1988 and the beginning of the Barelvi assertion
An early and damaging controversy the new government in Pakistan has found itself facing is over the appointment of a prominent Pakistani-American economist to the economic advisory council. That he was an Ahmadi made the decision unusual but after some brave noises the government backed down in the face of mounting protests. An Anti-Ahmadi sentiment is not new in Pakistan and has long provided a platform to ideologically charged groups to consolidate and expand their following. This recent issue over the economic advisory council demonstrates the heft a new political formation the Tehreek-e-Labbaik has acquired. The recent controversy however, is also a throwback to the drama of two decades earlier over the publication of the novel Satanic Verses in 1988.
1988 does not enjoy the same cachet as the year that followed it. In 1989 a series of cataclysms mark it as a landmark year: the coming down of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania that made the iron-curtain history, the uprising in Tiananmen square, among others. Europe and Asia both seemed to be in the throes of a fundamental change.
1988 is certainly by contrast seems more placid. Yet in this year too there were developments with a long after life: The Soviet Union began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, General Zia died in a mysterious air crash and in the restoration of democracy that followed in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto became prime minister, the first woman head of government in an Islamic country.
Satanic Verses comes to mind not just because this is its 30th anniversary of publication but because of the chain of events it triggered and the debate that emerged then between freedom of expression and the outrage of the devout when deeply cherished ideals of faith are violated.
The Barelvis asserted themselves as a political force in Pakistan’s recent general election through the Tehreek-e-Labbaik by carving out space for themselves in the area hitherto occupied by mainstream Islamist parties many of whom are affiliated to the Deobandis. Massive demonstrations of street power have generally characterised Barelvi assertion in Pakistan in the past two years. That these coincided with Nawaz Sharif’s own frictions with the army did lead, not unnaturally, to the view that this may have had more than a nod and a wink from the men in uniform.
Yet Barelvi activism has deeper roots. It first drew major notice following the assassination of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 because he criticised the prevalent Blasphemy Law. The cult that grew around the assassin —a bodyguard— enhanced the street power of a number of Barelvis maulvis and preachers whose prominence grew almost exponentially from month to month.
There is however an even longer history to the process. Through the 1980s and thereafter it was the Deobandi groups who made news in Pakistan as the ISI and Petro dollar support fuelled militants affiliated to them in the Afghan Jihad and thereafter in Kashmir. As Pakistan itself faced the inevitable spillover effects and witnessed a growing radicalisation of its society, it was the Deobandis who grew in strength and acquired a disproportionate profile, or so it seemed to many in the Barelvi fold which has by far the larger number of followers. Barelvi leaders found themselves the target of terrorist attacks and they felt themselves losing out in numerous other ways. They remained a large but dispersed presence needing a catalyst to consolidate. This came in the form of the cult around the assassin of the Punjab governor. With that spark it was natural that veneration of the prophet, a deeply held article of faith for Barelvis in particular, would be the platform that would launch them. The Satanic Verses episode had demonstrated in the past how effective a slogan alleged insults to Islam and the prophet can be.
The controversy over the appointment of an Ahmadi to an important post has largely blown blow over after it first erupted in the first half of September. For the Barelvis, the path ahead is very clear and controversies such as this one will propel them further to claim their slice of the radicalised spaces that now exist in Pakistan. The irony is that this sect has traditionally had in the subcontinent a strong reputation for moderation, inclusiveness and the rejection of puritanical interpretation.
TCA Raghavan is a retired diplomat and currently Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs.
The views expressed are personal