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Pakistan’s Shifting Religious Battles

January 12, 2011

By Wajahat Ali

It has come as a shock to many to see the incredibly positive reaction from nearly 500 Barelvi clerics in Pakistan, regarded as moderate Muslims in an increasingly radicalized environment, to the assassination Tuesday of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by a member of his security detail.

Many writers have previously thought of Pakistan’s Barelvi community as a kind of moderate antidote to radical groups operating in the country; Barelvi leaders have until now opposed many of the operational tactics of terrorist organizations more commonly associated with the country’s Deobandi and Salafi groups, such as suicide bombings and attacks against state institutions. One of the leading Barelvi scholars issued a comprehensive, 600-page fatwa last year condemning global terrorism. And a Barelvi cleric who had spoken up against the Taliban was brutally targeted in a suicide attack inside his mosque in June of last year, shortly after leading the Friday congregation in prayer.

But the Barelvi community’s favorable stance toward the country’s notorious blasphemy laws and its decision to support Governor Taseer’s murderer demonstrate the fluidity of belief and group ideologies in Pakistan, rather than a strict dichotomy between Barelvis and others. This increasingly unclear line between hardliners and so-called moderates is all the more interesting when compared to developments taking place among Pakistan’s more literalist Deobandi clerics, including a fascinating debate that recently took place within its religious circles about the war in Afghanistan.

The debate – one largely overlooked by media organizations across the world – began last year when a young but well-esteemed Deobandi religious scholar, Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir (who also edits his own newsletter, Al Sharia) declared that it was not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. His statement signaled the rise of a conservative religious opposition to the Taliban, an opposition that could have a positive impact on the struggle against religious militancy in the region.

Note: This piece originally appeared online on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel on January 7. Read the full article.

Wajahat Ali is The Asia Foundation’s William P. Fuller Fellow. Currently, he is working with the New America Foundation as their South Asia Research Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Related locations: Pakistan
Related topics: William P. Fuller Fellowship in Peacebuilding


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