The movement supporting the Barelvi assassin of the Punjab governor who had defended the Christian woman accused of blasphemy generated the Tehreek party.
by Massimo Introvigne
In the previous articles, we discussed how the supposedly peaceful Barelvi movement, whose members came from Pakistani Sufi orders, became politically militant in the late 20th century, and its ambiguous reaction to the post-9/11 developments.
Two additional factors should be considered. The first is the role of the Pir, or Sufi masters. While nobody dispute their spiritual authority in the Barelvi movement, it is less clear whether they should also guide the community in political matters. The assassinated leader of Sunni Tehreek, Saleem Qadri, was not a theologian but a rickshaw driver, although he had been a devout missionary for the Barelvi organization Daawat-e-Islami. Some Pir believed that they had ultimate authority also on political matters, but other Barelvi disagreed. This became the root of internecine struggles within the Barelvi movement.
The second factor influencing the evolution of Barelvi politics was the role of the Pakistani state. While traditionally privileging the anti-Sufi Deobandi, all Pakistani governments were aware that Sufis represented the majority of local Muslims. They tried to sanitize Sufism by promoting an official version of it, which bracketed or eliminated the popular devotional aspects that were most objectionable to Deobandi, who denounced them as superstition or idolatry.
Barelvi initially ignored or even derided this State-sponsored Sufism until in 1958 General Muhammad Ayub Khan (1907–1974) became President of Pakistan through a military coup and imposed martial law. As part of martial law, mosques passed under the control of the state, through a new department called Auqaf. This meant that Barelvi Pir, if they wanted to kept their mosques, should at least pretend to align with official Sufism.
Subsequent Presidents had different views of Sufism, but the Auqaf continued to promote its sanitized and modernized version, and published official biographies of Sufi saints from which most references to the miraculous were excised.
The situation changed, however, when another coup brought General Pervez Musharraf to power in 1999, and after 9/11 he aligned himself with the U.S.-led War on Terror. Musharraf realized that he needed the support of the Barelvi masses in his conflict with terrorist and extremist organizations that were largely of Deobandi origin. He revised the official narrative on Sufism, accommodating at least some of the Barelvi claims, integrated some Barelvi in the Auqaf, and even supported financially Barelvi institutions, although some refused what they regarded as “American money.” Whether to accept or not governmental support became another bone of contention between some senior Pir and more militant lay leaders.
After the fall of Musharraf in 2008, subsequent democratic governments tried to continue his politics of accommodating the Barelvi. That they had not fully succeeded, however, became evident in 2010. That year, on November 7, a court in Nankana Sahib, Punjab, sentenced to death a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy she said were trumped up. The Asia Bibi case quickly became a global issue, with Christian churches and governments all over the world mobilizing to save the woman. It was also a domestic Pakistani issue, particularly since the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer (1944–2011), criticized the verdict and said he would do his best to prevent the execution of Asia Bibi.
Taseer was a Muslim, although he had been educated in a Catholic school in Lahore, St Anthony, where he had been a classmate of future Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Originally, it were Deobandi clerics and organizations that accused Taseer of blasphemy after he visited Asia Bibi in jail, and demanded his resignation. However, Barelvi also supported the anti-Taseer movement, as they were strongly in favor of blasphemy laws.
It is often forgotten that Taseer was assassinated by a Barelvi Sufi, not by a Deobandi “Islamic fundamentalist.” Mumtaz Qadri (1985–2016) was part of an elite police unit and served as one of Taseer’s bodyguards. He was also a Barelvi Daawat-e-Islami missionary. On January 4, 2011, Qadri shot Taseer 28 times and killed him while the governor was visiting the Kohsar market in Islamabad. He was immediately arrested.
Notwithstanding their hate towards Barelvi, Deobandi and other fundamentalists hailed Qadri as a hero. However the backbone of the movement who tried to prevent Qadri’s conviction and execution consisted of Barelvi. Five hundred Barelvi religious authorities signed a declaration stating that attending Taseer’s funeral was forbidden to good Muslims. Deobandi concurred, and it was difficult for the government to find clerics willing to offer the funeral prayer. Those who finally did received death threats and had to be protected by the police.
Qadri never expressed repentance for the assassination, claimed it was necessary to vindicate the honor of the Prophet, and revealed that his Barelvi spiritual mentor had approved the murder. He received marks of veneration as a living saint whenever he appeared in public, and a Barelvi mosque in Islamabad was named after him in 2014 when he was still alive. Some observers commented that Qadri was virtually “defied” and regarded by some Barelvi as superior to all previous Sufi saints.
A special anti-terrorism court sentenced Qadri to death on October 10, 2011. Subsequent appeals delayed the execution, but they were all rejected and Qadri was finally hanged on February 29, 2016. In the years before the first court decision and the execution, a mass movement that took the name Ghazi Bachao Tehreek tried to save Qadri’s life. The Barelvi founded an ad hoc organization in 2013 called Tehreek-e-Labbaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYRA). Although TLYRA claimed to be a civil society rather than a political organization, it soon created its own political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.