Apr 182008

THE PML-Q is no longer part of the ruling coalition and the people are now too involved with the new government. However, this should not stop anyone from revisiting the party’s election manifesto which was noticeable for its emphasis on encouraging Sufi Islam in the country.

Such a suggestion was made despite the fact that numerous PML-Q leaders have good relations with sources of Wahabism and extremism in the country. Take for instance, the links between Ejazul Haq and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and the clerics of Lal Masjid. Perhaps, the leadership, like the majority of Pakistanis, is confused about the interpretation of religion.

Nevertheless, this critique does not reduce the significance of looking at the proposal of Sufi Islam as an alternative to extremism and the radicalisation of segments of the population. How does one bring back Sufi Islam which was inherently more secular in its approach, connected people from different religious communities, and was a major source of the spread of religion in the Indian subcontinent? A lot of people refer to the Sufi tradition as representing the Barelvi school of thought.

A glance across Pakistan shows numerous shrines and mausoleums spread all over including in the Frontier Province which is considered more radical in terms of the people’s faith. The Sufis had come to the region from outside or were men and women belonging to the region who preached religion and spirituality. The names of shrines like Data Gunj Bukhsh, Bari Imam, Golra Sharif, Uch Sharif, Shahbaz Qalandar and others in Pakistan or Nizam-ud-Din Aulia and Ajmer Sharif in India are some of the many examples of the Sufi tradition.

However, things began to change during the 1980s, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when it became critical for the CIA and ISI to prepare and train religiously inclined segments of the population for greater radicalisation so that a war could be fought. The use of religious ideology as a source of inspiration had been employed earlier as well during the Bhutto regime as a means of countering a move by Afghanistan’s President Daud to encourage the ethnic card in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, it was General Ziaul Haq who can be held responsible for not only unleashing radical Islamist forces but also encouraging them to begin a phase of reformation in religion which aimed at redefining a lot of concepts including that pertaining to war and conflict. The state machinery including the American CIA and Pakistan’s ISI sought a partnership with the religious parties and militant groups to fight the war in Afghanistan.

Now both sides make counter claims. The Jamaat-i-Islami, for instance, says that it was instrumental in inspiring the Afghans. The ISI officials, on the other hand, claim that the agency was instrumental in helping the Jamaat and others to play a role.

In a nutshell, today’s extremists were born of the wedlock between General Ziaul Haq and radical religious groups and parties with the US initially playing the role of the groom’s best man. Even after the US had left the region following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the linkage between the militant groups and the ISI continued. The relationship was based on the realisation that a firebrand kind of religious ideology was critical in inspiring people to fight a war and gradually changing the geostrategic and geopolitical scene.

The period after the 1980s was critical in redefining and fine-tuning the concept of jihad. The war in Islam no longer remained a defensive one but became an offensive war to be fought against soft targets. In the more recent past, this definition has been expanded to tactics such as suicide bombings. Islam’s radical clerics and extremist elements see this as an effective tool of war. Young children, men and women are now told that this is essentially part of how jihad was defined in their religion.

Unfortunately, the world of Islam still lacks an institutionalised alternative voice from the religious mainstream who can contest the prevalent definition. The alternative voices which preach peace and discourage extremism, unfortunately, do not belong to the mainstream. The professors teaching religious studies or encouraging inter-faith dialogue in American universities do not necessarily have any influence on religious discourse in the Muslim world.

Given the spate of suicide attacks in Pakistan it is sad that most clerics and scholars of Islam from the mainstream have shied away from condemning such acts or expressing their opinion on the issue. For instance, the question which clerics from the Jamaat-i-Islami or others such as Farhat Hashmi must address is whether killing your own people is part of jihad. Condemning such acts privately does not have the same effect.

The question now is whether Sufi Islam in Pakistan can curb extremism? Logically, the representatives or families of the Sufi tradition have a direct interest in countering this influence. Thanks to years of General Ziaul Haq, we saw places known for Sufi culture giving birth to extremism. Although the influence of Sufi shrines continued to draw people and some scholars claim that the number of Barelvis had increased or remained constant, the fact is that such areas also became known for greater radicalisation.

The centres of spiritualism became a catchment area for both the pirs and the extremists. The power and influence of the militants, who were now backed by government agencies, attracted young men towards extremist values. For example, in spite of the shrines in Bahawalpur and Sindh, a limited number of people also started to follow the Deobandi and Wahabi school of thought and started to produce jihadis.

The existing Sufi tradition could not become a bulwark against extremism because the pirs themselves had stopped delivering to the people in terms of their spiritual needs and had become very much part of the institutional state power. Traditionally, the Sufis and the pirs used to negotiate between secular state forces and spiritualism. However, the new generation of pirs was subject to greater state intervention.

For example, General Zia was critical in bringing about the change in the leadership of the dargah of Bari Imam. Most pirs in Pakistan today no longer negotiate between the religious and spiritual and the secular. Instead, they have become linchpins of state power and vie with the authorities for greater political influence and material benefits.

The obsession with power made it impossible for these people to emphasise secular spiritual values and teach a lesson of peace and amity. There was least interest in countering the proliferation of Wahabi ideology or radical beliefs.

An alternative to radical Islam will not be produced until such forces gain institutional strength and are willing to engage the believers in an equally powerful and substitute discourse. n

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.


Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 18/4/2008

 Posted by at 6:10 pm

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