The Moral Crisis of Pakistani Barelvism
by Stephen Schwartz
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the secularist governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, was assassinated by a member of his personal guard, Mumtaz Qadri. Moderate Muslims, and many non-Muslims with a positive view of traditional and pluralist Islam, were dismayed to learn that the killer, who proudly confessed to the crime, was an adherent of the Barelvi sect of Islam, which is said typically to be followed by a majority of Pakistani and Indian Muslims.
Barelvis are considered moderates and are known for their attachment to spiritual Sufism. They are an object of ferocious hatred by the Deobandi sect, which inspires the Taliban, and Sufi shrines administered by Barelvi clerics have been attacked by terrorists across South Asia, with homicidal results.
Sufis are not a homogeneous phenomenon. Some are jihadist (notably Qadiri Sufis who have a long history of association with the Barelvis). Others are "peaceful, but not pacifist," in the description of the outstanding Western historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis. Some Sufis are Sunni-centric and despise Shia Muslims; others claim to have surmounted the Sunni-Shia divide. Some are strictly observant of Islamic shariah law; some refer to "shariah" only as the external practice of religion; some disregard Islamic law, as, for example, the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis, who originated in Shiism. Most, however, are open to dialogue with believers in other faiths.
Taseer represented a distinguished South Asian Muslim heritage. As noted in Pakistani media, he was the son of Dr M D Taseer, believed to be the first South Asian to earn a doctorate in English literature from a British university, and was close to Allama Iqbal, the great 20th century Muslim poet and philosopher. His mother was the sister-in-law of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Urdu-language Sufi and leftist poet. In 2002, Taseer established the leading Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Times.
According to the slayer's own statements, Qadri killed Taseer to express the guard's disgust with Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's "blasphemy" laws, which have discredited Pakistan in the eyes of many Muslim observers. Qadri's anger was inflamed particularly when Taseer opposed the "blasphemy" trial of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman. Qadri faces two death sentences, for murder and terrorism.
But while the Qadri case was understandably shocking to Muslims and others who view Sufis as a bulwark against radical Islam, and especially Islamist violence, more was to come. Mumtaz Qadri has brought the main extremist party in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e Islami (JEI) founded by Abu'l Ala Mawdudi, the most prominent jihadist in modern South Asian history, together with their presumed foes, the Sunni Tehreek that coordinates Barelvi groups.
A mass demonstration calling for Qadri to be amnestied and freed clogged the streets of Karachi on Saturday, October 22. Although summoned by the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), a religious group, the participants seemed to reflect as much anger at the international order and American involvement in the South Asian anti-terror war than fanaticism in defense of Qadri. The "crowd outbursts" – too inchoate to be called "protests" – that have swept the cities of Europe and the U.S. under the rubric of the "Occupy" movement appear to have found an echo in Pakistan. On the same day as the pro-Qadri assembly in Karachi, an "Anti-Capitalist Front" convoked another large assembly, with members carrying portraits of, among other "heroes," the late Al-Qadhdhafi.
In this regard, the rage in Pakistan also resembles the underlying cause of the warmly-welcomed but now disappointing "Arab Spring." These expressions of discontent among ordinary people are products not of social development in conflict with despotic rule, but of the snapping of the links of the international political and social system under the intolerable pressure of global financial insecurity.
And so the JEI, the SIC, and Sunni Tahreek joined together in demanding mercy for a cold-blooded killer who, they say, acted out of religious conscience.
The attitude of Sufis in India has been markedly different. On October 16, the All-India Ulema and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) called a mahapanchayat in Moradabad, U.P., drawing 100,000 (one lakh) participants. There, Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, a prominent Sufi and AIUMB president declared, "When an extremist turns up at your door seeking your support, when anyone tries to recruit you into terrorism, hand him over to the nearest police station… Let us take a pledge that we will never support Wahhabi extremism — not today, not tomorrow. Let us take a pledge that we will work for the unity and integrity of our motherland." Kichowchhwi and other speakers at the assembly denounced Indian government representatives for excluding the Sufis, who claim the majority among Indian Muslims, from consideration, and concentrating their attention on Wahhabi infiltrators backed from the Arab Gulf, as well as on the Deobandis. The mahapanchayat was boycotted and ignored or treated with hostility by the Indian Urdu-language media, which are read by Muslims.
While the most serious troubles continue to afflict Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences of Barelvi abdication in the face of JEI and Deobandi support for the terrorist act of Mumtaz Qadri will be felt around the world. Since the Barelvis are viewed as the main representatives of Sufism in Pakistan, their surrender to the fundamentalist offensive will undermine the life-affirming image they have enjoyed in many countries, as a Muslim alternative to the Wahhabi-inspired campaign of Al-Qaida in the attacks on America of September 11, 2001.
Many Muslims, to emphasize points I have previously made in these columns, wish to blame all the problems of the Islamic lands on America. America stands accused, according to them, for helping expel the Russians from Afghanistan, since U.S. strategy was based on an alliance with Saudi Arabia, then a hardline Wahhabi state. America is further assailed for removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, after which that country experienced a "second invasion" of Wahhabi terrorists from Saudi Arabia, as well as violent provocations sponsored by neighboring Iran. And America will now be reproached for "interfering" in Libya by helping free that country from Al-Qadhdhafi, even as the leading role in the Libyan intervention was assumed by France and Britain, backed by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
America has even been impeached for supposedly causing aggression against Sufis, notwithstanding nearly 300 years of Wahhabi attacks on them, by allegedly "favoring" one kind of Islam over another. Yet American strategic thinking has seldom taken the distinctions within Islam into account, and has ignored the Sufis, in great part. The American Republic did not yet exist when Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, founder of the eponymous doctrine, declared that Sufi practices were a basis for declaring the spiritual Muslims apostates worthy of death. In South Asia, some hatred of America must disguise an unadmitted anxiety that the U.S. will soon leave Afghanistan to the Taliban.
According to Sunni Tahreek chairman Sarwat Izaj Qadri, the Pakistani release of Raymond Davis, an American charged with killing two Pakistanis in Lahore while engaged allegedly in investigating Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) justifies absolution for Mumtaz Qadri. LET – the so-called "Army of the Righteous" – is the Al-Qaida auxiliary responsible for atrocities and conspiracies in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Britain, the U.S., and, not least, India, where it carried out the Mumbai assault of 2008.
The same argument was put forward to the marchers in Karachi by Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat (JAS) chief Amir Maulana Allamaa Shah Turabul Haq Qadri, who claimed that the conviction of Mumtaz Qadri for murder violated Islamic law. But Qadri's act defied two principles of Islamic law: the prohibition on murder and the sanctity of a personal oath given by a guard.
Pakistan, in its slide toward failure as a state, is undergoing a deep moral crisis. Naturally, in such a situation, the group most affected by the failure of will that brings about such a collapse will be those who have previously represented a positive moral example. In approving of Mumtaz Qadri's crime and agitating for his pardon, the Barelvi leadership in Pakistan demonstrate they lack the ability to keep their heads in a situation of conflict, which should be a primary virtue of Sufis. But they are abandoning the challenge of resisting those who wish not to argue with them, but to kill them – the radical fundamentalists of JEI, above all. The Barelvis of Pakistan should not forget that in addition to the blood of their martyrs at fundamentalist hands in the subcontinent, their mosques have been usurped in Britain and their community prevented from establishing a public organization in the U.S.
The adoption of an extremist posture on the Taseer murder by the Barelvis – as well as that of an Indian-patriotic attitude by Sufis in U.P. – may be qualified by some observers as nothing more than rhetorical excess, reflecting irresolvable tensions between the two biggest South Asian powers. It is a matter of irony that Pakistani Barelvi calls for Qadri's amnesty, and an appeal by Sunni Tahreek chair Sarwat Izaj Qadri, summoning all religious groups to stand by Pakistan's army, coincide with negotiations for trade liberalization between the two countries, under the "South Asian Free Trade Agreement," or SAFTA. Both countries, of which India is particularly important as one of the BRIC emerging economies with Brazil, Russia, and China, are confronted with a global society breaking down, and the disintegration of institutional controls.
It is to be hoped that in such a condition of human torment the Sufis would offer useful examples to the Muslim lands of spiritual discipline, devotion to good deeds and mutual understanding between differing religions. In the aftermath of the Taseer case, the Barelvi leaders in Pakistan have shown that such hopes may be no less fragile than those in religion in general, as well as the various philosophical schemes (including socialism) advanced for the improvement of the life shared by all believers in justice, mercy, and compassion.
Sunni Tahreek and other Barelvi groups in Pakistan have signaled to the world that they are weak in their determination to combat violence. The same message is conveyed to the enemies of the Barelvis and other Sufis, who will see the pusillanimity of the victims of terrorism as an encouragement to blow up more shrines, seize more mosques and madrassas, and kill more Barelvis, along with innocent people.
In recent years, through the rise of aggression by the Deobandis, expressed in attacks on Sufis in South Asia, as well as in the controversies over Islamic leadership in the UK and U.S., the Pakistani Barelvis made a uniquely significant contribution to resistance against radical fundamentalism. That they have now been transformed into allies of those who wish to annihilate them may be a turning point in the fall of Pakistan. As standard-bearers for a spiritual and clean Islam, the Barelvi leaders must stop and take account of their actions. Truth is, after all, an essential Sufi value. The future of South Asian Islam, regardless of international political intrigues, may rest in Pakistani Barelvi hands.