Praveen Swami

Last week's terror bombing in Karachi points to one of the least-examined faultlines in Pakistan: the war for power between Barelvi and Deobandi clerics.

PAKISTAN'S RELIGIOUS right is at war with itself, with clerics locked in a mortal combat that could have more fateful consequences for the future of the nation than any of the several crises that have enveloped it since 2001.

Last week, a massive explosion at a Karachi congregation, held to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, claimed 57 lives and left over 200 injured. The congregation was organised by the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, a body of the Barelvi religious sect that is opposed to Islamist groups affiliated to the Deobandi and Salafi traditions such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis.

Experts believe that the bombers targeted Abbas Qadri, Amir or supreme leader of the Sunni Tehreek, a Barelvi organisation fighting since 1992 to regain mosques which it claims were usurped by the sect's opponents. Sunni Tehreek leaders claim to have seized at least 62 Deobandi and Salafi mosques between 1992 and 2002 in ways that have on occasion sparked violence.

To those familiar with Pakistan's ugly history of sectarian conflict, the signs are ominous. In May 2001, murderous sectarian riots broke out after Sunni Tehreek leader Saleem Qadri was assassinated by the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, a Deoband-affiliated terrorist group. His successor, Abbas Qadri, charged President Pervez Musharraf's regime with "patronising terrorists" and "standing between us and the murderers."

After Abbas Qadri's death, one thing is clear: someone, sooner rather than later, will seek to settle the Sunni Tehreek's unfinished business with his murderers.

Shia and Sunni sectarian organisations have long been locked in murderous conflict. Last week's bombing though was executed by a Sunni terrorist organisation, targeting other Sunnis. What is this conflict all about?

Set up at Karachi in 1956, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat, or Organisation of the Followers of the Scripture, rapidly emerged as one of the largest organisations of the Barelvi faith. According to Mohammad Amir Rana's encyclopaedic A-Z of Jihadi Organisations in Pakistan, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat is raising upwards of Rs. 400,000,000 to build educational and social service institutions and even a bank.

Barelvi organisations such as the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat represent the mainstream of popular Islam in South Asia, drawing on theologian Raza Ahmad Khan (1856-1921). In the Barelvi tradition, the Prophet is an immanent presence, not flesh [bashar] but rather light [nur]. For followers of the high traditions that emerged from the Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, the Prophet is a perfect human [insan-i-kamil] but a mortal nonetheless.

In practice, the Barelvis believe in intercession between humans and the divine through Pirs or holy personages who are bound in a chain that reaches, eventually, to the Prophet. The Barelvis venerate the tombs of Pirs and holy relics. Deobandi groups, such as the West Asia-based Salafi school, argue that these practices which include celebration of the Prophet's birthday are heretical deviations from scripture.

While the Pakistan Movement drew much of its support from the Barelvis, the Indian National Congress had the support of Deoband. In the years after the creation of Pakistan though the elite rallied behind the high-church practices of Deoband. The Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis flourished, making significant inroads into Pakistan's most important institution army.

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq threw the resources of the state behind Deobandi-Salafi clerics, hoping to contain Shia radicals. However, this course of action had two unanticipated consequences. First, the emergence of anti-Shia terror groups provoked a backlash from the minority. Secondly, the Barelvi groups also began to mobilise against the growing influence of their Deobandi radicals.

Put simply, the Barelvi tradition might have been concerned more with personal piety than political power but the clerics who represent it were not about to sit back and watch the state destroy their authority. By the time of the assassination of Saleem Qadri in 2001, these tensions were coming to a head. Now with the terror bombing of the Karachi congregation, they threaten to tear Pakistan apart.

Competitive communalism

Do Pakistan's Barelvi clerics, as some in India argue, represent a benign traditionalist piety, hostile to the jihad-enthusiasm of Deoband? Not quite. Like its Deobandi counterparts, the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat has been associated with Islamist causes across the world. A manifesto published after its April 2000 convention in Multan commits the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat to expressly political causes such as preparing "a plan of action to help all the oppressed Muslims in the world, particularly the Kashmiri mujahideen," and to "protect and publicise the concept of Pakistan."

Several major terrorist groups active in Jammu and Kashmir, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front, the Tehreek-i-Jihad and the al-Barq have emerged with support from the Barelvi clerical establishment. While none is as large as the Hizb ul-Mujahideen or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the groups have demonstrated their capabilities more than once: the JKIF, for example, was responsible for the bombing of a crowded New Delhi market in 1996.

Several Barelvi organisations have taken even more expressly Islamist postures than the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat. For example, Pir Mohammad Afzal Qadri's Aalami Tanzim Ahl-e-Sunnat, or the World Movement of the Followers of the Scripture, which was set up in May 1998, responded to the growth of the Tablighi Jamaat by campaigning for the creation of an Islamic state.

Aalami Tanzim leaders initiated their activities with a 1999 demonstration in Rawalpindi, followed in quick time by a protest at the Army's General Headquarters. Its cadre held up placards that demanded: "Rulers, implement the Nizam-e-Mustafa [Order of the Prophet] upon yourself." The organisation's literature attacked rival Islamist groups for creating "a soft corner for false religions and thus causing great damage."

Like both the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat and the Deobandi organisations it opposed, the Aalami Tanzim was also not opposed to Islamist terrorism. Amongst its other front organisations is the Lashkar Ahl-e-Sunnat, which funnelled both funds and cadre to terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-i-Jihad. Led by Ghulam Farid Usmani, the Lashkar Ahl-e-Sunnat is committed to a "jihad for Allah and the supremacy of Islam."

At the heart of the conflict then is competition among clerics for retaining and expanding their power. The massive flow of funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to organisations such as the Ahl-e-Hadith and the Tablighi Jamaat brought the traditional authority of Barelvi clerics under siege, provoking them to respond by creating their own jihadi groups, political fronts and institutions of patronage.

A troubled future

It is no coincidence that the Karachi bombing came in the midst of a renewed mobilisation by religious right, aimed at taking power in Pakistan through the 2007 elections.

With the military allowing little space for mainstream political organisations such as the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party or the deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, the clerics grouped together in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal are sensing real opportunity. Organisations such as the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat undermine their claim to speak for Islam hence, it seems likely, the Karachi attack.

Little noticed, competition amongst the Barelvis' rivals has also been escalating. Last year, Pakistani journalist Khalid Ahmad pointed to intense fighting within the ranks of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, the sect from which the Lashkar was born, with at least 17 separate organisations scrambling for space. On more than one occasion, intra-sect invective has been at least as acid as anything directed at supposed heretics.

For example, after the Lashkar chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, criticised the Markazi Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith for its lack of support for armed jihad, he promptly faced retaliatory allegations. The head of the Markazi Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, Qari Abdul Hafeez, charged Saeed with authorising the detention of kidnapped women slaves, bank robbery, and misappropriation of funds.

Under other circumstances, scurrilous polemic traded among clerics would be little more than public entertainment. But the fact that clerics on all sides of the ideological divide have access to formidable military resources the wages of the use of jihad as an instrument of state policy means that theocratic disputes pose a real threat to the fabric of civil society in Pakistan.

Despite repeated demonstrations that the costs of the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir are at least as high for Pakistan itself, President Musharraf's regime has shown few signs that it is willing to break with the past. Unless it finds the courage and good sense to do so, the only real question emerging from the unimaginable horror in Karachi is just when and where it will repeat itself.