September Issue 2014
Sects and Violence?
Dr Tahirul Qadri’s worries should be increasing in proportion to his rise in the country’s political firmament because his Barelvi followers are moving closer to a clash with their deeply entrenched and better organised rivals (Deobandis, Wahhabis, Ahle Hadith, Salafis, et al). By the same token, people’s apprehensions of sectarian conflicts should also be growing.
Tahirul Qadri belongs to the Qadri line of Sufis, as the suffix to his name indicates, and heads the best organised, if not the largest, group of the Barelvi school in Pakistan (another large Barelvi organisation operating out of Multan and Karachi, the Sunni Tehreek, is also led by Qadris).
He has proved his organisational capacity by raising his multi-purpose Minhajul Quran Centre to the level of an international educational movement. For some time he has been engaged in enlarging the Lahore Centre into a university (the land and signboards are there). He has designed special courses for the large number of schools his organisation runs in Pakistan and abroad, and many experts acknowledge his attempts to expose his pupils to certain features of modern academic disciplines. He extensively uses modern audio-visual and electronic devices as educational aids and instruments for cementing his followers’ bondage to his person. These ties are forged through social and charity networks. He is not shy of claiming to be a ‘special’ human being – one who has a unique relationship with the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Such claims may alienate the few that have not abandoned reason altogether, but they have a strong effect upon his followers among the underprivileged and insecure classes.
Tahirul Qadri shuns seclusion and loves nothing more than the chance of addressing a crowd, and the bigger the better. He has always had his eyes on power in the temporal world. According to one source, he tried practising law for some time and that experience may have taught him the use of flag-marked texts in his long public addresses. He also knows quite a few PR tricks. When his neighbour, Shamim Ashraf Malik (one of the country’s leading communists), died, he came out to lead his funeral prayers, for after all the deceased materialist had a Muslim name and was going to lie in a Muslim graveyard.
His interest in politics began decades ago when he launched the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) as a political outfit. In the 2002 general election, he contested a National Assembly seat and managed to outplay Abdul Aleem Khan (a former minister in the PML-Q government in Punjab and now a medium-sized star in the Tehreek-i-Insaf galaxy) who had burst upon Lahore’s political scene on the strength of his large purse and a long line of automobiles (wagons). For reasons as yet obscure, Qadri quit his NA seat and started concentrating on his overseas acquisitions.
In March last year, Qadri suddenly descended on Lahore and undertook a march on Islamabad under the slogan, “Save the country, not politics.” There had been long marches earlier on, but Qadri made several innovations. The introduction of the multi-purpose container with bedroom, conference room, podium for public address – a modern version of the royal elephant emperors and military commanders rode into battle in ancient times – was not the most significant of his contributions. The most important feat he carried out was to raise himself to a party at par with the government. The government ministers, led by none other than Chaudhry Shujaat Husain, the politician for all seasons, thought they had fobbed off Qadri by signing with him an agreement that was unimplementable, but the maulana had gained by establishing his credentials as a political player in the national league.
To what extent Qadri was led towards organising the present march on Islamabad by Imran Khan’s call for an Independence Day march is not known, but he found the environment congenial for a major political expedition. The killing of his followers by the Lahore police in a fit of arrogant and suicidal frenzy gave him a cause célèbre that agitators have exploited while bearing Julius Caesar’s coffin, or Hazrat Usman’s blood-stained shirt or a Nazi worker’s corpse. (Incidentally, the recent events in Pakistan have again shown to what extent the crowd-mobilisers in the subcontinent have been influenced by Hitler’s rallies in Munich and Nuremberg and his Mein Kampf).
The objective of Qadri’s political expedition of 2014 is still not clear. The possibility that he is genuinely committed to the idea of an honest welfare state cannot be dismissed for want of evidence. An alternative theory is that he was persuaded by some religio-political elements to present a counterpoise to the Deobandi school, especially the Salafis, who were threatening to overshadow the more numerous Barelvis not only in the political sphere but also in the religious domain. Qadri found ready partners in the Shia leadership, as the militant Sunnis have been decimating them across the land, from Balochistan to Kurram Agency and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Unlike the Barelvis, who have been largely content with refining their shrine music and doing electoral politics at the national/provincial levels, the Deobandis have been political animals since Maulana Qasim Gangohvi established a seminary in the western Uttar Pradesh town of Deoband in the 19th century. They threw up more than one political party (nationalist) in pre-Partition India and were quick to readjust their sights (as Islamists) after Partition in Pakistan. Blessed with rich patrons, especially in foreign countries, and sustained by the Zia regime, they have established the largest non-official network of madrassas in the country, that have also served as nurseries for the training of armed militants. The leaders of these seminaries, are not wrong in claiming that they provided the Taliban who captured Afghanistan in the 1990s.
The most radical elements of the Sunni school – the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS – are not confining their interests to the fight against ‘enemy’ regimes in various parts of Asia; they are re-interpreting the Ibn-i-Taymiyyah doctrine and enlarging the scope of the Takfir principle, whereby a Muslim becomes liable to be killed for having deviated from Islamic practices. It is this theory that the Taliban warriors use to justify the killing of Pakistani soldiers and other supporters of the government of Pakistan. The Barelvis, the Shia community and liberal Muslims (and non-Muslim Pakistanis, for that matter) have reason to be apprehensive of the militants’ encroachment on their political, social and religious domains.
The challenge Qadri faces is that he must develop an effective cover for the non-militant horde in the relevant spheres of life. He has one advantage: While the radical militants are using belief to capture political power in Pakistan (and Syria and Iraq, and now Saudi Arabia, are also showing signs of concern), Qadri has chosen a quasi-secular route to power as a means of protecting his belief. He is unlikely to seek a clash with the militants, but the decision may lie more with them than with himself.
Before assuming a wider political role, Qadri will have to get himself recognised as the sole Barelvi spokesman (though he will use the common rhetoric of mainstream Islam), a task by no means easy as the Barelvi school is known for its fractious leaders (and gaddi nasheens) at various levels. If he does succeed and can marshal his forces for an electoral battle under the banner of Pakistan Awami Tehreek, his religious inclinations are bound to come to the fore.
For this reason, Imran Khan, whose pro-Taliban disposition is no secret, has been quite wary of cohorting with Qadri, and the possibility of their joining hands in future is quite slim. The present government of Pakistan and the military establishment, for different reasons perhaps, are unlikely to break with the militant groups, to put it mildly. The road before Tahirul Qadri is therefore quite bumpy.
For the people of Pakistan the issue is not the future of Qadri’s political career, their real anxiety is caused by the threat of a bloody conflict between the militants and the non-violent community. The danger is real as Muslims are already engaged in fratricide on an unprecedented scale in Afghanistan, Pakistan and several Arab countries.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue as part of the cover story.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.