By Shobhan Saxena,
19 Apr 2009
What has a bunch of dervishes whirling round a fire got to do with down-and-dirty politics and shady wars among nations? A lot, if you are fighting a lost battle in the area of darkness that stretches from Lahore to Mingora, to Jalalabad and beyond — where religion is used as fuel for the engines of war. As the Pakistani Taliban appears to tighten its noose around the country’s neck, Islamabad is trying to open a new front —faith wars between two strains of Islam. This lies in the hope that the deep-rooted Sufi tradition would help to halt the al-Qaida/Taliban juggernaut — driven by Wahabism.
Last week, even as President Zardari inked the deal that gives the Taliban a free hand in imposing Shariah in Swat, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who belongs to a family of pirs, was publicly talking about the role Sufism could play in checking extremism.
But not everyone agrees. Ayesha Siddiqa, Islamabad-based analyst, says that “Southern Punjab, once a hub of Sufi Islam, is a region lately making waves in terms of growing militancy. This is not to argue that the influence of pirs has reduced, but that there is a certain vacuum which is now being filled by a more rabid brand of Islam”.
But Siddiqa is one of the very few who advise caution. Invoking Sufism in a time of war at home makes sense to Pakistani politicians. Every Thursday, thousands of Sufi shrines across the country come to life as rich and poor, migrants, settled workers and different ethnicities come together to pray and party. Amid the beats of the dhol and strains of qawali, the shrines look like party zones, with dancing transvestites, ganja-smoking men huddling around fires, and devotees expressing their love for Him.
This form of devotion is being seen as a powerful force by Gilani, his government and Pakistan’s foreign advisors. But can Sufism resist the wave of orthodox Islam in Pakistan?
Scholars believe they have a reason to be hopeful. “In the past decade, especially since 9/11, there has been a powerful Sufi resurgence all over the Muslim world in direct response to the literalism and spiritual and ethical bankruptcy of Wahhabi Islam. Many Muslims have found in Sufism a rich religious tradition and reclamation of the soul of Islam,” says Khaled Abou El Fadl, Alfi professor of law at UCLA.
The idea has been around for a while. In a 2007 report, ‘Building moderate Muslim networks’, the American think tank, RAND Corporation, identified Sufism “as one of the potential forces that must be strengthened to fight the rising extremism”. Closer home, Islamic scholar Rafiq Zakaria’s book, The Struggle Within Islam, advocated a radical Sufism that “could offer an alternative to the Wahabi totalitarianism”. Now, a new book, The Other Islam by Stephen Schwartz argues that Sufism “offers the clearest Muslim option for reconciliation between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds.”
Is much of this overstatement? An Indian intelligence official, who doesn’t want to be named, war-ns that “the clash between the two forms (of Islam) can take a dangerous turn as happened in Iraq, where thousands of people were killed near the shrines of Sufi saints. It’s a dangerous situation out there”. This conflict might have already arrived in India. “The fundamentalists are trying to undermine Sufis. Even in India, some groups, funded by the Saudis, have attacked Sufi shrines like Ajmer Sharif to dissuade people from visiting these places,” says Maroof Raza, a Delhi-based defence analyst.
So, are the voices of pirs drowned out by the crackle of gunfire? Experts are not giving up. Last week, at a conference organized by IPPAI and Aviation Watch, terrorism experts, religious leaders and social scientists discussed “the ideal strategy to counter terrorism”. It says something that the meet ended with Kailash Kher entertaining the gathering with his Sufi songs. It sent a subtle message: there is still a role for the whirling dervish in complex geopolitical games.
Courtesy: The Times of India