One of the terrorists in the attack near the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, which seriously injured two, has named his “guide” as Ilyas Qadri, the founder and leader of Dawat-e-Islami, a Barelvi group founded in 1980 in Pakistan.
South Asian Sunni Islam primarily comprises two leading clerical sects: the Barelvis and the Deobandis. Both were established in the 19th century, combining South Asian Sufi influences with elements of Islamic revivalism. Today, much of Pakistani politics revolves around the violent rivalry between the two sects.
Deobandi Islam is widely regarded as the more extreme, with Dr. Ejaz Hussain at the University of Pennsylvania estimating that although about 20% of Muslims in Pakistan are Deobandi, an astonishing 90% of terrorist operatives are from Deobandi backgrounds. Notorious terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad along with organizations implicated in dozens of terror plots such as Talbighi Jamaat, are all from the Deobandi fold.
Consequently, many have looked to Barlevis as the moderate alternative. But this might be a mistake.
The attempted murders in Paris were not the first acts of violence linked to Dawat-e-Islami. A number of Barelvi leaders have long worked to eradicate those regarded as blasphemers.
The very same Ilyas Qadri has declared that “All Muslim scholars agree that a blasphemer must be killed but it is up to an Islamic govt to execute the punishment. However, if a lover of the Prophet kills a blasphemer extra-judicially, as per Islamic jurisprudence, the killer is not executed.”
In 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his own police officers, a Dawat-e-Islami member who gunned down the reformist politician because of his opposition to a death sentence handed down to a Pakistani Christian convicted of blasphemy.
In fact, it was another leading Barelvi figure in Pakistan, Tahir ul-Qadri, who was responsible for introducing Pakstan’s capital punishment laws for blasphemy. These laws have been cited and applied in the persecution and killing of Pakistan’s minorities – especially Pakistani Christians and members of the minority Ahmadiyyah sect. Qadri recommends that blasphemers should be “murdered and kicked like a dog into hellfire.”
Across Pakistan, in fact, other Barelvi groups have also increasingly embraced violent methods.
Dawat-e-Islami’s own violent influence is not limited to Pakistan, however. Long before the recent Paris attack, the man who murdered an Ahmadi Muslim in Britain in 2016 was reportedly a member of Dawat-e-Islami and a group named Khatme Nubuwwat.
The latter is organization solely dedicated to justifying and promoting the eradication of Ahmadi Muslims. It is run jointly by Barelvi and Deobandi activists — amid their otherwise internecine hatreds, it appears, despairingly, that the murder of a minority Muslim group offers common ground.
Khatme Nubuwwat has a heavy presence in the United States. In 2017, it hosted a conference in Virginia, attended by prominent Barelvi and Deobandi clerics, and supported by half a dozen American mosques tied to the movement, who warned that Ahmadis were conspiring to prevent Muslims from “fighting jihad and committing bloodshed,” and discussed plans to lobby for the criminalization of the Ahmaddiyah faith in America.
Dawat-e-Islami operates its own distinct network in the United States as well, establishing mosques all across the country.
Is the federal government monitoring such lesser-known, dangerous movements? We have not seen any indication that they are. Unless these South Asian Islamists are taken seriously, how long before a member of Dawat-e-Islami, Khatme Nubuwwat or another radical Barelvi group commits murder on the streets of an American city?