Last week, a Muslim student was killed by a mob after posting allegedly “blasphemous” content on social media. His murder was the latest in a long line of religiously motivated attacks in Pakistan, many of which were inspired by the country’s strict blasphemy laws. Below, World Watch Monitor takes a look at the two major schools of Islamic thought in Pakistan and their impact on mainstream Muslim theology.
While 97 per cent of Pakistanis are Muslim, more than three quarters of them are Sunni, and their Shia neighbours sometimes complain of discrimination. Second only to the Shiite/Sunni divide, the divide within Sunni Islam – between the Barelvi and the Deobandi schools of Islam – forms a fault-line in public life in Pakistan. Most Pakistani Sunni Muslims are Barelvi, but Deobandis, who are considered more hard-line in their views and are few in number, have far greater influence in politics.
As adherents of the two schools fight for dominance of public and political life, non-Muslims such as Christians are further marginalised. Christians account for only 1.5 per cent of the population, i.e. roughly 3 to 5 million. A 2011 Pew survey found that only 16 per cent of Pakistanis had a positive view of Christians. Because most Pakistani Christians come from low socio-economic backgrounds, they are often subject to criminal violence, and are sometimes accused of committing blasphemy to settle personal scores.
It was primarily Deobandis who fought against the atheist Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Today, ideologically, most banned “terror” outfits in Pakistan belong to this school of thought. Barelvis, on the other hand, combine devotion to Muhammad with Sufi practices such as veneration of saints. Some Deobandi outfits have resorted to employing violence to assert their creed, and have been banned; they accuse Barelvis of committing extreme blasphemy (in Arabic, shirk) – the sin of idolatry or polytheism. For this reason, suicide bombers frequently attack the shrines of Sufi saints, believing Barelvis worship these saints along with Allah, and bow before their graves and supplicate them for help.
A most vocal advocate of blasphemy legislation was Dr. Sarfaraz Naeemi, a Barelvi scholar. A key figure behind the Tahafuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz (Front for the Protection of the Prophet’s Honour), he also criticised violence committed by the Taliban, and was killed by a suicide bomber from Tehreek-e-Taliban (the Pakistani Taliban) in 2009.
Dr Naeemi’s death, along with innumerable attacks on Barelvi shrines, formed part of a wave of terrorism against the Barelvis. However, although they favour non-violence, they claim that when the state will not act against blasphemers, they can take the law into their own hands.
A high-profile example of this was the 2011 assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who belonged to the Barelvi school of thought. Taseer had spoken about the misuse of the blasphemy laws and called for mercy for the Christian woman on death row, Asia Bibi.
Qadri, who was hanged hanged last year, is now hailed as the most celebrated martyr in recent Pakistani history. Thousands of people now visit his tomb and he has become the symbol of Barelvism, fêted by his admirers for dying for his love of Muhammad. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is expecting to experience the fallout of ordering his execution in the 2018 general elections, bracing itself for voters who were sympathetic to his actions withdrawing their support.
In this religious and political landscape, Tahir Mehdi, a columnist and rights activist, says that while tolerance of Islamic extremist groups operating outside Pakistan is waning, internally the country’s blasphemy laws and their implementation are being used as a political tool to forcefully reshape political discourse.
“Pakistan has been soft on religious hardliner organisations in the past, as part of our foreign policy,” he says. “Those organisations used their hard-line views to commit terror activities. However, we have started experiencing a shift in the policy on these outfits and they are being pushed into the background. But at the same time, we have now started experiencing another internal challenge.”
Mehdi adds that Barelvism is having greater influence in internal political affairs. “Hence, the law of blasphemy is being used as a political tool to reshape political narrative,” he says.
In this politically volatile and charged scenario, any effort by to reform the blasphemy regime will be strongly resisted and result in a backlash against liberals. Last December the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights decided to bring to light a report from 1991 that called for a more precise definition of offences covered by the blasphemy laws because, in the words of the law and justice committee, “in its present form it was very generalised”.
The Senate Committee on Human Rights resolved in January to debate how to prevent the country’s blasphemy laws being misused. However, various quarters, including a leading body of Muslim clerics, opposed it, and the government abandoned the plan.