In Pakistan, the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and politics is often marked by murder. The tense interaction between the Deoband adherents of the Pashtun North West Frontier Province and the Barelvi confession of the Punjab heartland has already been marred by violence. The Awami National Party’s mishandling of an Islamic calendrical controversy provides an unsettling insight into Pakistan’s sectarian vulnerabilities and the willingness of opportunistic politicians to exploit them.
Disputes about the timing of Eid al Fitr—the fast-breaking festival concluding the Muslim holy month of Ramadan—provide a vivid illustration of the sectarian and factional fissures undermining Islamic unity.
In Pakistan, the opportunistic insertion of the North West Frontier Province’s ruling party—the Awami National Party or ANP--into the dispute offers a perspective on the immense dangers that Islamic sectarianism can present to a vulnerable nation.
In 2009, uncertainty about when the holiday should occur provided dissidents in three geopolitical hotspots—Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan—with the opportunity to question the orthodoxy and legitimacy of the leaders charged with fixing the holy date.
Eid al Fitr is supposed to take place the day after reputable (Muslim) witnesses announce they have witnessed the crescent of the new moon in the night sky.
This simple formula became a recipe for controversy as Islam spread across the globe, split into sects, fragmented into nations, became linked by global communications technology—and was forced to deal with the astronomical reality that, in every year, the moon will first appear on different days in different parts of the Muslim world.
And in some years, the new moon will appear on different days in different parts of the Muslim heartland stretching from Egypt to Pakistan.
2009 was one of those years.
If you were in the Southern Hemisphere, say in South Africa, you would be able to observe the crescent of the new moon on September 19th and break fast on the morning of the 20th to celebrate Eid al Fitr.
If you were in Iran, Iraq, or Pakistan…well, you might have a problem.
Eid al Fitr-related controversies are almost pre-ordained in the Shia quadrant of Islam. Disputes about Eid allow imams and their followers the opportunity to flex their theological and political muscles at the expense of their competitors.
In Iran, as Brian Ulrich pointed out, reformist ayatollahs challenged Supreme Leader Khamenei’s Eid selection (the 20th) in order to underline his lack of authority in their eyes and even his legitimacy as a national religious figure in the eyes of the nation.
Iraq’s Shiite community displayed the same fissures. Ayatollah Sistani, perhaps in order to show his support for moderate reformers, plumped for the 21st, thereby incurring the criticism of the Sadrists, who probably feel more solidarity with the lumpen-fundamentalists of the Khamenei/Achminejad camp.
The Sunnis, with a strong interest in sustaining the global unity of Islam, have done only slightly better.
Many Sunni communities follow the lead of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Judicial Council out of respect for the kingdom’s role as site of Islam’s sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. This year, the Shallah moon was sighted in the kingdom on the 19th and the Eid observance in Saudi Arabia took place on the 20th of September.
Other Sunni communities fix Eid al Fitr based on their local astronomical realities as determined by national or regional organizations or influential mosques; Eid in the United States is declared by ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, for instance.
However, within the Sunni camp the issues involved in fixing the Islamic lunar calendar and the dates for Eid observances has provided the impetus for conferences, fatwas, and endless arguments fought out on Islamicist websites.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the most obvious candidate for font of legitimacy on this issue, has muddled its approach.
It entrusted the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology to come up with an astronomically-based calendar; however, the KACST revised its premises for fixing the lunar month three times in ten years and the Kingdom decided to apply its decisions only to the civil calendar.
Religious dates are still fixed by the Supreme Judicial Council based on human observation, thus placating the fundamentalists, to whom surrendering control of Islamic observance to astronomical elites, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, is apparently anathema. As a result, the Saudis still allow other communities significant leeway and fixing their Eid observances.
And then there is Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim nations, and largely Sunni.
The central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee (hereinafter RHC), endorsed by the Islamic government of Pakistan, made an astronomically orthodox observation of the appearance of the Shawwal moon on the night of September 20th and instructed the Muslims of Pakistan to celebrate Eid on the 21st, a day after Saudi Arabia.
However, the Committee was indignantly denounced by a self-appointed Ruet-e-Hilal Committee in NWFP, a collection of clergy centered at an influential Deobond mosque in Peshawar, Masjid Qasim Ali Khan. That committee called on the province to celebrate Eid on the 20th.
This was not an enormous surprise, since the NWFP RHC had already announced that it would follow the lead of Saudi Arabia in fixing Eid.
Unfortunately, then the NWFP Commission added a farcical note to the proceedings by insisting it had received in-person testimony from 44 eyewitnesses that the Shawwal moon had appeared over the province on the 19th.
According to a graphic that made the rounds of Pakistani internet forums accompanied by implicit eye-rolling at the NWFP bumpkins, the moon was invisible in Pakistan on the 19th.
Apparently, in the Middle East the new moon would have visible on the 19th only with optical aids (i.e. telescopes) and only in the very southern portion of Saudi Arabia—but it would not be visible in any part of Pakistan.
Certain Deobonds (it should be noted that few self-identified Deobandi adherents in Pakistan have completed the full curriculum of the highly respected Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic college in Deoband, India; instead they have received instruction in madrassahs in Pakistan associated with Deobandi teachings or have professed allegiance to a Deoband religious leader) appear to be obstinately literal and reductionist in their interpretation of the Quran, and in fixing Eid.
As a result they are hostile to any attempt to set the Islamic lunar calendar based on astronomical principles that may contain a Judeo-Christian or Western-scientific taint.
A fatwa by a self-identified Deoband cleric approvingly quotes the saying of Mohammed “We are an illiterate nation. We do not know how to read or count.” To be fair, the author of the fatwa works hard to infuse it with a spirit of informed skepticism beyond assertive ignorance that will not be unfamiliar to Westerners who have been exposed to Christian fundamentalists’ “evolution is just a theory” arguments.
The fatwa cites the testimony of non-Muslim astronomers to assert that the “Danjon Limit”—the 7 degree elongation of moon and sun deemed the minimum necessary to see the moon and the guideline adopted by the Greenwich Observatory to determine if the moon should be theoretically visible—is not an entirely dependable rule of thumb, thereby seeking to debunk the idea that an astronomically calculated new moon next to the sun’s disk (as the Shawwal moon was on September 19th in Pakistan) cannot be seen.
Indeed, it is clear that what really steams some Deobands in NWFP is the idea that the testimony of good Muslims can be disregarded if the astronomical calculations assert that the moon should be invisible.
Therefore, the NWFP RHC commission obstinately insisted that the new moon was visible all over the province.
The NWFP’s federally-appointed governor, PPP stalwart Owais Ghani, found it advisable to observe Eid in Peshawar on the 20th.
Pakistan’s top two political leaders, President Asif Zardari and PML-N boss Nawaz Sharif, fortuitously found themselves out of the country on the disputed dates and were able to distance themselves from the controversy.
The NWFP’s overreach might have been quickly forgotten as a piece of parochial clerical effrontery, but for the fact that the provincial ruling party, the Awami National Party, in the person of one of its leading figures, Ghulam Bilour, jumped in with both feet to support the local committee.
The ANP’s only Federal Minister in the national cabinet, Bilour went to the Qasim Ali Khan Mosque in Peshawar to announce and publicize its decision.
Bilour was not content to celebrate the astounding eyesight of the NWFP’s loyal citizens, or merely defend provincial pride and prerogatives.
Bilour declared after his (September 20th ) Eid prayers that those who were still engaged in their Ramadan fasts were “following the Rabwahites” instead of following Medina and Mecca.
As the version was retailed throughout Pakistan and the world, Bilour’s invective was taken to mean that Pakistanis who kept the fast on the 20th and celebrated Eid on the 21st were “standing with the Qadianis”.
As pkpolitics put it:
Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has said those who are fasting on Sunday stand by the side of Qadianis and ‘we’ can only be Muslims if we celebrate Eid with Saudi Arabia… He was of the view it was a grave sin to fast on Eid Day.
Reflecting what might be a growing impatience with the nettlesome Pashtuns and their fundamentalist brand of Islam, some Pakistani websites hastened to place the least favorable construction on Bilour’s statement.
The liberal-minded website Let us Build Pakistan helpfully pointed out:
In fact the belief is that on Eid only Satan keeps the fast. The NWFP government joined its ulema in making the rest of the country look like the followers of Satan.
So what’s a Qadiani? And where is Rabwah?
Qadiani are a branch of the Ahmadyya sect of Islam. Ahmadis revere Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1839-1908). His teachings arose from the same ferment of embattled, anti-colonial Islam that produced the Deoband school. While the Deobands practiced a rigorous, back to basics brand of Islam that came to form a basis for the ideology of the Taliban (and the guiding theology for an extensive network of madrassahs in the NWFP), Ahmad went in the other direction, claiming he had received divine revelation, eventually declaring himself both the Mahdi and the last avatar of Vishnu.
Not surprisingly, the Qadiani are reviled by fundamentalist Muslims as nothing more than pseudo-Muslims.
Deobandi theologians of Peshawar have inveighed against the Ahmadite sect since the 1950s in order to assert their identity as the definers and protectors of Islamic orthodoxy in Pakistan.
In response to Deobandi agitation and in order to assert its pretensions as protector of Islam, in 1974 the government of Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto’s father constitutionally stripped Ahmadists of the right to call themselves Muslims, quote the Quran, or make the hajj to Mecca.
Ahmadists routinely serve as metaphorical and literal punching bags for politicians and clerics seeking to flaunt their orthodox credentials. Sunni bigots lead confrontational marches through the town of Rabwah, a center of Ahmadist observance in Pakistan’s Punjab.
There is an assiduously propagated rumor that ex-President Musharraf’s wife is an Ahmadist. Supposedly, this would taint Musharraf himself with apostasy and make him a non-Muslim. Conspiracy theorists go the extra mile to talk of a “Qadiani conspiracy” centered on Musharraf, hostile to Islam and in league with Israel and the United States.
Bilour’s screed was, therefore, conceived as a provocative orthodox statement meant to endear him to devout Muslims of Pakistan, or at least to appreciative Pashtun chauvinists of the NWFP.
Unfortunately for him, most of Pakistan apparently chose to construe it as a national insult.
Bilour found himself on the wrong side of a public relations debacle.
It was also pointed out that much of the NWFP observed Eid on the 21st, including the JUI Islamicist party, holder of the Deoband/Taliban brief, which decided to honor its electoral alliance with the PPP at the central level instead of supporting the NWFP RHC.
Bilour clarified that what he was saying was that those who fixed Eid on the 21st, not the vast majority of Pakistani Muslims who kept the fast on the 20th (some 150 million people) were actually doing Satan’s work.
Subsequently Bilour further walked back his statement; he had merely intended to insult the central RHC, and not all Pakistanis. Or maybe he wasn’t trying to insult anyone. Maybe all he wanted was for Pakistan to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead in fixing Eid al Fitr.
Finally, Bilour tried to turn his dilemma upside-down. He denounced the national committee for stirring up trouble and called for its head—apparently a less than impressive figure and Musharraf-era relic, Mufti Munibur Rahman--to resign and be replaced by the head of the NWFP RHC:
PESHAWAR: Federal Minister for Railways and the leader of Awami National Party (ANP), Ghulam Ahmad Bilour calling Mufti Munibur Rahman as the remnant of Musharraf, demanded dissolution of the existing central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee and suggested the appointment of Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai of Masjid Qasim Ali Khan as the new chairman.
Bilour’s demand was briskly dismissed by the central government and apparently did little more than generate sympathy for the hitherto unnoticed and unloved mufti.
In light of the slanders concerning Musharraf, note the description of Rahman as a “Musharraf remnant”, dovetailing with the Rabwahite canard to reinforce the idea of Pakistan’s heartland being in thrall to apostates and thirsting for the spiritual refreshment of Taliban-esque Deoband orthodoxy.
Politicizing the Eid dispute serves as an example of the ANP's traditional pandering to Deoband clerics in the NWFP.
Letting the argument slop onto the national stage by allowing the ANP’s top federal official to act as spokesman represents, perhaps, a new low for the ANP, founded as an avowedly secular, democratic, and inclusive party but inclined toward political alliances with vociferous and prominent NWFP clerics and forced by the challenge of the Pakistani Taliban to present itself as the political face of Pashtun chauvinism.
Although the province it rules is known officially as the North West Frontier Provinces, the ANP refers to the NWFP in its party communications as Pakhtunkwa, the Pashtun homeland. The NWFP provincial government website also refers to Pakhtunkwa and occasionally attempts to employ the term at the National Assembly, provoking walkouts led by the PML-N.
Suspicious conservatives in the Pakistan security establishment use these demonstrations of Pashtun pride to accuse the ANP of conniving at more than its stated commitment to autonomy and working with India to combine the NWFP and FATA with the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan to create a united, independent Pashtun state.
Although it is unlikely that the ANP chiefs wishes to trade their positions as ruler of a province of Pakistan for citizenship in an impoverished and landlocked failed state under the gun of the Taliban, the ANP’s moves to position itself as champion of the Pashtuns are a justifiable source of concern.
The ANP lobbied the government vigorously for the disastrous institution of sharia law in the Swat valley in order to steal fundamentalist thunder.
It has contributed to the heightening of tensions in Karachi—the sprawling port city of in which Pashtun immigrants form an immense and aggrieved underclass—by threatening to mix things up with the thuggish MQM party that runs things there on behalf of the Mujahir majority and export political chaos to Sindh.
Ghulam Bilour himself is an unlikely champion of Islamic fundamentalism. He attracts scorn on message boards for the racy, un-Islamic programming he apparently permits at the theaters he owns in the NWFP.
Bilour, a pillar of the ANP with decades of service in the cause of Pashtun aspirations, is a member of one of those immensely wealthy grandee families that inevitably send their sons and daughters into politics in Pakistan. One brother, Bashir, is a senior minister in the NWFP; another, Ilyas, is a prominent local businessman.
The Bilour brothers appear skilled in the art of making enemies.
As the main power broker in the NWFP, the Bilour family should have been able to choose the chief minister of the province from its own ranks when the ANP won control of the provincial legislature in alliance with the PPP in 2008.
However, members of parliament on the PPP side adamantly refused to accept anybody from the Bilour family because of its suspected role in the murder of a PPP leader.
In 1997, Ghulam Bilour’s only son was killed in a vote-fraud fracas outside a polling station. The blood feud persisted, despite a personal intervention by Benazir Bhutto. Ten years later, his family was accused of orchestrating the revenge killing of the person they considered responsible.
The victim was no ordinary poll-watcher; it was the PPP’s senior vice president in the NWFP, Qamar Abbas. His murder created an undeniable awkwardness in Bilour’s relations with the PPP.
To Bilour’s displeasure, Ameer Haider Hoti was chosen as Chief Minister over Bilour’s brother, Bashir.
Hoti is the grandson of two founding ANP stalwarts, and also the nephew of the current ANP president, Asfandyar Wali—whom, it is rumored, Bilour intends to succeed as president of the ANP.
Election-related violence seems to dog the Bilour family, as this account indicates:
Both the influential political families of Peshawar city, agreed on exhibiting restrain and non-aggression against each other in future here on Monday. The conciliation between Bashir Bilour and Abdul Mannan was made due to the efforts of a traditional Jirga.
The two families were at the throat of each other since the killing of a nephew of Haji Abdul Mannan allegedly by the supporters of Bashir Ahmad Bilour during election campaign of February 18, 2008. The family of Haji Abdul Mannan and Bashir Ahmad Bilour are staunch political rivals and contest elections against each other.
It is interesting that two weeks prior to the reconciliation on March 24, 2009 Bashir Ahmad Bilour was the target of an unsuccessful bloody botch of an assassination attempt that killed six, including three bystanders—one that the provincial government publicly averred was not an instance of Taliban-on-government violence.
Beyond his wealth and sharp elbows, Bilour’s primary political calling card today appears to be his promotion of Pashtun chauvinism—a trend that has become more marked as the traditionally secular and progressive ANP struggles to compete with the Taliban.
Pandering to Deoband-inspired Islamic fundamentalism, even in the name of Pashtun pride, is immensely risky in Pakistan.
It’s not just an issue of picking on the tiny and persecuted Ahmadist/Qadiani minority.
As two high-profile outrages in 2009 demonstrated, religious practice and the power structure in Pakistan’s heartland provinces of Sindh and Punjab are strikingly vulnerable to assault by the Taliban under the flag of Deoband orthodoxy and working through Pashtun émigrés and assets.
The Punjab and Sindh are Sunni, like the NWFP, but largely practice Sunni observance on a foundation of Sufi evangelism.
In the 12th through 14th centuries, independent Sufi missionaries preaching a message of toleration, egalitarianism, and ecstatic mysticism offered the inhabitants of the Indus River valley an attractive alternative to the rigidities of the Hindu caste system and won the region for Islam.
Sindh and Punjab are dotted with purportedly miraculous Sufi shrines that attract hundreds of thousands of adherents to their festivals and serve as the focus of near-idolatrous worship and prayers for intervention and assistance. Influential local families descended from the Sufi saints—called pirs--derive local spiritual and political power and national influence from their control of these shrines.
Benazir Bhutto’s family is closely associated with the cult of Qalandar, in Sindh.
When Nawaz Sharif returned from exile to contest Pakistan’s general elections in 2007, he made a point of distancing himself from his austere Saudi patrons by paying a high profile visit to the tomb of Punjab’s pre-eminent Sufi holy man, Ali Hujwiri, at the Data Durbar complex in Lahore.
Although the Deobandi movement is Sufi in its traditions--as is Mullah Omar’s (himself a graduate of a Deobond-affiliated madrassah) exercise of charismatic leadership--Deoband practice represented a conscious effort to prevent the extinction of the minority Muslim faith within British India by asserting a distinct, separate Muslim identity through emphasis on adherence to sharia law and the orthodox Prophetic canon of Quran and Sunnah, and by purging the indigenous popular Sufi form of Islamic observance of corrupting non-Islamic elements.
Writing in a collection of essays entitled Sufism and the “modern” in Islam, (Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Day Howell, I.B.Tauris, 2007) Yoginder Sikan described the relation of Deobandi fundamentalism to popular Sufism:
Also branded as “un-Islamic” and occupying a central place in what Ilyas saw as “un-Islamic” customary tradition, was the entire domain of popular Sufism. This included practices related to worship at the shrines of saints, such as prostration at their graves, musical sessions, and unrestricted mixing of the sexes.
Equally condemnable was a range of beliefs and social practices relating to the authority of the Sufis, whether living or dead. The notion that the buried Sufis were still alive and could intercede with God to grant one’s requests was fiercely condemned as
un-Islamic” and as akin to shirk, the sin of associating partners with the one God.
Ilyas’ reformed Sufism…had crucial implications for the constitution of religious authority…[T]he TJ directly challenged the authority of the custodians of the religious shrine (sajjada-nishin)…who were seen as having a vested interest in in preserving popular custom for their own claims to authority rested on these.
[Ilyas] therefore effectively dismissed as ultimately of little worth the claims to authority of the sajjada-nishin, based on the reports of the miracles (karamat) performed by the saints whose shrines they tended. He stressed that punctilious observance of the sharia, and not karamat, was the only way to rise in God’s eyes.
In 21st-century Pakistan, the Deoband’s adversary is not only the cultural legacy of Sufism; there is an opposing school of Islamic jurisprudence as well.
Sufi-tinged Islamic religious practice in non-Pashtun areas of Pakistan—and indeed, in much of South Asia--is formalized in a largely pacifist and mystical strain of orthodox Sunni Islam known as Barelvi, named after the town of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, India..
Like the Deoband school, Barelvi observance emerged as an expression of religious thought in response to British colonial rule and the perceived crisis of Islam in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India.
The Barelvi school’s founder, Ahmad Raza Khan guaranteed lasting hostility between his school and the Deobands by issuing fatwas declaring them--and for good measure Saudi Arabia’s Wahabis--to be apostates.
Globalsecurity.com describes the striking ethnic divide between the Deobandi practices of the Pashtun areas with the Sufi and Barelvi-related practices of Punjab:
The non-Pakhtun population of Pakistan is predominantly Barelvi. The stronghold of Barelvism remains Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan. By one estimate, in Pakistan, the Shias are 18%,Iismailis 2%, Ahmediyas 2%, Barelvis 50%, Deobandis 20%, Ahle Hadith 4%, and other minorities 4%. … By another estimate some 15 per cent of Pakistan's Sunni Muslims would consider themselves Deobandi, and some 60 per cent, are in the Barelvi tradition based mostly in the province of Punjab.
Although the Deobandi school may only represent the religious observance of one out of five Pakistanis and is concentrated in the poorest frontier regions, it presents itself as the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy and legitimacy inside Pakistan.
The anonymous author of the Global Security profile stated:
…some 64 per cent of the total seminaries are run by Deoband is, 25 per cent by the Barelvis, six percent by the Ahle Hadith and three percent by various Shiite organisations.
Sufi and Barelvi practices that Deoband-affiliated Pashtun militants consider heretical--and the local power structure they support--present a tempting target to the Taliban as it seeks to capitalize on the poverty and anger roiling the immense underclass of Pakistan’s heartland.
In other words, the Deoband practice of Islam, especially in its harsh, militant, and politicized form in NWFP, and the widespread, Sufi-oriented Barelvi popular religion of Pakistan would seem to be on a collision course.
One of the most disturbing developments in a year full of disturbing developments in the NWFP was the bombing of the tomb of Rehman Baba, the province’s most revered Sufi saint, in March 2009. This explicit attack on a religious institution that had no strategic significance but was one that the Taliban consider heterodox, may well be a harbinger of violence—and politics of division-- to come.
If the conflict comes, the Barelvi are likely to be outgunned.
The Pashtun Deobandi are militant, supported by zakat (Islamic charity contributions) from Saudi Arabia, and have numerous friends and supporters within Pakistan’s security apparatus.
The pacifist, underfunded, and underorganized Barelvi—with the exception of the reliably violent MQM in Karachi—appear to be reliant upon Pakistan’s rickety and equivocal civilian government to take the battle to the Taliban.
When the Barelvi attempt to stand up to the Taliban themselves, bad things happen.
A brave Barelvi cleric and head of one of the largest madrassahs in Pakistan, Dr. Sarfraz Hussain Naeemi, organized twenty Barelvi Sunni organizations into Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM). TNRM was intended as a counterweight to the Deobands and to support Pakistan’s civilian government in its military campaigns against the Taliban in Swat and in other sections of the NWFP and FATA.
On June 12, 2009, Dr. Naeemi, who had coordinated a committee of Islamic clerics that declared suicide bombing as haram or forbidden by Islamic law (he had already issued a fatwa against suicide bombing in 2005 in his individual capacity), was himself murdered by a suicide bomber in his office at his madrassah in Lahore after Friday prayers.
Baitullah Mehsud’s Pakistan Taliban organization, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the murder, and for a near simultaneous suicide attack that pancaked a mosque in a garrison town near Peshawar and killed five.
The security lapses surrounding Dr. Naeemi’s death were described by the Pakistan Tribune in sufficiently circumstantial detail to give the impression that the government was, at best, asleep at the switch.
The police sources also confirmed to our sources lapses in providing security cover to the respected cleric. Police sources, requesting anonymity, disclosed that one ASI and 10 constables were sent to Jamia Naeemia every Friday to provide security cover to the worshippers. However, this Friday only two constables of the Muhafiz Force had been deployed there.
… according to sources, the police later wrote a fake report in the Roznamcha (official diary) of the Police Chowki Bibi Pak Daman…
… Dr Sarfraz had been receiving threatening calls for the past many days and ironically no security was provided to him as well as the place where he lived…
According to the Jamia administration, only two policemen were deployed outside the Madrassa for frisking the visitors coming for the Juma prayers. Both the policemen left the place right after the Juma prayers, providing the attacker an opportunity to enter the premises unchecked, alleged the administration.
Dawn’s report on Dr. Naeemi’s funeral provides the requisite ironic coda:
Strict security measures were taken in and around Nasser Bagh with the deployment of 1,000 policemen, while 5,000 cops were put on alert across the city to avoid any untoward incident. No politician or top government official attended the funeral reportedly because of security concerns.
While the demands and priorities of the Deoband establishment receive anxious attention from the federal government, the Barelvi appear to be ignored.
Dr. Naeemi’s ally and head of the Islamic JUP party, Sahibzada Fazal Karim, was one of the few voices to speak out against the proclamation of sharia in Swat, to no effect.
After the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistan Taliban has evinced a temporary disinterest in igniting sectarian religious strife in Punjab and Sindh by attacking Barelvi and Sufi-based leaders, institutions, and practices. This is no doubt attributable in part to the resilience and strongly-rooted local identity of the Belvari Sunnis in Punjab and Sindh and the potential for a national backlash against the Taliban.
However, Taliban reticence probably also relates to Mullah Omar’s tactical insistence on keeping a lid on things in the Taliban’s rear areas in Pakistan while he concentrates on the ultimate prize—Kabul.
If the Taliban acquires a politically secure position inside Afghanistan in the next few months, either through conquest or accommodation, it may find the temptation to mobilize the Pashtun diaspora (there are four million Pashtun in Karachi alone) to disrupt Pakistan’s non-Deobondi power structure irresistible.
This subtext makes Bilour’s posturing on Eide more worrisome.
It looks like something more than a simple attempt to pander to the NWFP’s provincial pride or curry favor with its Deoband religious establishment.
It also looks like an attempt to keep the ANP from appearing out of step with its main political competitor for Pashtun loyalty—the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan—by ostentatiously lining up with the Eid al Fitr policy of Saudi Arabia, the chief patron of fundamentalist Islamic orthodoxy.
Finally, Bilour’s inflammatory Eid statement probably represents his attempt to position himself as a rock-solid champion of conservative Pashtun religious forces both within the NWFP and on the national stage when he makes his move to assume the presidency of the ANP.
By inserting not only the ANP party but the NWFP government into the Eid debate—and by taking the dispute national with an attack on the central RHC committee--Bilour also threw the NWFP’s political and ethnic weight behind the Deobandi.
Perhaps inadvertently, Bilour ratcheted up tension and the stakes in the simmering confrontation between Deoband and Barelvi and raised the specter of a national conflict fueled by a convergence of ethnic mistrust, religious bigotry, and political calculation.
In the war of words after Bilour’s statement, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rahman acidly remarked that the ANP had converted from a secular to a religious party, and they might as well put the head of Masjid Qasim Ali Khan, Shahabuddin Popalzai, in charge of the ANP.
In response, Bilour declared: “I’m a worshiper of Allah but proud to be secular, nationalist and progressive.”
It remains to be seen what additional turmoil Bilour’s cocktail of religious, ethnic, and political opportunism will bring to Pakistan.