2023 elections of Pakistan: Barelvis and the issue of Tehreek-e-Labbaik
One of the most important sects of Sunnis in South Asia is the Barelvi sect, which is a mixture of Sunni Islam and Sufism. The Barelvis make up about 50% of Pakistan's Muslim population and usually live in Punjab and Sindh. In the past, Barelvis were unable to compete in the political battlefield and were mostly considered as a minor player in Pakistan’s politics. In the 1990s, the emergence of the Taliban and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, influenced by the Deobandi School, created a great challenge for the Barelvis and led to the growth of the Deobandi School, and later, Nawaz Sharif’s Shariat bill created serious tensions among this sect. In the first decade of the 21st century, a chain of events caused the Barelvis to show the strongest religious reaction. The Barelvis have proven that they can have the same "street power" of their rival sects and bring the government to its knees. Gradually, part of this group has became extremist and after getting merged with a new political force called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah and the political wing of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, has turned into a powerful new actor in Pakistan’s political arena.
By: Maryam Verij Kazemi
One of the most important sects of Sunnis in South Asia is the Barelvi sect, which is named after its birthplace in India. The founder of the Barelvi School was Ahmed Raza Khan, whose followers were at the forefront of the Muslim League's struggle in the 1930s to establish a separate Muslim state, which culminated in 1947. The Barelvi School is a mixture of Sunni Islam and Sufism, in which the latter is more visible. Barelvis constitute about 50% of the Pakistan’s Muslim population and usually live in the states of Punjab and Sindh. The basis of Barelvis’ politics is based on the two principles of shrines & elders, and scholars & politicians.
In the past, the Barelvis were unable to compete in the political battlefield and were mostly considered as a minor player in Pakistan’s politics. Even in the 1980s, the Barelvis political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), was marginalized due to divisions within the party as well as the rise of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM). In the 1990s, the emergence of the Taliban and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, influenced by the Deobandi School, created a great challenge for the Barelvis, which led to the involvement of the Deobandi groups and Ahl al-Hadith in the Kashmir Jihad.
As the 1990s ended, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Shariat bill created serious tensions among the Barelvis. The Barelvis took a harsh stand against the Saudis and a movement called Almi Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat was created by Pir Afzal to fight against the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan. Later, the movement became the main supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which was the political branch of Barelvis.
Although the Barelvis did not follow any specific political activity in the first decade of the 21st century, a chain of events forced them to show the strongest religious reaction in their history, including Asia Bibi’s blasphemy case which led to the reaction of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, against the blasphemy law. Salman Taseer ultimately was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, who was a follower of Barelvis. The assassination showed that the radical Barelvis have launched a new wave of extremism in Pakistan and is competing with other Sunni Muslim sects by targeted assassination of prominent political-military leaders.
What is clear is that due to the size of the Barilavi population, which constitutes approximately 50% of Pakistan's Muslims, the mainstream of Barilavi radicalization could lead to further conflict and violence between Sunni groups such as the Deobandi or Salafis in Pakistan. On the other hand, even though Barilavis are responsible for less than 1% of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, this group has been able to contribute to the process of violence in Pakistan by mobilizing the mainstream of anti-minority sentiments and the supporters of the blasphemy law.
The Barelvis have proven that they can have the same "street power" of their rival sects and bring the government to its knees. It means that part of this group has gradually became extremist and after getting merged with a new political force called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah and the political wing of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), has turned into a powerful new actor in Pakistan’s political arena.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik calls itself the defender of the sanctity of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and demands severe punishment for those who do not believe in the sanctity and finality of him. Tehreek-e-Labbaik does not consider other Islamist groups as Muslim, and sometimes their leaders make insulting statements against other Muslim groups, including Shias. Tehreek-e-Labbaik has a hybrid structure, using protests to shape the political agenda. It also uses the political structures to demand cessation of the policies that are harmful to its religious interests. Therefore, the emergence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik is a by-product of the religious and political developments that happened after September 11 in Pakistan as well as the evolution of the patterns of government’s support for the religious groups.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s growing power on the streets was bolstered by their success in the 2018 general elections, where the group emerged as the fourth largest political party of Pakistan. While the party failed to win any seats in parliament, it won enough votes in Karachi to send two of its members to the Sindh state assembly. Given the hotly contested seats of Punjab, the group also managed to reduce the chance of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) to win more seats in the National Assembly. The analyses show that Tehreek-e-Labbaik has played a major role in defeating Sharif's party over at least 13 seats of the National Assembly. As a result, the Barelvi clerics that were related to Tehreek-e-Labbaik were introduced as the biggest influential religious-political party.
Another case related to the powerful presence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik in Pakistan’s political arena goes back to November 2020, when Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the group, tried to direct his supporters towards Islamabad. This time, the agenda was to force Imran Khan's government to cut off its diplomatic relations with France after publication of an insulting cartoon of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Finally, the government backed down and agreed to negotiate with Tehreek-e-Labbaik and sign an agreement.
In April 2021, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, under the new leadership of Saad Hussain Rizvi, planned another round of anti-French protests, claiming that Imran Khan's government had not fulfilled its promise to expel the French ambassador. As a preemptive measure, Khan’s government arrested Saad Hussain Rizvi, hoping that the arrest would reduce the group's ability to organize protests. However, Saad Rizvi has now turned into one of the key actors in the country's political scene, backed not only by his supporters, but also by the leaders of other political parties, including the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
What is clear is that the growing influence of Barelvi radical ideology under the name of Tehreek-e-Labbaik can create long-term challenges for Pakistan’s armed forces and lead to an ideological division between the lower and more conservative forces, and senior commanders with different ideological orientations. Although such an outcome is highly unlikely, it could have serious consequences. What is clear is that Tehreek-e-Labbaik has been able to revive the Barelvi political Islam, radicalize a new generation of Pakistanis, and force the mainstream parties to choose the right-wing slogans for victory. Finally, the emergence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik shows that the role of religion in shaping the state affairs and influencing society has grown.
Although Tehreek-e-Labbaik has used its street power to pressure various governments, it is unlikely that the group can win a large number of seats in the National Assembly in the 2023 elections. However, it will certainly play the role of a booster in the hotly contested seats of Punjab. This destructive role may force the mainstream political parties, especially the Muslim League and Tehreek-e-Insaf, to form an electoral alliance with Tehreek-e-Labbaik in 2023. Such an alliance will significantly increase the political power of Tehreek-e-Labbaik in forming the next government of Pakistan. Thus, the increasing influence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik throughout Pakistan, especially in Punjab, is a big challenge for Pakistan's democracy. This comes as the country's civilian and military leaders are still struggling to create a coherent strategy to counter Tehreek-e-Labaik and its ideology. As the 2023 general elections approach, the threat posed by this group continues to increase, posing challenges to Pakistan's domestic and foreign policy.
During the last few years, the Barelvi extremists were able to organize and manage a broader set of violent strategies against their political and religious rivals in the form of TLP, which has led to a long and continuous dispute about the issue of national-regional security among Pakistan’s political, religious and military elites. Thus, the role of the leaders of the Barelvi sect in the protests against the democratic courses of Pakistan or challenging the rival religious groups is important, and of course, it has created a tsunami of political crisis in the elections of different periods in Pakistan. Therefore, given the great economic and political problems of Pakistan, the Barilavi extremists of Tehreek-e-Labbaik will try to increase their political, economic and cultural influence during the 2023 elections, by taking advantage of socio-ethnic crises. Meanwhile, the extremist Barelvis can be involved in creating crises, through encouraging the ordinary citizens towards violence on the election days, and this issue can be used as a tool in the local-national level to confront the government officials who are against the policies of the Barelvis.
Mariam Verij Kazemi,is a researcher of geopolitical issues