By Anwar Iqbal
14 April, 2014
“Send a bouquet of your face with the morning breeze,” wrote Persian poet Hafez (1320-1389), who caught the fleeting glimpse of a beautiful girl on a terrace when he was 21. That one glimpse captured his heart, and he fell madly in love. This love ultimately led him to God.
The middle aged man with greying hair looked at his audience, paused and smiled. Young men and women would gather at this place in Islamabad once a week to listen to this man, who calls himself a follower of great Sufis. They liked what they heard and shared with others what they learned in these circles.
Sometimes, they also brought their friends with them. But new recruits were only welcomed in the beginning of a session. “We want to keep it small and effective,” he later explained. “We do not want a crowd here.”
But while attending one of the sessions, I also felt that both teacher and the students wanted to keep their lessons private.
“With so much madness around, you have to be careful,” a student later explained to me. “We do not want to have suicide-bomber knocking at the door.”
“Hafez was not the first man – nor was he the last – to be led to God by a woman,” said the teacher and I had to agree with the student who said they did not want to draw unnecessary attention. Imagine telling the Taliban foot soldiers that a woman can lead you to God!
The laboured journey to God
Today’s subject was tolerance and the teacher was telling his students that the Muslims were never as intolerant as they had become now and to prove his point, he quoted from history and literature, both prose and poetry.
From the medieval ages, he moved to the British Raj in India and to the early 20th century poetry written by Indian Muslims.
“In one of his poems, Allama Iqbal says that a man with Junoon (ecstasy of love) is better than an angel. And even God is within the reach of a man of courage,” he said.
“Actually, I am afraid of doing a literal translation as it may annoy some. Read the original Persian and see how open Iqbal was.”
Getting back to today’s intolerance, the teacher explained that people, like the Taliban learned about God in clerical seminaries, where children as young as 10 are forced to wake up at four in the morning and chant God's name until their minds go numb. This laboured journey to God, instils divine fear in the minds of these poor souls but does little to ignite divine love.
God is shown to them as someone who loves only those within the four walls of their own belief. All outside are enemies.
But when Hafez reached God, he declared: "I have learned so much from God, that I can no longer call myself a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew."
“More than 600 years separate us from Hafiz. But I remember as a child listening to such poems not just at the shrines of Sufi saints but also on the national radio and television in Pakistan. In fact, such songs are still sung at these shrines,” said the teacher. "I am not a Muslim in a mosque. Nor am I an infidel, worshipping idols. Bulleh who knows who I am!"
The teacher explained: Even now people dance to this song at the shrine of the great Sufi saints. But this popular culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence with other faiths has been taken over by a new culture, steeped in bigotry and intolerance.
How did this happen?
A cynical disillusion
Until recently, militant Islam had little support in the Islamic world but the situation began to change in the late 20th century when militant groups were armed to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. They outlived the Soviet Union and turned their guns on those who trained and armed them and also tried to impose their beliefs on other Muslims as well.
A general disenchantment with the current political system and the ruling elite also contributed to this.
Widespread corruption and the failure of a Western-inspired democratic system to address the social and economic weaknesses of the society add to this disillusion. In most Muslim countries, people don't trust the ruling elite. There is a general perception that such people may be good at making money but they have no desire or training to help others.
Gone are the days when people looked up to the Western-educated elite and believed that with their knowledge and expertise, they could help the poor.
The militants used the US presence in Afghanistan to further increase disenchantment by depicting this as a war between Islam and the West, which it never was.
Disillusion with the Westernised elite also turns into a dislike for the West when Muslims see Western governments often supporting totally corrupt -- and morally bankrupt -- rulers in the Islamic world. This is where the militants step in and present the West as a bully bent upon maintaining its hegemony over the Islamic world with the help of these corrupt Muslim rulers.
But despite this, there is still a widespread respect for Western technology, which many believe could help them jump several generations on the development ladder. So people want Western technology but not Western culture, which is presented to them by the militants as corrupt and Godless. However, this attitude is full of contradictions.
Everybody speaks against the Western culture but people still watch Western movies and listen to Western songs. Until recently, this was confined to the upper and middle classes but now even the lower classes are developing a taste for American films and music. As soon as they get money, even Muslim clerics send their children to schools where the teaching is in English, and encourage them to speak English at home. And if they get a little more money, they start dreaming of sending their children to universities in the West. Thus, the West is revered, even if grudgingly, for its prosperity and scientific achievements.
However, the possibility of benefiting from the West or Western education is still only available to a small proportion of the population. Most people don't benefit from it. They continue to live in abject poverty. In fact, no changes have had any impact on their lives.
Ask men or women in the street about how democracy is different from dictatorship and they would laugh. For most people, both are corrupt and both have nothing to offer.
"We struggle for bread and clothes, democracy or no democracy," would be the standard answer.
Nothing seems to work in the Islamic world. Political ideas and economic theories of all ilk and brand have been tried here. And, all have failed.
The Muslim nationalists tried to create Western nation states in countries that have not one but many nations with distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural features living within their boundaries. The socialists tried to impose a secular ideology on a people known for their devotion to Islam.
But if secular ideologies have failed, political Islam has not had a resounding success either. The Muslim radicals based their dreams of a pure and just Islamic society on people's attachment to religion. But instead of delivering any of the goods they had promised, they led their followers to a path that pitched Islam against the rest of the world.
Reforms, introduced by liberal Muslim rulers, helped improve the situation but only for some. Education was supposed to bring knowledge and prosperity to all. It did not. For most, it only increased their dreams without equipping them with the tools to make them come true.
Divided between the English (or French) schools of the elite and the ordinary schools for the rest of the country, the education system has created a large number of educated unemployed or under-employed.
Most of these unemployed or under-employed educated youths come from the schools established for the poor. Such schools keep churning out thousands of graduates every year but the establishment, dominated by the elite, has few jobs for them.
Totally disenchanted with a system, which has little to offer to them, these disenchanted people are beginning to go to Islamic militants for a solution, as some of them went to the Marxists before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They want change, any change and at any cost.
The cities are growing, slowly but steadily. Compared to the villages, the cities look very attractive. They have brick houses. They have schools and hospitals. They have tap water and, for some, even a sewage system. They have factories and offices where these millions of rural immigrants hope to find jobs.
But their dreams soon go sour. Only a few benefit from the facilities the cities offer. Most are forced to live in slums in miserable conditions. So their bitterness increases.
Although unable to provide them with the benefits of the modern life, the cities do expose the new comers to modern thoughts, courtesy of the media. They also develop, what the ruling elite calls, a disrespect for authority. They are no more subservient farmers, quietly following the plough. They are unhappy city dwellers who want their share in the system.
The cities are full of hundreds of thousands of such unhappy people who want to topple the system, peacefully and through democratic means if possible. But if not, they will use any other means that is made available to them. Hence, their attraction to militant groups.
The teacher finished his lecture. The class dispersed. I went to the teacher and asked: “How long before the militants find out?”
“Who knows,” he said and smiled.
Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC