The assassination on 4th January of Salman Taseer, the secular governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been overshadowed in western media by the attempted murder of U.S. Congress member Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, four days later. The violent incidents bear a common element. In both, the men charged with the shootings were quickly mislabeled by journalists and commentators.
Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the slayer of Taseer, was naturally assumed to belong to Pakistan’s Taliban faction or another of the powerful jihadist groups in the country. That description was predictable given the current descent of Pakistan into open civil conflict. This expanding war pits ideological radicals inspired by Saudi Arabia and the Taliban against the moderate majority of Pakistani Muslims, including Sufis and Shias no less than exponents of secular rule.
Similarly, Jared Lee Loughner, who fired on a crowd of Giffords’ constituents in Tucson, was immediately presumed to be a sympathizer of the right-wing Tea Party movement. Loughner’s attack killed six, including a nine-year old girl, Christina Green, who was born on September 11, 2001, and a federal judge, John Roll.
After a considerable expansion of the acrimonious left-vs.-right rhetoric that has recently seized American media, Loughner has been absolved of ideological motives and is now considered to be “mentally unbalanced”. But the reassessment of Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri has been more complicated and, for moderate Muslims concerned with the widening chaos in South Asia, much more dismaying.
Qadri was not a Saudi-inspired Wahhabi, a Taliban-aligned Deobandi, or an associate of the radical Jamaat-e Islami, the atrociously violent Sipah-i-Sahabi or the various Lashkar groups allied with Al-Qaida and active in terrorism in Kashmir. Rather, he was associated with the traditional and moderate Barelvi sect, to which a majority of Pakistani Muslims, as well as of the large South Asian Islamic Diaspora in Britain, and many Indian Muslims, adhere. The Barelvis had previously declared their ardent, and even armed, opposition to the Pakistani Taliban. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “Police said [Qadri] had links to non-political and non-violent Sufi-inspired Dawat-e-Islami party.
Qadri was demonstratively supported when he appeared in court, with lawyers joining other Pakistanis in throwing flower petals at him. But a yet more disquieting incident was the prohibition by the Barelvi ulema against leading funeral prayers for Salman Taseer. By this action, the Barelvi leaders expressed their approval of Taseer’s killing. In a grotesque development reported in India’s Hindustan Times, Islamic clerics at the Data Durbar Sufi shrine refused to participate in Taseer’s funeral ceremony. This was shocking in that last July the Data Durbar complex was bombed by radicals while it was crowded on a Thursday night preceding the Friday Muslim collective prayer. The Data Durbar horror killed 45 and left 175 more people injured. If anybody in Pakistan should be prepared to join a common front against terrorist radicals, the Data Durbar shrine keepers would seem to be candidates. But the Sufis whose blood has been shed by the extremists also turned their back on Taseer. Three Muslim clerics from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), to which Taseer belonged and which is controlled by the Bhutto political dynasty, led the prayers for Taseer and then received death threats.
The Punjabi politician was allegedly slain in the national capital, Islamabad, because of his opposition to a so-called “blasphemy” proceeding against a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi. Appeals for an end to Bibi’s persecution had been voiced by other Pakistani leaders as well as by the Centre for Islamic Pluralism. But we have also been informed that agitation against the Christian woman and for enforcement of the so-called “blasphemy” law was lead by Barelvi ulema.
It is difficult to convey the impact of this development upon those like myself who have looked to the Barelvi ulema in Pakistan, India, and the UK as consequential fighters against jihadism. The Barelvis are not “liberal” Muslims. As described in Maqal Arfa Ba Ahzaz Sharah Wa Ulama, a treatise on Sufism by Imam Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi (published in English under the title Sufism in Perspective, by the Raza Academy in the UK), according to their interpretation Sufi teaching [Tariqah] “cannot exist without the Shariah because its whole foundations are entirely dependent on the principles outlined in the Shariah.” Barelvi Sufism is derived from the Qadri tradition, which represents one of the two main Sufi orders most typically associated with jihad and a strict interpretation of Shariah – the other being the Naqshbandis. The Shia-oriented Bektashi order has a distinguished history in Islamic military affairs but is not Shariah-centric.
While the Barelvis had been considered a bulwark against the victory of the Taliban and other jihadis in Pakistan, at the same time, the Barelvi leaders had left a door open to the argument that the Taliban represented American interference in South Asia. Similarly, Fatima Bhutto, representing the PPP legacy, attempted in the London Financial Times of 11 January to equate American drone attacks on Pakistani radicals with terrorism and to blame to America for the division of Pakistan. Now the Barelvis have apparently surrendered to the Taliban in supporting Taseer’s murder. The moral collapse of the moderate Muslims in Pakistan could also have devastating effects in Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, and the UK, where the Barelvis have been engaged in a serious struggle against Deobandi influence.
Pakistan is deeply afflicted with conspiracy thinking, and the Lahore Daily Times, a liberal newspaper Taseer owned, has contributed to the paranoid politics spreading through the country, publishing claims that radical Islamist movements in Pakistan and in the Pakistani diaspora in the West were created, nourished, and controlled by Jewish interests in the U.S. as well as Israel. In the Taseer case some defenders of the Barelvi tradition suggested the assassin Qadri was mentally ill, also in the context of conspiratorial explanations of the crime. Such ‘magical thinking’ is an exceptionally disturbing clue to Pakistan’s political future, indicating the onset of yet more and worse confusion and chaos.
Salman Taseer warned last year that Punjab was undergoing “Talibanisation” and that the political clan headed by Nawaz Sharif was “creating a potential bomb” in the province. But the same social disintegration that encourages even moderate Pakistanis to blame extremism in their country on fanciful global intrigues has also undermined the resistance of Muslim moderates to the Taliban offensive.
History is fickle. Subhash Chandra Bose was once reviled as a sell-out of Indian nationalism to Japanese imperialism, but the Kolkata international airport is now named after him. Numerous Western “experts” profess to see the answer to radical Islam in support for “less radical” groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Justice and Development Party. The Barelvi ulema that refused to mourn Salman Taseer – a Muslim deserving of a proper janaza – may, in the end, defeat the Taliban and other South Asian jihadis. In addition, it may be that the derangement of a Pakistani Barelvi youth and a similarly troubled young man in Tucson, Arizona, USA were both mere symptoms of a widening global social and economic crisis. But those of us who have supported and defended the Barelvi sect deserve an answer: in Pakistan, where do they stand? If they side with the bigots and fanatics among the Sunni ulema, moderate Islam in Pakistan will suffer a moral catastrophe, with effects throughout the world.