistan Army,” adding that “talks are never off the table under certain conditions.”
Ali stressed that an alliance was unlikely, keeping in view the stark difference in ideology. “We [Barelvis] were part of the Sunni Ittehad Council that condemned attacks on mosques and shrines.”
Noting that the TTP has made no formal contact yet, Ali said the decision would be made by the party council. “Political activities have been suspended until the Chelum,” he added.
Hussain sees no radical shift in the TLP’s approach after Rizvi’s death. “The issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat [a platform opposing any change to the blasphemy law] remains a rallying point, both politically and religiously, for different sects to initiate a movement against various governments.”
“Keeping in view the regional and international scenario, the issue might blow out of control putting the state and the government in an awkward position and might harm the state of Pakistan regionally and internationally,” he added.