In Indo-Pak sub-continent, the religious consciousness of the ordinary Muslims has always been sect-oriented. Majority of Muslims in the sub-continent identify themselves as Sunnis with most of them observing Hanafi School of law. There are several groups of Muslims here which emerged and coalesced into a sect during British colonial rule. This includes primarily Deobandi, Barelvi and al-Hadith.
Anyone attracted to traditional forms of religiosity will have to contact the clerics from either of these groups in order to receive proper instructions in religious teachings. In pre and post-independence period, a number of modernist groups preaching moderate form or religiosity emerged, but they soon fizzled out one after the other. Jamat-e-Islami claimed to represent a non-sectarian face of religion, but it is also generally perceived as a variant of the Deobandi group, especially after its leadership was taken over by Pashtun clerics and leaders in later 1980s.
An ordinary Muslim can afford to get an education about religious teachings from religious educational institutions belonging to either of these groups mentioned above. A believer interested in leading a pious life will see the opportunities to get under the wings of one of these three groups.
Of late, Pakistani media and state has been offering a cosmetic and ostensible opportunity to the believers in this land of the pure to claim themselves to be Muslims and Muslims only. It is not uncommon to come across people in Pakistani society who will show aversion to label themselves belonging to either of the sect that exists in the society, “I am a Muslim only and I belong to no sect,” they will tell you. But you will have to scratch the surface to know that their understanding of the religious principles and teachings stems from one or the other of the groups, which have coalesced into full time sects in more than 100 years of their existence
In the process of registration of citizens Pakistani state makes a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims citizens but doesn’t make a distinction between Muslim citizens of different sects.
Muslim clergy in the sub-continent had always served the Muslims courts in the pre-colonial periods. They used to earn a living and grants of lands and revenue Jagirs from Mughal rulers and their successor states in pre-colonial India. With the advent of British rule, these clerics became unemployed on a large scale. From then onwards, they started to organise the Muslim community in the absence of Muslim political power. Thus were born the three revivalists movements—Deobandi, Barelvi and Al-Hadith—which were clearly distinct as far as their message was concerned.
Out of these, Deobandi and Al-Hadith were radicalised during the Afghan jihad, whereas Barelvi remained aloof from the fighting in Afghanistan. Most Pakistani militant groups are an offshoot of one or the other Deobandi or Al-Hadith groups. There is no known Barelvi militant group in Pakistani society. This gave rise to an impression among Pakistani security managers that Barelvi could become a trusted partner in the war against terror. However, some of the experts try to confuse the Barelvi sect with the syncretism tradition of Sufis saints in pre-colonial India, which could be termed as a grave mistake. Syncretism of Sufi is all embracing and unorthodox in its religious outlook, whereas Barelvi sect is conservative to the extreme and deeply orthodox.
Early this month, something happened in Rawalpindi, which changed the nature of sect — neutrality of the Pakistani state. I would like to point here that Pakistani state is sect-neutral to the extent that it is dealing with Sunni sects, as it had already shown that it was party against the Ahmadi community and its machinations against Shia sect, during Zia period, are well documented.
This was the meeting between 76-year old cleric Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman and COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa, while the workers and activists of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) had reached Wazirabad on their way to Islamabad in a long march which had already turned violent. Hours after the meeting, Mufti Muneeb was announcing that an agreement had been reached between the government and TLP and that the latter would discontinue the march. In the next few days the ban on TLP was de-notified and its workers were released from jails.
Lifting of ban means TLP could contest elections. Investigative reports in the media clearly indicated that the government had decided to deal with TLP with an iron hand, but changed course after General Bajwa’s intervention. This was the second time TLP had turned violent and General Bajwa had come to its rescue to save it from the iron fist of the state. When the TLP first turned violent in 2017 and the Nawaz Sharif government decided to take decisive action to prevent violence, then also it was General Bajwa who stopped the state’s action against TLP in Islamabad.
There were reports that this time too, it was the establishment that stopped the government from acting against the TLP. Remember this is primarily a sectarian group engaged in sectarian polemics and confrontations in the society on a large scale.
Although undoubtedly Pakistan is a modern state, its managers have hardly acquired the techniques to interact with the society and the groups in it through modern principles, methods and approaches. For instance, the principle of treating its people as citizens and not adherent of XYZ sects. Blatant support extended to a violent sectarian group from within the state machinery publicly will further fuel the monster of sectarian violence. The oldest technique of the Pakistani state to deal with violent groups is to look for its rival or counter weight and mobilise the latter against the former.
Hence, MQM was a counterweight to PPP in urban Sindh during Zia’s regime. The same military dictatorship launched Sunni sectarian groups in Pakistani society against Shia mobilisation in the wake of revolution led by Shia clerics in the neighbouring Iran. There are clear signs that the Pakistani military brought forward the leadership of Barelvi TLP as a counter weight to Deobandi Taliban in the wake of 2014 military operations in North Waziristan.
Such blatant and naked support for a sectarian group will not go down well in the already tense sectarian environment of the society.