Written by Muhammad Suleman.

Pakistan’s society has been badly marred by religious extremism and terrorism since the 1980s especially after the initiation of Afghan Jihad. The underlying cause of religious extremism in the country is the employment of the majoritarian religion of Islam for strategic, political and vested interests by various patrons e.g. the state and different political and religious organizations.

The more worrisome point is that when one religious extremist client faction turns into a threat, the patrons craft a new one to counter the first one rather than learning the lesson. When the state counters or tries to counter the first faction with the assistance of second group, then that second one occupies the space vacated by the first one.  It  usually creates challenges to the centrist and normative values of the state and society.  In this way the cycle of religious extremism and counter extremism has continued since  the 1980s. Generally, the state projects new religious factions for its social, political and strategic purposes and after achieving the required results, it does not bother to take an interest in guarding its client groups and abandons them.

After 2001, Pakistan started to politicize Sufi Islam by empowering Barelvis – followers of Sufi Islam – to counter the threat of extremism, especially Deobandi extremism which was designed by the state itself during Afghan Jihad in 1980s.  Later some Barelvis also indulged in extremist activities.

After 9/11, the Musharraf regime started to institutionalize Sufi Islam in Pakistan to counter the new wave of religious extremism by establishing the ‘National Council for Promotion of Sufi Council.’  It was argued that Sufism was based on tolerance and harmony which suited Pakistan’s diversity.  The United States also took a great interest and even sponsored the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC)—a Barelvi religious party which was primarily established to incite Barelvis to counter the influence of the Taliban and extremist ideologies. After the Musharraf regime, the Pakistan People’s Party—consisting mainly of the descendants of Sufis i.e. Pirs (saints) and Pir-landlords – also started to promote Sufi values to counter the threat of extremism and terrorism by renaming the Council as ‘Sufi Advisory Council’ (SAC). Barelvi clerics also declared that Deobandis were responsible of the violent extremism in the country and this narrative further widened the gulf of sectarianism in society.

However, things changed suddenly when Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer supported Asia Bibi—a Christian woman who was jailed under the charge of blasphemy. Taseer had suggested amendments in the blasphemy law. The Barelvis who were considered as the followers of Sufi Islam and lancers of peaceful Islam, abruptly turned against Taseer and declared him a ‘blasphemer’ over his suggestion of amending the blasphemy law.  In response to Taseer’s statements, Barelvi clerics started to mobilise their followers by chanting slogans such as ‘Gustakh-e-Rasool ki aik saza, sar tan say juda’ (There is only one punishment of a blasphemer, his/her head should be beheaded). This slogan became the narrative of Barelvi extremists.

Some clerics had set a bounty on Taseer. When he was assassinated, many Barelvi clerics and followers rejoiced at his murder. After the arrest of his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, the SIC started a movement to get him freed. But after Mumtaz Qadri’s execution, when Barelvi clerics saw their considerable strength in public and there was no specific resistance from the government, they formulated another religio-politico organization named Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a coalition of many religious organizations. They also arranged religious gatherings across the country and even shut down D-Square Islamabad in March 2016. The organization has made hate speeches and inflamed people under the nose of the Nation Action Plan (NAP)—which was established after the 2014 Army Public School terrorist incident in Peshawar to counter the threat of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan.

The emerging trend of Barelvi extremism on the blasphemy issue has shaken Pakistani society. The speeches by Labaik members have caused many horrendous blasphemy incidents across the country, including the murder of a student, an incident in Chitral, and two sisters killed a man booked for blasphemy in Sialkot, are prominent. Some secular and liberal Muslims are also in their sights. Now the Labaik wants to get its party registered by the Election Commission of Pakistan as a political party. Their main political manifesto is to secure the sanctity of the Prophet (PBUH) and the death of anyone who commits blasphemy. One of its clerics, Moulvi Khadim Hussian Rizvi – who called himself Ameer-ul-Mujahdin (commander of holy warriors – openly stages processions and provokes even policemen and other followers to kill the blasphemers.

Ironically, after losing more than 60,000 lives and one hundred billion dollars economy in the war against extremism and terrorism, the state of Pakistan, its institutions and NAP are still not seriously countering the plague of extremism disseminated by the Labaik and its followers.

Muhammad Suleman is a Research Associate at the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (Islamabad), Pakistan. The views are those of the author and not CPGS, Islamabad. He holds master degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad and a MPhil degree in Political Science from International Islamic University, Islamabad. He can be reached at shahid.ndu@gmail.com and he tweets @M_S_Shahid. Image credit: CC by OpenDemocracy/Flickr.

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