Sufism and the terrorist scourge - S Iftikhar Murshed - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The long night of terrorist violence in Pakistan was far from over when tragedy visited the country yet again on April 3. Two suicide bombers detonated themselves outside the shrine of celebrated Sufi saint Syed Ahmad Sakhi Sarwar near Dera Ghazi Khan. The attacks, within 20 minutes of each other, resulted in 50 fatalities, with more than a hundred devotees seriously injured. The devastation could have been even more horrific had the two other suicide terrorists in the area not been apprehended before they could carry out their deadly mission. As was to be expected, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility.

After the carnage, an editorial in an English newspaper of Lahore commented that the attacks on Sufi holy places signified a desperate attempt “to spread a stringent interpretation of a medieval brand of Islam, more in tune with Pakhtun tribal traditions wedded to a rigid jihadi doctrine.” But the assumption that “tribal Pakhtun traditions” are “wedded to a rigid jihadi doctrine” is erroneous.

Since May 22, 2006, when the shrine of Pir Syed Shah Bukhari in Hub in Balochistan was bombed, there have been 24 terrorist attacks on Sufi holy places. Seventeen were in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, nine of which occurred in the tribal areas. The most recent incident was the bomb explosion at Musa Neeka’s shrine in Angoor Adda, South Waziristan, on Jan 3. This was a day before the assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer because of his opposition to Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws.

However, the inescapable reality is that Pakhtuns, regardless of whether they are from the tribal or settled regions, are as influenced by Sufi traditions as are their compatriots in any other part of Pakistan. Tribal Pakhtuns do not exclusively adhere to the narrow and aggressive Wahhabi worldview in which good and evil are so sharply defined in line with the literalist interpretation of Islamic doctrine. This becomes all the more apparent when the sizeable presence of jihadi outfits in southern Punjab is factored in. Even worse, the PML-N and PPP politicians in the province have sought the support of the Sipah-e-Sahaba leader Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi during elections, a fact I mentioned in my article, “Not just the clerics” (Jan 16).

In September 2008, Owais Ghani, who was then governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, stated publicly that southern Punjab had become a fertile breeding ground for extremist groups and suicide bombers. Banned outfits with fanciful Islamic names continued to thrive in the area, although it was widely known that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had become an extension of Al-Qaeda, as had Jaish-e-Muhammad in Swat. Nothing was done to stop clerics preaching extremist venom from mosques and no effort was made to counter the rapid spread of the rejectionist Wahhabi mindset.

A far more troubling aspect of religion-motivated terrorist violence is the extent to which Pakistani society has been radicalised. How else would one explain the mammoth demonstrations held by the religious right in support of Salmaan Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. It is ironical that the leader of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who was in the forefront of these demonstrations, narrowly escaped two suicide-bomb attacks. He has to learn that religious extremism is a double-edged sword.

The targeting of shrines represents an assault on the Sufi culture which, over the centuries, became part of the fabric of South Asian Islam. It also reinforces the false narrative that Islam was spread by the sword; that Muslim armies plundered, wreaked havoc and destroyed; that vast multitudes were subjugated; that the edifice of the religion was built on the ruins and ashes of towns, cities and human settlements cruelly razed to the ground. Though this is far removed from the actual teachings of the Quran, which prohibits aggression and permits war only in self-defence, it is also undeniable that the early years of Muslim ascendancy saw military conquest; but this was certainly not indiscriminate and brutal, as it has been made out to be.

An army may be able of capturing territory and subjugating people for a while, but never over an extended period. Yet, with the exception of Europe, Islam remained wherever it went. This was because of the early Sufis. Their message was not of hate, it was of compassion. It was not violence that they preached, it was peace. Perhaps Islam did not remain in Europe because no savants accompanied its generals and captains to the doorsteps of the Hapsburg Empire and the sword failed in its mission. The early Muslims, no doubt, established an empire, but those parts of it which were not inspired by the inclusive Sufi philosophy of tolerance and fellow-feeling withered away.

The experience of South Asia is particularly instructive. Those who had lasting impact were not persons such as Mahmud of Ghazni. Between 1001 and 1026 AD, he invaded the subcontinent 17 times. It was the Sufis who altered the course of South Asian history. They remained when the armies had gone, and lived and died among the local people. They taught and explained the message of Islam, dispensed charity, tended the sick and brought solace to a people who lived under the rigid system of Hindu caste distinction. When Islam came to South Asia, multitudes, and in particular low-caste Hindus, converted to the faith, if only to escape the inequities of the hierarchical class structure. It was the Sufis, with their emphasis on love and equality, who hastened the process.

It is this spirit of compassion and tolerance that the extremist groups have targeted. Admittedly, the number of attacks on Sufi shrines is small, especially when compared to the countrywide terrorist incidents which last year alone totalled a staggering 2,113. They nevertheless reflect nervousness among terrorist outfits because Sufism poses a formidable challenge to the ideology of extremist violence.

Despite the relentless terrorist attacks in the country, there is still a hesitation to recognise that these attacks have been perpetrated by Pakistanis. As far back as Sept 8, 2008, Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that all suicide bombers and their handlers were Pakistan nationals and were being financed from within the country. He also said that the TTP and Al-Qaeda were hand-in-glove.

The storyline during the Musharraf era had been, and a storyline is precisely what it was, that the TTP and Al Qaeda were different entities. Thus, the military effort in the tribal areas was focused on the latter while little was done to rein in the Taliban. In time, the TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was to become “Pakistan’s enemy number one” and his elimination through a drone attack was widely welcomed, despite the ongoing clamour against such strikes.

With each terrorist attack, the president and the prime minister merely proclaim that the government will not be intimidated by the terrorists, who kill, maim and destroy in the name of religion. This was precisely what they again affirmed after the suicide bombers wreaked havoc in Dera Ghazi Khan. Yet, a well-thought-through counterterrorism strategy is not even on the anvil and the madressah reforms pledged by the prime minister in March 2008 are still in the drawing-board stage. So long as the government remains a passive bystander terrorist attacks will keep taking place.

The writer publishes the Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@gmail .com

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