Right vs Right

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

Funeral prayers for the leaders slain in the Karachi explosion. - ZAHID HUSSEIN/REUTERS

Funeral prayers for the leaders slain in the Karachi explosion. - ZAHID HUSSEIN/REUTERS

For Pakistan, the war within the religious Right could have far worse consequences than any of the crises it has faced since 2001.

PAKISTAN'S religious Right is at war with itself: an intimate war that could have more far-reaching consequences for the nation than any of the multiple crises that have enveloped it since 2001.

At least 57 people were killed and over 200 injured when a bomb ripped through a religious congregation in Karachi on April 11. Called to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, the congregation had been organised by the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, a Barelvi sectarian organisation that is opposed to Islamist groups affiliated to the Deobandi and Salafi traditions, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis.

Few doubt that the bombers' target was Abbas Qadri, the Amir, or supreme leader, of the Sunni Tehreek. A militant offshoot of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, the Sunni Tehreek has been fighting since 1992 to regain mosques it claims to have been usurped by the sect's opponents. Sunni Tehreek leaders claim to have seized 62 Deobandi and Salafi mosques between 1992 and 2002, in actions that have on occasion sparked off violence.

To those familiar with Pakistan's ugly history of sectarian conflict, the signs are ominous. In May 2001, murderous sectarian riots broke out after the Sunni Tehreek leader Saleem Qadri was assassinated by the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, a Deoband-affiliated terrorist group. Abbas Qadri, his successor, had charged President Pervez Musharraf's regime with "patronising terrorists" and "standing between us and the murderers".

Although Karachi has begun to recover from the violence that erupted after Abbas Qadri's death, one thing is clear: someone, more likely sooner than later, will seek to settle the Sunni Tehreek's unfinished business with his murderers.

Shia and Sunni sectarian organisations in Pakistan have long engaged in murderous feuds. Last week's bombing, though, was executed by a Sunni terrorist organisation - and targeted other Sunnis. What is this conflict all about?

Set up at Karachi in 1956, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, or Organisation of the Followers of the Scripture, rapidly emerged as one of the largest organisations of the Barelvi faith. According to Mohammad Amir Rana's encyclopaedic A-Z of Jehadi Organisations in Pakistan, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat is engaged in raising upwards of Rs.400 million to build educational and social service institutions and even a bank.

Barelvi organisations such as the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat represent the mainstream of popular Islam in South Asia, drawing on the work of the theologian Raza Ahmad Khan (1856-1921). In the Barelvi tradition, the Prophet is an imminent presence, not flesh [bashar] but rather light [nur]. For followers of the high traditions of the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, however, the Prophet is a perfect human [insan-i-kamil], but a mortal nonetheless.

In practice, Barelvis believe in intercession between humans and the divine through the medium of pirs or holy personages who are bound in a chain that reaches, eventually, to the Prophet. Barelvis venerate the tombs of pirs and holy relics. Deobandi groups, such as the West Asia-based Salafi school, argue that these practices - which include celebration of the Prophet's birthday - are heretical deviations from scripture.

While the Pakistan movement drew much of its support from the Barelvis, the Indian National Congress had the support of Deoband. In the years after the creation of Pakistan, though, the elite rallied behind the high-church practices of Deoband. Organisations such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis flourished, making significant inroads into Pakistan's most important institution - its Army. Like the characters of the Summoner and the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer's 13th-century masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, the clerics slowly acquired the power to punish all those who opposed established order on charges of heresy - and the state the right to forgive them, for a price. Slowly, in a development that would have horrified Pakistan's founders, the lines between church and state began to disappear. How exactly did this come about?

Developments, both internal to Pakistan, and storms unleashed by events to its west, played a role in building the new order.

In part, the growth of Deobandi organisations in Pakistan was the result of the impact of Salafi missionaries on expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, for whom religious chauvinism was a means of responding to the racism they faced from ethnic Arabs. Within Pakistan, Deobandi traditions offered the elite a theological basis for the power they exercised over the peasantry and the working class.

For example, the Constitution of 1956 committed the state to facilitate the "reconstruction of Muslim society on a truly Islamic basis". In 1962, a new Constitution called on the "Muslims of Pakistan to order their lives in all respects in accordance with the principles and concepts of Islam". Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's 1973 Constitution, for its part, sought to bring all laws into conformity with the Koran and religious tradition.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq threw the resources of the state behind Deobandi-Salafi clerics, hoping to contain radical tendencies. Backed by Deobandi clerics, General Zia argued that Islam demanded that its followers support unconditionally a regime supportive of the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. Religious and political authoritarianism had made a happy marriage.

General Javed Nasir, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), proved an important ally of the Deobandi clerics. A member of the Tablighi Jamaat, which Zia-ul-Haq had also patronised, Nasir expanded state support for their jehadi organisations from 1992. Deobandi jehadis were provided equipment and finance for their campaigns in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Jammu and Kashmir - and against Pakistan's own Shia minority.

However, this course of action had two unanticipated consequences. First, the emergence of anti-Shia terror groups provoked a backlash from the minority. Second, Barelvi groups also began to mobilise against the growing influence of their Deobandi radicals, which had begun to undermine their own authority. By the time of the assassination of Saleem Qadri in 2001, these tensions were beginning to come to a head.

Put simply, the Barelvi tradition might have been more concerned with personal piety than political power - but the clerics who represent it were not about to lie back and watch the state destroy their authority.

Are Pakistan's Barelvi clerics, as some in India have argued, representative of a benign traditionalist piety, hostile to the jehad-enthusiasm of Deoband? Not quite.

Like its Deobandi counterparts, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat has been associated with Islamist causes across the world. A manifesto published after its April 2000 convention in Multan commits the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat to expressly political causes, like preparing "a plan of action to help all the oppressed Muslims in the world, particularly the Kashmiri Mujahideen", and to "protect and publicise the concept of Pakistan".

Several major terrorist groups active in Jammu and Kashmir, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF), the Tehreek-i-Jehad and al-Barq, have emerged with support from the Barelvi clerical establishment.

While none is as large as the Hizbul-Mujahideen or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, they have demonstrated their capabilities more than once: the JKIF, for example, was responsible for the bombing of a crowded New Delhi market in 1996.

Several Barelvi organisations in Pakistan have taken even more expressly Islamist postures than the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat. For example, Pir Mohammad Afzal Qadri's Aalami Tanzim Ahl-e-Sunnat, or the World Movement of the Followers of the Scripture, which was set up in May 1998, responded to the growth of the Tablighi Jamaat by campaigning for the creation of an Islamic state.

Aalami Tanzim leaders initiated their activities with a 1999 demonstration in Rawalpindi, followed in quick time by a protest at the Pakistan Army's General Headquarters. Its cadre held up placards that demanded: "Rulers, implement the Nizam-e-Mustafa [Order of the Prophet] upon yourself." The organisation's literature attacked rival Islamist groups for creating "a soft corner for false religions and thus causing great damage".

Like both the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat and the Deobandi organisations it opposed, the Aalami Tanzim was not opposed to Islamist terrorism. Amongst its other front organisations is the Lashkar Ahl-e-Sunnat, which funnelled both funds and cadre to terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-i-Jehad. Led by Ghulam Farid Usmani, the Lashkar Ahl-e-Sunnat is committed to what it describes as a "jehad for Allah and the supremacy of Islam".

At the heart of the conflict, then, is competition by clerics for retaining and expanding their power. The massive flow of funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to organisations such as the Ahl-e-Hadith and the Tablighi Jamaat brought the traditional authority of Barelvi clerics under siege, provoking them to respond by creating their own jehadi groups, political fronts and institutions of patronage.

It is no coincidence that the Karachi bombing came in the midst of a renewed mobilisation by the religious Right, aimed at taking power in Pakistan through the elections scheduled to be held in 2007.

With Pakistan's military allowing little space for mainstream political organisations like former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party or Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, the clerics grouped together in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal sense real opportunity. Organisations like the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, though, undermine their claim to speak for Islam - hence, it seems likely, the Karachi attack.

Little noticed, competition amongst the Barelvis' rivals has also been escalating. Last year, the Pakistani journalist Khalid Ahmad pointed to intense fighting within the ranks the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, the sect from which the Lashkar-e-Taiba was born, with at least 17 separate organisations scrambling for space. On more than one occasion, intra-sect invective has been at least as acid as anything directed at supposed heretics.

For example, after Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed criticised the Markazi Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith for its lack of support for armed jehad, he promptly faced retaliatory allegations. The head of the Markazi Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, Qari Abdul Hafeez, charged Saeed with having authorised the keeping of kidnapped female Barelvi slaves, bank robberies and the misappropriation of funds.

Under other circumstances, scurrilous polemic traded between clerics would be little other than an opportunity for public entertainment.

However, the fact that clerics on all sides of the ideological divide have access to formidable military resources - the wages of the use of jehad as an instrument of state policy - means that theocratic disputes pose a real threat to the fabric of civil society in Pakistan.

Despite repeated demonstrations that the costs of the jehad in Jammu and Kashmir are at least as high for Pakistan itself, President Musharraf's regime has shown few signs that it is willing to make a clean break with the past.

Unless it finds the courage and good sense to do so, the only worthwhile question to be asked about the unimaginable horror in Karachi is just when and where it will repeat itself.

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