By Muhammad Amir Rana
20 April 2019
A counter-ideological response to
neutralise and defeat terrorism has become a popular theme in the
anti-extremism discourse. It is widely believed that ideology is the key
motivating force behind the current wave of terrorism. In fact, academics,
journalists, and counter-terrorism experts take for granted that Islamic
extremism has its roots in a particular extremist version of religion.
Therefore, promotion of a moderate and peaceful version of religion is
essential to combat terrorism at its roots.
This ideological approach has led to some
interesting perspectives in the bid to find solutions to the problem of Islamic
extremism. One of the more attractive ones is the "Radicals versus
Sufis" perspective. According to this viewpoint, Takfiri, Salafi, and
Wahhabi ideologies are radical and responsible for promoting terrorism. Opposed
to these radical ideologies is Sufism, which is hailed as a moderate version of
Islam capable of countering radical ideologies.
The following assumptions underpin this
ideological approach to tackling terrorism:
· Al-Qaeda and
its affiliated groups gain ideological inspiration from Takfiri, Salafi, and
Wahhabi versions of Islam. Jihad is central to these ideologies, so they are
the sources of terrorism;
· The Salafi and
Wahhabi extremist movements have political agendas and want to impose their
version of Islam not only in Muslim states, but also throughout the world;
· Sufism, on the
other hand, stresses self-purification and has little or no political
dimension. So, it is a moderate movement and cannot pose any serious security
or political threat to the world;
· A Wahhabi
cannot be moderate; and
· A follower of
Sufism cannot be an extremist.
Given the popularity of these theories, it
is important to examine and question these assumptions. First, there is a need
to define the objectives of this approach (i.e. what do we intend to achieve by
promoting counter-ideologies?). The biggest challenges facing policymakers
across the world today are: elimination of terrorism; and neutralisation of the
systems created by the extremist forces. In that context, is it necessary—and
possible—to eliminate radical ideologies? And can these ideologies be countered
by Sufism alone?
Secondly, there is a need to comprehend the
Wahhabi and Salafi interpretation of Islam. Is extremism inherent in these
ideologies? If so, how and in which regions can we see its impact? Can these
ideologies not be transformed into the moderate ideologies? Conversely, are all
Sufi movements moderate and incapable of generating any violent movement? Are
Sufi ideologies intrinsically moderate or this perception is based on its
cultural expression of music, dance, festivals, etc?
The Case of Pakistan
In the case of Pakistan, the situation is
more complicated than the above "Radical versus Sufis" division
suggests. There are 22 organizations and parties that represent the
Wahhabi/Salafi sect. Out of them, only three—the Jamat ud-Da'wah (JuD), its
subsidiary group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and another small group Jamat
ul-Mujahedeen (JM)—favour militant jihad. Another Salafi militant group,
Tehreek ul-Mujahedeen, which is active in Kashmir, considers its movement a
part of the Kashmiri freedom struggle.
Apart from these groups, every other Wahabi
party considers "Jihad against the Self" (Jihad bil-Nafs) as the
greater jihad and believes that militant jihad cannot be waged until declared
by the state. These parties do not consider the jihad in Kashmir and
Afghanistan obligatory. The JuD, LeT and JM are also antagonistic towards the
current democratic system in Pakistan and want to enforce a Khilafah, or the
Caliphate, whereas the other Wahabi parties not only recognise Pakistan as a
legitimate, constitutional state, but also take part in electoral politics
individually or in alliance with other political parties.
Similar differences of opinion on jihad and
democracy are also found within the various groups of Deobandis, which are
usually put into the category of Wahhabis because of some common theological
precepts. Out of 46 major Deobandi parties in Pakistan, 10 are militant in
nature, with jihadist and sectarian agendas. Moreover, these militant parties
do not enjoy popular support from the mainstream religious clergy. Even on the
issue of support for the Taliban, there are diverse contradictory views within
the major Deoband political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. A large faction of the
party, led by Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani and Khaleed Somroo, remained
critical of the Taliban, even when they were in power in Afghanistan. Last
year, concerning the Lal Mosque issue in Islamabad, most of the Deobandi
clerics from religious-political parties and the Madressah Board had denounced
the activities of the students. So, the ideological demarcation within the
school(s) of thought tends to revolve around jihad.
Sufism is a complex and cross-cutting
belief system in Pakistan. Even the Deobandis believe in Sufism. Naqshbandi,
the major Sufi cult in Pakistan, is mainly comprised of the Deobandis.
Furthermore, it is also interesting that Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the
major terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad, is also believer of Sufism and has
restricted his followers to the practices of the Naqshbandi cult.
To further complicate the intermingling of
beliefs and practices, the Barelvis, who are considered to be representatives
of Sufism in Pakistan, are not free from pro-militant jihadi tendencies. In the
Kashmir insurgent movement during the 1990s the Barelvis were quite prominent.
Some Barelvi militant groups, such al-Baraq and Tehreek-e-Jihad, are still
active. Sunni Tehrik, a major Sunni sectarian group, was found to be involved
in the violent activities in Karachi and Interior Sindh. The Safi'es, an
important Sufi group in Afghanistan, was an ally of the Taliban in their
struggle to take over the country. They even managed to obtain a few important
government offices under the Taliban regime.
Pro-Sufism Barelvis dominate Pakistan's
religious landscape. The reason why they did not play a major role in the
Afghan jihad of the 1980s was not because of any religious or ideological
bindings, but because of political factors. The Saudi influence in the Afghan
jihad was another reason for their marginalization. The Saudis had supported
only Wahhabi and Deobandi groups during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet
Union. Moreover, the Arabs and Africans who took part of the Afghan jihad had
similar sectarian orientations as the Wahhabis and felt more at ease working
alongside the local Salafi and Deobandi commanders. The Afghan and Pakistani
groups had also preferred to work with Arab and African mujahideen because they
had the more substantial resources.
Had it not been for the Saudi and Arab
factor, the Barelvis too would have been able to secure their share in the
jihad effort. If that had happened, would the promotion of the Wahabi ideology
be suggested as a counter-strategy today?
When one ideology is supported financially,
morally and politically to counter the other, it can increase sectarian strife
in a society. Pakistan faced the consequences during the Afghan jihad as
sectarian strife dramatically increased in the country. Similarly,
strengthening one group or sect can give rise to similar trends in other sects.
So we see that many Sufi groups have also been radicalized and they are as
anti-US and anti-Western as other violent groups, though they lack the training
and resources received by the Deobandis and Wahabis.
Instead of targeting the entire
Wahhabi/Salafi community, can terrorism and political extremism not be
countered by encouraging the more moderate elements within the Salafi school of
It cannot be denied that the Wahhabi
movements have created challenges within Muslim societies. They have
marginalised the elements of moderation by promoting a narrow vision of Islam.
But how these movements are changing Muslim societies and what kind of
political, economic, cultural and social challenges they pose is a separate
issue. Their domestic and international implications demand different kinds of
strategies to the one proposed by counter-ideology theorists.
It is not a surprise that campaigns to
promote counter-Islamist ideologies like Sufism have had little success in
Pakistan. The official moderate enlightenment and Sufism movements have failed
to gain acceptance among the masses. Anti-US and anti-Western feelings are on
the rise in Pakistani society and any campaign aimed to counter these
sentiments is perceived as a part of the American agenda. It also remains a
fact that a large majority of the educated class in Pakistan considers the
spiritual rituals of the Pirs inappropriate and activities like use of drugs
and prostitution on the shrines immoral. The Sufi culture in Pakistan itself
needs reforms. That is why the government-sponsored enlightened moderation has
failed to attract common people. Instead, such efforts are increasing support
for radical movements.
To develop a comprehensive counter-extremism
strategy, there is a need to examine all the aspects of this problem and assess
the impact of promoting so-called moderate counter-ideologies in Muslim
Muhammad Amir Rana is the Director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace
Studies (PIPS), Islamabad, Pakistan