It’s no surprise that Barelvi extremists have placed blasphemy at the top of their agenda. The Barelvi movement was founded by Ahmed Raza Khan in the late nineteenth century, and he adopted the name Abdul Mustafa (Servant of the Chosen One) to express his love for the Prophet Muhammad. He issued fatwas alleging blasphemy against prominent Deobandi leaders when they criticized him for ascribing divine attributes to the Prophet Muhammad. Defense of the Prophet Muhammad against any perceived insult is a hallmark of the Barelvi creed.
Barelvis’ practice of some Sufi rituals has led the movement to be viewed by some as synonymous with moderation. However, Barelvis aren’t the only ones to embrace Sufism—some Deobandis do as well—and the syncretic nature of Barelvi rituals should not be mistaken for a commitment to tolerance or pluralism.
This all begs a troubling question: How does an overwhelmingly illiberal Pakistani society avoid the pitfalls of extremism? It’s one thing to fight terrorists on the battlefield, as Pakistan has done fairly well in North Waziristan. Tackling the more complex issue of extremism, however, is a far different and more challenging beast.
Some commentators suggest the Pakistani military supports Barelvi activism, contending that the military views such a move as a safer alternative to backing Deobandi-influenced militant groups—some of which have turned against the state (witness the example of the Pakistani Taliban ). However, in reality, the kid gloves treatment amounts to playing with fire. Indeed, capitulating to the demands of hardline Barelvi activists invariably strengthens and emboldens them, thereby raising the specter that the likes of TLY will feel increasingly comfortable imposing their dangerous views—while believing they can get away with it. Ultimately, this will make Pakistan a less tolerant place and increase the likelihood of extremism and terror.
Adam Weinstein is a researcher who focuses on South Asia and Iran. Michael Kugelman is deputy director with the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.