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A Muslim Malaise: The Spread of Obscurantism, Hatred and Religious Violence across the Length and Breadth of Islamic Lands



By Zubair Murshed

8 Aug 2013

·          ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I'll meet you there.’

·         –Rumi

Religious obscurantism and intolerance is spreading quickly in Pakistan for various reasons. The followers of different denominations now preach regressive ideas of faith and many promote violence as a means to spread their brand of faith. The spread of religious bigotry threatens our way of life, for one can be a justified target for persecution by extremist groups for not wearing beard or veil, playing cricket, listening music, singing or dancing, not fasting, praying in a ‘wrong mosque’, having a different sounding name, wearing a different-coloured dress and so on and so forth.

The spread of obscurantism amongst followers of various denominations, in recent times, though has emerged as a reaction to or an inspiration from one streak of faith – the Salafism or Wahabism. The Salafism prides itself upon ultra-conservatism, hate-speech and forceful action to prevent vice and spread virtue. In many cases now it calls for achievement of political power to spread faith.

While we must worry about the spread of obscurantism amongst all denominations of faith in Pakistan, which are turning people into bigots, the one streak we worry the most is Salafism. The reason being: Salafism which has the financial backing, organizational infrastructure, social appeal and political patronage to take over our country, our society, like it has in many other Muslim countries.

Over the past three decades, Salafism has spread across cities, villages and deserts of Muslim world from Mali to Malaysia, Tunis to Tajikistan, Algeria to Afghanistan, and Somalia to Senegal. It is no coincident that all major terrorist groups follow the Salafist philosophy be it Al Qaida, the Taliban (Afghanistan and Pakistan), the Al Shabab (Somalia), the Boko Haram (Nigeria), Ansar Al Dine (Mali), the Algerian Islamists, the Abu Sayaff (Philippines), and the Hizb-e-Tehrir (UK). The followers of Salafism may be small in numbers at present, but they are increasing in a persistent manner, slowly, but surely, like the cells of cancer spread in the body of a feeble patient.

If one can point finger upon one source from where Salafism flows, it is Saudi Arabia where the malaise spread with state patronage initially, but lately by the private followers of Al Sheikh family – Al Sheikh the family of Mohamed Ibn-e-Abdel Wahab – the second most powerful family in Saudi Arabia after the Royal Sauds, the family which enjoys absolute authority over religious matters in Saudi Arabia and beyond through the foreign service of that country.

There are various reasons for the acceptance of Salafism amongst masses. First, the millions of migrant workers from Tunis, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen and other countries have served as primary carriers of extremist ideology from Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, when the oil-rich Kingdom embarked upon large scale construction and it started employing masons, labourers, drivers, cooks, housemaids, sweepers, cleaners and security guards from poorer Muslim countries, to meet the demands of affluent Saudi society. Second, the billions of dollars funnelled by Saudi state and private charities to the appeasement of Al Sheikh family have contributed greatly to the mushrooming of a vast network of Salafi seminaries, mosques and universities across Islamic lands, which are busy spreading the message of hate by day and night amongst millions of masses.

A variety of exogenous factors have also been crucial in the spread of Salafist philosophy amongst slum dwellers, middle class colonies and posh urban neighbourhoods. First, the psychological need of educated classes to find an intellectual framework that helps to cope with pressures of urban living, while letting them enjoy the benefits of city life. Salafism has fulfilled this need by its focus upon display-oriented ritualistic piety, which provides spiritual/social satisfaction to the performer, without burdening his mind with the contemplative Sufi path to spiritual satisfaction. The emphasis of Salafism upon direct association to God, without the mediatory role of saints, also appeals strongly to the individualistic urban mind.

Secondly, a vast majority of masses in a country like Pakistan, Egypt or Afghanistan gets its value system and world view from cleric of the mosque or the preacher at seminary. The absence of any state control over the appointment of clerics has resulted in capturing of seminaries and mosques by individuals of poor theological qualification and weak worldly knowledge. Thus, the Salafists sponsored by the oil wealth have taken over mosques far and wide in an organized manner, not to mention the schools, colleges and universities that organizations of Salafist bent are running to convert generations to their belief.

Thirdly, the Salafist project operates in a social context where large segments of population are illiterate or semi-literate, who thus remain extremely vulnerable to manipulations of maverick clerics who promise a wealthy life in this world and a reward of heavens in the next for conversion to the ‘righteous belief’.

The corruption, the indifference and the incompetence of political class – a phenomenon widespread in the Muslim world – tops it all. When a politician pockets money, instead of building one more school, making a new road, or providing one more job, he actually pushes dozens of more children towards the philosophy of obscurantism for they will end up joining a seminary and receptive to a cleric who sells heaven.

If Pakistan is to deal with the menace of religious obscurantism proliferated by Salafists, then the political class, the intelligentsia, the security agencies and the civil society organizations must act – and act with clarity and act now, before it is too late.

We can’t afford to shut an extremely important source behind the spread of Salafism for economic reasons, which is the over 1.5 million migrant workers operating in Saudi Arabia, therefore the flow of Salafist ideas would continue. Our government must press upon the Saudi regime though to stop the financing of seminaries, mosques and universities, which is an equally important means for the Salafist project. The problem though is that with the Sharifs in power, there is little chance that they would find the voice to speak up to their patrons. They can probably plead, which they must. Our policy makers must be aware though that since the 9/11 the domestic policy of Saudi Arabia shifted, where it is taking actions to control religious obscurantism, however, it still continues to spread it abroad.

The provision of good quality education, jobs and a better lifestyle is certainly a very important strategy – which is the so called developmental approach. At a political level though there is a need to redefine the purpose of an Islamic state. The constitutions of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Morocco define the religious identity of state in terms of its role in implementing Islamic welfare system, unlike the constitutions of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the state has ascribed to itself the role of promoting piety and righteousness amongst masses. Thus, the state in Indonesia, Malaysia or Morocco is developmental and secular in its nature, while it is exclusionary and obscurantist in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and in the Brotherhood drafted constitution of Egypt.

The most important strategy, though which we often tend to forget is the need to organize a system for recruitment, remuneration, training and monitoring of clerics at mosques and seminaries. Unless a minimum qualification is established and a criterion is followed for appointment and maintenance of clerics and preachers, it will not be possible to stop the spread of obscurantism, hatred and religious violence across the length and breadth of Islamic lands.

The governments also must implement training programmes to educate the clerics about their role in preaching positive religiosity, instead of spreading bigotry and hate. Not only the appointments and training, but the governments must also have a system to monitor the clerical sermons especially during Friday prayers. It was said that in the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, the Friday sermons were preapproved by local authorities in line with officially prescribed guidelines. No wonder that one never heard of clerics prompting religious vigilantes for action against sinners, as one did during the Morsi regime.

Zubair Murshed, who works for the United Nations, is a social critic and a Middle East watcher. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not represent the position of UN.