Religious Divisions over Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law

The recent execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the governor of Punjab, shines a spotlight on Pakistan’s religious puzzle.

The recent execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who shot and killed Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011, has once again brought to light deep Pakistani divisions on the thorny issue of blasphemy. Mumtaz Qadri targeted the late governor for describing Pakistan’s rigid blasphemy law as draconian. For many Pakistanis, this in itself was blasphemy. In deciding Qadri’s appeal against his death sentence, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that questioning blasphemy law does not amount to blasphemy, but this did little to assuage the opposition of Barelvis, Pakistan’s largest Sunni group.

At the heart of the blasphemy debate is Pakistan’s sectarian make up. Not only is Pakistan home to the second-largest Shia population in the world, but its Sunni majority is divided into three groups: the Barelvis, the Deobandis and the Ahl-e-Hadith. Barelvi Sunni Islam has long been considered the “low church” of Islam in Pakistan, a softer, popular form of the faith that eschews violence. This is only partly true, however. Consider the fact that Mumtaz Qadri was a Barelvi; so were the majority of people who agitated against his execution.

At the heart of the blasphemy debate is Pakistani sectarianism.

The perception of Barelvi Islam as popular and non-violent goes back to the sect’s founder, Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi (1856-1921), a Sufi Islamic scholar. His main doctrine, at least as far as the British were concerned, was political quietism, a doctrinal withdrawal from politics. He argued that since Muslim religious freedom was assured in British India, Muslims were obligated to live as loyal subjects. His approach to the veneration of the Prophet Mohammed also distinguished Barelvis from other Sunni groups.

Barelvi Islam, often associated with the syncretic Sufi culture of the subcontinent, is considered more permissive than the Deobandi sect, whose followers adhere to a strict code of religious law. The third group, Ahl-e-Hadith, is the South Asian variant of the Wahhabi and Salafi movements. The difference between Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith followers is that the latter are ghair muqalid, meaning that they do not follow a tradition of Islamic knowledge. Instead, they apply their own intellect to the Quran and the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Yet another Pakistani variant of Islam is the Ahmadi sect. Many see their beliefs as heretical and Pakistan’s consitution declares them non-Muslims.

Introduction of the blasphemy law

The political quietism of the Barelvi movement ensured it remained outside the Islamist Khilafat Movement, active in British India in the 1920s. This movement was led mostly by Deobandis and supported by the Gandhi-led Indian Non-Cooperation Movement. In the last days of the Raj, however, many of the moderate Barelvi leaders threw in their lot with the All India Muslim League (AIML) in Punjab, which was protesting for the establishment of Pakistan. After independence in 1947, when the adult franchise was introduced, Barelvi support became key to political success in Pakistan.

Though offences against religion were first written into law by India’s British rulers in 1860, Pakistan’s blasphemy law as it stands today was introduced in the 1980s. One section criminalises defiling the Quran, making it punishable with up to life imprisonment. Another section states that defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable by death or a life sentence. This law has been widely criticised by civil society activists inside and outside Pakistan. Hundreds have been charged under this law. Several of those accused, more than 60 by one count, have been killed in mob violence or in targeted killing. There is even a lawyers group that provides legal help to those who want to accuse people of blasphemy.

Reform of the blasphemy law will likely face stiff resistance.

The Barelvis’ political impact has grown since the law was introduced because it became a rallying point for the sect. With this growing political impact has come a wave of radicalisation as Barelvis have been competing with hardline Deobandi groups for the Islamist political space. Blasphemy law has as much emotive appeal for them as jihad does for their Deobandi counterparts. Previously willing to go along with mainstream political parties, the Barelvis formed their own political party, Sunni Tehreek in 1990, often an ally of whichever party is in government. Electoral success has evaded the party but it is nimble at getting Pakistanis out on the street.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising that the Barelvi leadership was able to mobilise a massive crowd for Mumtaz Qadri’s funeral. Anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 people were estimated to have attended. Despite the size of the crowd, the event was peaceful. The government and army likely sought guarantees from Barelvi leaders to keep mourners in line.

The Barelvis are beholden to the Pakistani army. They view its ongoing campaign in the northwest against the Pakistani Taliban, whose members are Deobandi Islamists, as positive. Consequently they have tried to present themselves as a bulwark of moderate Islam against Deobandi-led terrorism. In fact, by maintaining calm at the funeral, the Barelvis also made the point that outside of the blasphemy issue, they are peaceful and non-violent. Only time will tell whether this will be the case. What is clear is that Pakistan’s government is going to face stiff resistance if and when it attempts to reform the blasphemy law.


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