“It was a mistake, and I assure you that it won’t ever happen again." These were the words of well-known Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy by extremist clerics belonging to the Sunni Tehreek party.
This incident is the latest in a rising trend of intolerance and extremism within Pakistan.
Over the last two decades, Pakistan has been afflicted with the scourge of terrorism. Attacks by the Taliban have claimed over 60,000 lives. Most terrorist outfits including the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) associate themselves with the Deobandi faction of Sunni Islam. Even though sectarian outfits like the ASWJ have continued to target Shi'ite and Ahmadi Muslims, there has been a decline in overall incidents of terrorism across the country, thanks partly to a military campaign against the Taliban.
But why then is extremism still so rife across Pakistan? Insert the other major Sunni faction in Pakistan - the Barelvi sect.
Often mistaken for being "moderate Sufis" in western writings, the Barelvis are fast becoming the new face of extremism in Pakistan. Extremist Barelvi groups like the Sunni Tehreek, Sunni Ittehad Council, Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Khatme Nabuwwat etc. have lately intensified their witch-hunt of religious minorities and 'liberals' across the country. These Barelvi groups have a pathologic obsession with 'blasphemy' and hold bitter hostility against members of the country's Ahmadi Muslim sect.
Ahmadi Muslims are widely ostracized in Pakistani society and severely persecuted by the State. Declared non-Muslim by the State in 1974, Ahmadis face prison sentence for reading the Quran, saying public prayer, identifying as Muslim, professing the Islamic creed (Kalima), etc. under the country's anti-Ahmadi apartheid laws. Even speaking up for their rights is considered taboo.
Just last month, while commemorating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, extremist Barelvi clerics riled up a mob that stormed an Ahmadiyya Mosque not very far from the nation’s capital, setting it on fire. Hundreds of Ahmadi Muslims had to flee the region for safety. Since then, extremist clerics from the Sunni Tehreek have conducted more public rallies and conferences, spewing hateful vitriol and inciting further violence against the Ahmadis. Despite the government's National Action Plan (NAP) aimed at combatting this growing sectarianism, all this incitement has gone unchecked. Numerous Barelvi clerics have publicly declared the Ahmadis "Wajib-ul-Qatal" or deserving of death. Subsequently, many Ahmadis have been killed in incidents of mob violence and targeted killings.
The wrath of extremist Barelvi groups is not limited to the Ahmadi Muslims and Pakistan’s non-Muslim inhabitants. Even other Sunni Muslims who do not conform to their narrative on Islam are often targeted. Case in point: The Taseers.
Mumtaz Qadri, the cold-blooded murderer of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, is the poster boy for the extremist Barelvi cause. Taseer was accused of committing blasphemy when he criticized the abuse of the country's anti-blasphemy laws to selectively victimize religious minorities. Mr. Taseer's visit to Aasia Bibi - the young Christian mother who still languishes in a Pakistani jail on blasphemy charges - and calling for her pardon, further angered these clerics. Many extremist clerics across Pakistan called for his death.
Assigned to his security protocol, Mumtaz Qadri gunned down Taseer on January 4, 2011. Qadri was epitomized by Barelvi clerics both within and outside of Pakistan and hailed a ‘saint of Islam.’ His death sentence last year was followed by mass riots in the country's capital, Islamabad. Around the same time, another fanatic Barelvi Sunni, Mr. Tanveer Ahmad, who claimed to be divinely inspired by Mumtaz Qadri, stabbed an Ahmadi Muslim to death in the U.K. after accusing him of blasphemy. He was also subsequently declared an 'Islamic saint' by leaders from the Barelvi community.
Since the murder of Governor Salman Taseer, other Pakistani voices have sprung up in support of the country's victimized religious minorities and against the 'blasphemy' mob culture. One such prominent activist is the late Governor Taseer's son, Shaan Taseer. In a recent Christmas message, Shaan called on Pakistanis to pray for the release of Aasia Bibi and other members of the Christian community who remain imprisoned under 'blasphemy' charges.
This was met with great anger in extremist Barelvi circles. The Sunni Tekreek immediately declared him a ‘blasphemer’ and an infidel and lodged a First Investigation Report (FIR) against him with the Police. Like his father, he now faces numerous death threats from Barelvi extremists.
Shaan has stood by all marginalized groups in Pakistan. He belongs to a rising number of activists committed to a Pakistan that treats everyone equally and with dignity. Shaan has expressed public support for the rights of all persecuted groups across the country. He has also called for the repeal of the anti-Ahmadi legislation that persecutes the Ahmadis and strips them of their religious freedom. To express his solidarity, he even recently met the Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, in Canada.
Shaan might be considered a liberal Muslim. But why did Barelvi Sunni groups gang up on the right-wing Imran Khan?
Earlier, while commenting on a Quranic verse, Khan had suggested that the Prophet Muhammad might have doubted his sanity for a brief instant when there was a temporary pause in divine revelation. Hard-line Barelvi cleric Mr. Khadim Hussain Rizvi quickly accused Khan of insulting the prophet, declared him a disbeliever, and asked him to apologize or face edicts of death. The "fearless tiger," as many of his followers identify him, was brought to his knees. Within twenty-four hours, he publicly apologized and promised never to repeat the "mistake." The man who has vowed to bring down the country's Prime Minister was himself subdued by the Barelvi extremist mindset.
It might not be easy to snatch the gun from hands of terror outfits in Pakistan. But to change the virulent mindset that fuels extremism across the country is an even bigger challenge. The Pakistani government will have to muster a lot of will and determination to fight one of its biggest challenges ahead - the rise of Barelvi Sunni extremism.