Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the rise of Barelvi extremism in Pakistan

The massive crowd that gathered at Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore at the funeral of the firebrand, radical Ameer of the political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Khadim Hussain Rizvi shocked many observers of Pakistan who considered his sect, the Barelvis, quietist and peaceful. Seen as adhering to Sufi Islam and revering saints and the Prophet, many believed they represented the moderate face of Islam providing an antidote to radical Islam.

The Barelvi movement was founded by Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareilly in the late 19th century as a reaction against the reformist Deoband, Ahl-e-Hadith and Ahmadi sects of Islam. Unlike the latter who emphasize upon the ‘humanness’ of the Prophet, the Barelvis consider the Prophet as God’s light (Noor), ever present (hazir-o-nazir), and having knowledge of the unseen (ilm-e-ghaib). They are the lover of the Prophet (Ashiq-e-Rasool) and for them the protection of his sanctity and veneration for him are non-negotiable. The Barelvis have a long history of supporting murder and violence when they believe that the Prophet has been insulted. In British India (1929), they eulogized Ilm-ud-Din as a holy warrior (ghazi) when he murdered the Hindu publisher of the book ‘Rangeela Rasool’ which was considered libelous towards the Prophet. They were most vocal in their condemnation when caricatures of the Prophet were published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006. In 2008 they hailed Amir Cheema, the Pakistani immigrant to Germany, as a hero when he attempted to assassinate the German publisher of these caricatures. The Barelvi ulemas condemned Governor Salman Taseer when he argued for amending the blasphemy law in Pakistan. When Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, not only did they defend Qadri but also pleaded for his release. Fatwas were issued against offering funeral prayers for Taseer based on which the Imam of Badshahi mosque refused to lead the ritual prayers for Taseer. The violent sit-in in Faizabad led by TLP this month, demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan was in protest against the re-publication of cartoons of the Prophet in France.

The TLP led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi has its genesis in ‘Tahreek-e-Rihai-Mumtaz Qadri’, a movement launched to secure the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the earlier mentioned murderer of Governor Salman Taseer. Building his politics around the twin emotive issues of the finality of the Prophet-hood of Mohammad (khatam-e-nabobat) and strengthening of blasphemy law (tauheen-e-risalat), this charismatic leader established instant connect with his followers through his demagoguery, easy accessibility and smart use of social media platforms. After Mumtaz Qadri was hanged in 2016, the movement was renamed ‘Tahreek-e-Labbaik-ya-Rasulallah’ (TLYRA) which finally converted itself into a political party, TLP. It contested the 2018 elections and surprised many by bagging 2.2 million votes, emerging as Pakistan’s fifth largest political party and the third largest in Punjab. It also won two seats in the Sindh provincial assembly. This political performance was creditable considering that the Barelvi religious political parties like Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) had remained fringe players in the space occupied by religious political parties which was dominated by Deobandi parties like Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). The partisanship that the ‘deep’ state of Pakistan showed towards the radical Deobandi groups at the cost of the Barelvis, further aggravated their marginalization. This emboldened the Deobandi extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba (SS) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), who considered the Barelvis to be heretics to attack Barelvi shrines (Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Data Durbar, Sakhi Sarwar, Shahbaz Lal Qalandar) and murder their religious and political leaders. The LeJ practically wiped out the entire leadership of the Barelvi Sunni Tehreek in 2006 in the Nistar Park attack in Karachi, where nearly 50 Barelvi leaders were killed. Saleem Qadri, the Chief of Sunni Tehreek (ST) was killed in 2001 and Allama Sarfaraz Naeemi in 2009.

After he burst onto the political scene in 2011, Rizvi organized several violent rallies, sit-ins and blockades against the perceived dilution of the twin laws of blasphemy and finality of Prophet-hood. Most of his rallies and sit-ins ended with the government conceding to his demands, which showed their weakness and further emboldened him. When the Election Bill, 2017, proposed changing the wording of the oath from ‘I swear’ to ‘I declare’, Rizvi and his followers held a sit-in at Faizabad arguing that this diluted the finality of Prophet-hood of Muhammad. The then PML (N) government sought the help of the army to disperse the protestors, but they declined showing their tacit support for the sit-in. The beleaguered government capitulated, accepting all demands of Rizvi. Not only was the proposed amendment reversed, the Law Minister, Zahid Hamid who had piloted the amendment resigned and all cases against the protestors were dropped.  The ‘deep’ state’s support to the sit-in was further confirmed when Director General (DG), Rangers Punjab, Major General Azhar Navid Hayat was seen handing over cash filled envelopes to protestors. The Supreme Court of Pakistan, taking suo-moto cognizance of the Faizabad sit-in, castigated the armed forces and its agencies for acting in a partisan manner during the protest. A couple of days before his death, Rizvi had again been leading a protest movement against the re-publication of the cartoons of the Prophet in France. Reports state that the government, in an agreement with the TLP had conceded to all their demands.

The question which many ask now is about the future of TLP and the issues championed by Rizvi. Ironically, while Rizvi riled against the dynastic character of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan, much like them his elder son Saad Rizvi has been named the new ‘Amir’ (Chief) of the party. How far he can keep the party united remains to be seen. The TLP witnessed factionalism in 2017 when Asif Ashraf Jalali broke ranks with Rizvi after Rizvi unilaterally called off the Faizabad sit-in. As for the issues championed by TLP i.e blasphemy laws and finality of Muhammad’s Prophet-hood, both these issues enjoy widespread support in Pakistan. Minorities and Ahmedis are regular targets of these laws. The crisis of governance, declining credibility of mainstream political parties, a failing economy, rising urbanization, unemployed and underemployed young population and above all support of the ‘deep’ state to radical groups will ensure that parties like TLP will sooner than later convert their street power into substantial electoral victories. This does not portent well either for Pakistan or for the region.  

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