And the threat that will come
In the blistering heat of May, thousands had gathered in Saroki, a village off Grand Trunk Road near Wazirabad to attend his funeral. High on emotions and sweating furiously, people bade last farewell to Amir Cheema.
A Textile Engineering student, Amir had attempted to enter, armed with knife, the office of German paper Die Welt and kill its editor, Roger Köppel for publishing blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet (pbuh). While awaiting his trial, he was found dead in his prison cell, hanging from a noose made from his clothes.
While a suicide note was found and sent to the Foreign Office of Pakistan, Cheema’s family accused the German authorities of torturing him to death.
His death created a huge outcry in Pakistan as far-right parties protested his death, calling him a ‘ghazi’ and ‘shaheed’.
10 years since his death, Cheema is celebrated as a hero in the local folklore and described as the honourable man who chose death over the insult of his Prophet (pbuh).
A mausoleum has been built on his grave with funds collected by Tanzeem Ahl-e-Sunnat, a local Barelvi organisation. People from all over the country visit his shrine regularly to pay their respects. Having attained the status of a ‘saint’, his death anniversary is celebrated as ‘Urs’, with people paying tribute to his ‘bravery’.
Although celebrated by all sects, Cheema holds a special importance for Barelvis, who manage his shrine.
Cheema was killed in 2006 when protests against the Danish papers for publishing caricatures of Muslims’ Prophet were going on. Protest and resentment for the caricatures had become a part of national discourse as newspapers and TV programs were full of debate and opinion about the issue.
Cheema was unanimously celebrated as a hero, who defended Islam. His parents were interviewed regularly on national TV channels with the host of one morning program welcoming her parents emotionally, praising Cheema for having ‘done the job excellently.’
10 years on, a lot has changed.
The national discourse on blasphemy was moulded back in 2011 when the then Governor Punjab, Salmaan Taseer was killed by his own guard over the allegations of having committed blasphemy.
His death created a huge outcry in Pakistan as far-right parties protested his death, calling him a ‘ghazi’ and ‘shaheed’
Belonging to Rawalpindi, Mumtaz Qadri was reportedly provoked into killing Taseer by a Barelvi cleric, Mufti Hanif Qureshi.
In his fiery speeches, Qureshi had called for the death of Taseer. The unconditional support for Qadri, especially by Barelvi groups, led the country’s policy makers and think-tank’s into asking themselves a hard question – is extremism limited only to Deobandi and Salafi groups? Or has this ideology penetrated into the otherwise peaceful Barelvi sect as well?
Director Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Amir Rana, says, “There are a few issues over which the Barelvi clergy becomes intolerant – blasphemy is one of them.”
He believes that there are violent tendencies among all ideological groups – especially the religious ones.
Either Amir Cheema or Mumtaz Qadri, Barelvis have championed those who killed or got killed in the name of the honour of the Prophet (pbuh).
Hanif Qureshi, in a speech, openly threatened Salman Taseer who was accused of having committed blasphemy.
“What good is your life if it does not serve the Prophet (pbuh)?” Qureshi asked a charged crowd, as they vowed to sacrifice their lives for the honour of the Prophet (pbuh).
“The punishment for the blasphemer is death and the one who supports the blasphemer must also be condemned to death,” he said while challenging Taseer to visit Rawalpindi without his security.
With such violent inclinations and a dark past, Hanif Qureshi appears frequently on talk shows, posing as a ‘moderate’ cleric.
“It has become a regular practice in Pakistan that people looked upon for narrative building are the ones responsible for anarchy in the society”, lamented research analyst and archivist Aamir Mughal.
The common belief is that the ideology of takfir is limited only to Deobandi and Salafi groups –which Mughal differs with.
“The Barelvi text is full of fatwas like any other sect. When it comes to the power and domination of their sect, every group has grown the tendencies to apostatise others, which has affected the common masses,” Aamir Mughal added.
The ideology of takfir is rooted deep in the Barelvi sect as it dates back to their spiritual founder, Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi. He wrote a book, Hussam al haramain consisting of his fatwas, said to be endorsed by ulema of Mecca and Medina. In this book, he held Deobandis for not giving Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) the due respect and thus accused them of heresy.
While Deobandis and Salafis are actively involved in militancy, Barelvis seem disconnected with jihad.
Journalist and author of book ‘Call for Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba’, Arif Jamal explains this phenomenon.
“Deobandi, Salafist groups and JI became radicalised during the Afghan jihad. Saudi Arabia was matching dollar for every American dollar to finance the jihad in Afghanistan. While the Americans had no sectarian preferences, the Saudis made sure that Pakistan did not let any Barelvi and Shi’a Muslim group to get involved in the jihad in Afghanistan,” Jamal said.
Amir Rana is of the opinion that Barelvis are prone to violence and have been involved in such activities in the past. “There were some organisations like Sunni Jihad Council involved in Kashmir but they were on a much smaller scale,” he said.
Arif Jamal believes that Pakistan followed the same policy of patronising only Deobandi and Salafist groups in Kashmir and thus the Barelvi groups died out soon.
Growing radicalisation among the Barelvi youth in the wake of Mumtaz Qadri’s case poses a great threat
From showering rose petals to protesting his death sentence, Barelvis have campaigned excessively in favour of Mumtaz Qadri. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has recently rejected Qadri’s mercy petition to which these groups have responded furiously.
While speaking at a rally in favour of Qadri, one Barelvi leader praised the country’s military chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, while demanding a ‘fair and just’ trial for Qadri from Sharif.
During the recent Milad processions, pictures of Gen Raheel Sharif could be seen on banners. Some of them even had his face placed alongside the shrine of the Prophet (pbuh).
“Barelvi leaders pose as pro-army and pro-state, unlike Deobandis or Salafis. They want themselves affiliated with the army, thus giving an impression that everything they are doing is lawful,” Amir Rana added.
With Qadri to be hanged soon, government expects a backlash from these groups.
Aamir Mughal calls for a ban on theological debate on TV. “Religious debate is not for the masses. It will lead to chaos in a diverse society like Pakistan. There are so many different interpretations of religion that once started this discussion will knock on doors of every household, leading to severe repercussions.”
Arif Jamal believes that growing radicalisation among the Barelvi youth in the wake of Mumtaz Qadri’s case poses a great threat.
“There is every reason to believe that Barelvi groups will become more violent with the passage of time. As Barelvis are in majority in Pakistan, they will pose bigger threats when they become violent,” he said.