The airport assault should give Junaid Jamshed cause for introspection as fault-lines grow within Sunni Islam

This growing radicalization among Barelvi youth is a menace that will eat away what is left of our society

How on Earth would Junaid Jamshed even have thought of what happened to him last night? A small Barelvi group who landed in Islamabad last night to attend the chehlum of Mumtaz Qadri roughed Junaid Jamshed up at the airport.

Punching and kicking him, they chanted ‘Labaik Ya Rasoolullah’ while abusing Junaid Jamshed in the same breath. “We have been looking for him,” said one of the ‘vigilantes’. Junaid Jamshed was accused of having committed blasphemy against the Prophet’s wife, Aisha last year.

Since he is a Deobandi himself, ‘thaykedaars’ of this cause, Sipah-e-Sahaba or ASWJ remained silent. One of the lead Deobandi cleric Mufti Naeem even publicly acquitted him of any charges and Tariq Jameel pleaded forgiveness for him. 

However, Barelvi clerics issued a fatwa against him and he had to leave the country to save his life.

The issue was thought to be long forgotten until the video which emerged on social media last night. It is a chilling reminder of growing intolerance among Pakistani society.

People in the video point towards a much-ignored phenomenon – Barelvi violence. In one of my columns earlier this year, I pointed out the extremist trends in Barelvis:

“The ideology of takfir is rooted deep in the Barelvi sect as it dates back to their spiritual founder, Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi. He wrote a book, Hussam al haramain consisting of his fatwas, said to be endorsed by ulema of Mecca and Medina. In this book, he held Deobandis for not giving Prophet Muhammad the due respect and thus accused them of heresy.”

With Dictator Zia backing hardline JI, Deobandi and Ahle Hadith organizations for Afghan Jihad, their influence started spreading in Pakistan as well. The initiation of Sipah-e-Sahaba in 1985 was a clear sign of the Zia government giving a free hand to sectarian Deobandis. The trend continued with Kashmir Jihad as well with Deobandi and Ahle Hadith organizations getting the major funds.

Barelvis, who constitute the majority population of Pakistan felt left out. Ilyas Qadri, with his Dawat-i-Islami resisted the growing influence of SSP in Karachi but didn’t succeed. Salim Qadri, a more radical of Barelvi clerics parted ways with Dawat-i-Islami to form Sunni Tehreek, which he described was formed to resist Deobandi influence and reclaim the mosques which he said were once Barelvis.

Skirmishes with Deobandis became a normal in Karachi and Hyderabad until Salim Qadri’s death by the hands of SSP terrorists which led to full-scale sectarian riots in 2001.

Since then, Barelvis have mostly confined themselves to urs, milad and other apolitical practices. Even then, blasphemy has been a major point scoring issue for Barelvis. Whether it’s the caricatures of the Prophet or the death of Amir Cheema, they readily cashed in on the sentiments.

Salmaan Taseer’s open support for Asia Bibi and his call for reforms in the current blasphemy laws helped them gain momentum as the likes of Hanif Qureshi appeared in public gatherings to oppose Taseer’s calls – even threatening him. After Mumtaz Qadri martyred Taseer in broad daylight, Barelvis finally got much-needed attention. They became the champions of Qadri’s cause and campaigned to stop his conviction.

State’s resolve to deal these zealots with iron hand became clear with Qadri’s execution – the moment of fame for all religio-political parties. With Barelvis being the leaders, Deobandis, Ahle Hadith, Jamat-i-Islami and even some sections of Shias followed the lead – protesting his death. To much of their disappointment, media, the staircase to fame, blacked them out. Totally.

Frustrated columns and editorials in far-right papers showed the pattern of their thinking. Media houses were physically attacked, anchors criticized for not covering their protests.

This growing radicalization among Barelvi youth is a menace that will eat away what is left of our society. If not dealt with now, the menace will keep growing like a virus and become very dangerous given Barelvis are in majority in Pakistan.

Coming back to Junaid Jamshed, the attack surely left him shaken as he tweeted:

Such a beautiful thought by Junaid, no? For long, Junaid Jamshed has been a ‘religious fanatic’ that he has mentioned in his tweet. From giving sexist remarks like women should not drive to ‘God dislikes that any woman should be named in the Quran’, he has shown his misogynist tendencies. He has been a part of organization which works as the first towards radicalization. Must he not give up his job and campaign to rid Pakistan of these fanatics?

After this troubling incident, shouldn’t he spearhead a campaign to free Asia Bibi – another victim of a troubled ideology like him? Because clearly, if a ’pious’ Muslim like Junaid Jamshed can get a thrashing from mullahs over false allegations, it is quite certain a poor Christian girl’s case would have been manhandled.

That said, the attack is unjustifiable, horrific and a violent attempt to take the right of freedom of speech from someone. Regardless of one’s ideological affiliation, the attack on Junaid Jamshed must be condemned.

I hope the attackers, who have already been identified on social media are served justice. I also hope the attack leads Junaid Jamshed to reject all the ideals he has been propagating for years because the very same ideals have come to back to hunt for his life.

Umer Ali is an Islamabad-based journalist who reads and writes about Pakistan and its history. He aspires to see a tolerant and progressive Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter