“Sufi card” very hard to play against Pakistani Taliban
One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it’s suffered a stinging set-back in practice…
(Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)
Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority is not truly Muslim.
The late President General Zia-ul Haq was a Deobandi. With massive support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and other countries, he favoured Afghan guerrilla groups influenced by the Deobandis and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union.
(Photo: Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari prays at shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, 12 Sept 2008/Akram Shahid)
As the Swat Valley crisis came to a military showdown, Barelvi leaders who had stood quietly on the sidelines for years began to organise anti-Taliban rallies to stand up for their peaceful view of Islam and support the government’s military drive against the Taliban. “What these militants were doing was un-Islamic. Beheading innocent people and kidnapping are in no way condoned in Islam,” Sahibzada Fazal Karim, a leader of the moderate Islamist party Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Pakistan who organised some rallies, told Reuters in early May.
Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, a senior Barelvi leader in Lahore, told our Islamabad correspondent Zeeshan Haider at the time that mainstream Muslim leaders like himself could no longer stay silent in the face of the Taliban threat. “They want people to fight one another, that’s why we have kept silent and endured their oppression,” he said. “We don’t want civil war … But God forbid, if the government fails to stop them, then we will confront them ourselves.”
Apart from his anti-Taliban campaigning, Naeemi was very much a traditional Barelvi mufti. He was a leading figure in Sunni groups advocating sharia enforcement, ran a madrassa in Lahore and sat on boards govering Barelvi madrassas, according to his obituary in the Pakistani daily The News. He lost a government post and was briefly arrested after protesting against Pakistani logistical support for the U.S. “war on terror” and was arrested again for protesting against the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. These views might not be called moderate positions in world Islam, but they were quite traditional and middle-of-the-road on the Pakistani religious spectrum.
(Photo: Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, 17 July 2005/Mohsin Raza)
On June 12, five days after Islamabad announced the formation of its Sufi council, a teenage Taliban suicide bomber walked into Naeemi’s office in the Lahore madrassa and blew himself up, killing the mufti. The message was unmistakable — Pakistan’s Barelvis may have local Islamic tradition and popular support on their side, but the trump card in this fight right now is violence, not Sufism. The Taliban challenge is an armed insurrection powerful enough to intimidate the tolerant Sufis into submission.
Ali Eteraz, a keen Pakistani-American observer of militant Islam, has just published an interesting analysis in Foreign Policy that further undermines the Sufi trump card theory:
“State-sponsored Sufism (which the SAC is) gets everything backward: In an environment where demagogues are using religion to conceal their true political and material ambitions, establishing another official, “preferred” theological ideology won’t roll back their influence. Minimizing the role of all religion in government would be a better idea. Only then could people begin to speak about rights and liberty,” he writes on the FP website.
(Photo: Naeemi’s office after the bomb, 12 June 2009/Mohsin Raza)
“The SAC will undoubtedly embolden extremists by giving them ideological motivation: They now have evidence to provide young recruits and foot soldiers that the “war” they are fighting is, in fact, about the integrity of Islam. Far from reducing extremists’ influence, the SAC is doing them a favor…
“After years of bemoaning official Saudi sponsorship of Wahhabism, and condemning official Iranian sponsorship of millenarian Islam, we are now being asked to celebrate a state-sponsored brand of Islam in Pakistan. We are asked to believe this is “different” from those other cases solely because it’s a version of the religion that looks benign. But not only is this unprincipled — it is going to backfire, leaving Sufism discredited and more religious resentment among the numerous peaceful Salafis in the world.”
What do you think? Does Sufism have any role to play in this struggle?