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Partha Samal asked: How did Pakistan become a hotbed for radical Wahhabism? How was liberal Sufism replaced by radical Wahhabism?

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  • Ashok Kumar Behuria replies: Pakistan's descent into extremism has been widely written about. The most credible accounts come from Pakistani scholars and analysts. It is well-known that the demand for Pakistan had an Islamist ring about it and leaders including and following Muhammad Ali Jinnah have used Islam for political purposes which has given legitimacy to continuing demands for Islamisation over the years. Jinnah’s secular outpourings in his famous speech on August 11, 1947 to allow every citizen of Pakistan to practise their religion without fear, can be contrasted with his statements before and after that speech portraying Pakistan as a laboratory of Islam.

    Similarly, it is interesting to note that the followers of Sufi-Barelvi version of Islam in contrast to those of Deobandi persuasion had backed the movement for Pakistan overwhelmingly. However, in the immediate aftermath of partition, the minority-Deobandis made common cause with Jinnah and went on to dominate the Islamist discourse, aggressively pursuing their agenda of turning Pakistan into a Sharia state.

    This process of radicalisation was accelerated by the years of Afghan Jihad. An investigative piece in The Washington Post (March 2002) brings out clearly the way a radical, militant and jihadi mindset was enabled in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region through Saudi money and American support. Ironically this was done in the name of saving liberal-democracy from communism!

    In the bargain, mosques and madrassas mushroomed in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal area and later throughout Pakistan. As they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune. The Saudi money came in with the tacit understanding that the madrassa curricula would be recast as per Wahhabi tenets of Islam. The alliance between the Mullah and Military is another interesting facet of Pakistan politics which has let the Islamist constituency survive and grow in strength and stature over time.

    Through the years of Taliban-rule in Afghanistan and War on Terror, Pakistan has seen the rise of a jihadi-conglomerate called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has taken a vow to fight the Pakistani Army and bring in Sharia-based system of governance.

    Despite the fact that Islamist religious parties have performed poorly in the elections, Pakistani Islam has slowly shed its sub-continental flavour and gravitated towards a Wahhabi version of Islam. An intensely radical/sectarian strain has emerged within the Sunni fold, which considers the eclectic Barelvi/Sufi version of Islam as heretical and its followers as wajib-ul-qatl (fit to be killed). The increasing number of attacks on dargahs signify the growing potency of Wahhabi radicalism today. Apart from the Shia-Sunni divide, this new intra-Sunni division suggests that radicalisation has assumed a new texture in Pakistan with the society, as a whole, becoming more radical and orthodox day by day.

    Due to competitive radicalisation of sects/groups in Pakistan today, even the so-called Sufi Barelvis have radicalised themselves and demonstrated their zeal to take on perceived traitors to Islam with as much sternness and severity as the Wahhabi terrorists. The assassination of former Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi, for having defended an alleged blasphemer is a case in point. The hysteric display of emotion and revanche in the wake of Qadri’s execution in February 2016 demonstrated the growing hold of conservatism on the Pakistan society. Yet, there is no consistent and convincing effort by the Pakistan state for arresting the descent.

    Posted on September 23, 2020

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.