“Sufi card” very hard to play against Pakistani Taliban

sufi-musicians-2One 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.

zardari-sufiThe 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.”

Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India

asghar-ali-engineer“Bewildingerly diverse” is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.

Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I’ve transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post. (Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)


from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

After cricket, an attack on a revered Sufi shrine in Pakistan

The bombing of the mausoleum of a renowned Pashto mystic poet outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar has darkened the mood further in a nation already numbed by the attack on cricket, its favourite sport, when the Sri Lankan team were targeted in Lahore.

Taliban militants are suspected of being behind the attack on the shrine of Abdul Rehman at the foot of the Khyber pass, where for centuries musicians and poets have gathered in honour of the 17th century messenger of peace and love.

The militants were angry that women had been visiting the shrine of the Rehman Baba as he was popularly known and so they planted explosives around the pillars of the tomb, to pull down the mausoleum in an echo of the Taliban bombing of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan back in 2001. The structure was damaged and the grave blown up, Dawn reported.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Kashmir’s lost generation

Kashmiri children wait for gunbattle to end (file photo)/Fayaz KabliiOne of the more troublesome aspects of the latest protests in Kashmir, among the biggest since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989, is the impact on the younger generation.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra writes that India's attempt to crush the revolt in 1989 and 1990 ended up provoking many young Kashmiris to take to arms and embrace radical Islam. 

"A new generation of politicized Kashmiris has now risen; the world is again likely to ignore them - until some of them turn into terrorists with Qaeda links," he writes.  Calling on India to take some first steps to ease the situation by cutting the number of troops in the Kashmir Valley and allowing Kashmiris to trade freely across the Line of Control -- the military demarcation line which divides the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan -- he says the past record does not inspire much hope.

Senegal Sufi leader conducts Muslim naming ritual by cellphone

Cheikh Bethio with some of his followersIt seemed incongruous for the marabout to answer his mobile phone while conducting prayers. The faithful were gathered on mats around his ornate deckchair and I was at his feet waiting to speak to him for our feature on Senegal’s Mouride Sufi brotherhood entitled “Fake Prada Fuels Senegal’s Muslim brotherhood. ” The scene illustrated how close together the ancient and the modern as well as the spiritual and the material sit for members of the brotherhood.

It was one of his talibe, or followers (the term in the local language Wolof comes from the same Arabic word “talib” — religious student — that has become notorious in a different context in Afghanistan). The caller asked the cheikh to perform a Muslim naming ritual for the latest addition to his family. Seated in the sandy compound of one of his many homes, Cheikh Bethio was happy to oblige right away. He asked the family to hold the phone to the baby’s forehead, right ear, left ear and genitals while he whispered its name and blew into the phone. The faithful at his feet bowed their heads and kept silent. They’re used to such interruptions – sometimes he even performs weddings this way.

A Mouride follower of Cheikh Bethio wearing his pictureMouridism, a Sufi Islamic movement based in Senegal’s holy city of Touba, preaches hard work as a means to paradise and the accumulation of wealth so as to build mosques, Koranic schools and help the poor. Its devotees have taken the lesson to heart and the result is a network of small businessmen and traders who combine religious fervor with a natural Senegalese ability to drive a hard bargain. Mourides run the majority of stalls in Senegal’s markets. They are the producers, promoters and retailers behind its thriving music industry, which has borne such stars as Youssou N’Dour and Cheikh Lo. They control its trucking and bus companies and own tens of thousands of hectares of its peanut plantations. Hip-hop superstar Akon and English premier league footballer El Hadji Diouf rank among their number.