Britain and Pakistan: The Rich Taliban Vs. the Poor Muslim
by Irfan Al-Alawi
The Taliban in Pakistan are expanding their attacks with increasing boldness, especially on Sufi shrines, members of the minority Shia sect, and government authorities; and are striking as far inland as Sindh province on the border of India.
The confrontation, as elsewhere in the Muslim countries – and in the West – pits the upwardly-mobile against ordinary folk. The simplistic, narrow, and easy doctrines of the radicals appeal to urban dwellers who want to express a public religiosity but do not want to spend any more time on it than they have to, and who look down on the rural populace as backward, with their devotion to Sufism and their other customary forms of celebration (such as the qawwali, or songs of religious praise). Mubarak Ali, a Pakistani historian, describes the difference: "only rich and educated people can afford to become Wahhabis and live that colorless life," he says. "Those in rural areas need the [traditional] culture, they have nothing else."
Why does the world appear paralyzed, as it did when Pakistan was ruled by Pervez Musharraf, by the spectre of terrorism as it advances to a position of domination, while the Taliban bargain for power-sharing – an obvious prelude to a power-monopoly – in Afghanistan itself?
Moderate Muslims have long observed that radical ideology is an elite phenomenon, based on money and organization imported from countries like Saudi Arabia, rather than a product of the presumed grievances of the downtrodden.
Although it is counter-intuitive to Western thinking, the Taliban, as they seek political power, consider themselves "reformers," seeking to rid Islam of Sufi practices, which the terrorists and their Saudi-Wahhabi backers condemn as superstition, as well as Shia "deviations."
Against them, the majority of Pakistani Muslims adhere to the traditional Barelvi Sunni sect, Ahle Sunnah Wa Jammah, which focuses on spirituality and rejects a special political role.
Urban enthusiasts for radical ideology also spread, in Pakistan and other Muslim lands, fanciful claims that terrorism against minorities is a Western-backed conspiracy.
This split is reproduced in Britain, where the Pakistani diaspora is divided between older, British-law-abiding, but poorer and culturally distinct moderates, whose Islam is put forward in the South Asian languages, such as Urdu and Punjabi, and the younger recruits to Deobandi radicalism, whose appeal is framed in an English, and even an educated, idiom.
A major agent for transmission of extremist ideology is Tabligh-i-Jama'at (TJ, or 'Call of the Community'), a mass fundamentalist movement that attracted considerable attention a decade ago, after the attacks of 11 September 2001, but now seem to have fallen off the radar of the world's terror experts – even as TJ recruits ever more followers in Europe and North America.
The Pakistani elite embrace radicalism and condemn the West, while the Pakistani worker or cultivator tends to his or her employment and family, and receives balm for his soul from religious tradition.
Perhaps, in the end, Western media and political leaders are more comfortable dealing with a smooth, simplistic, fundamentalist version of Islam rather than with the complex and demanding local traditions of the common Muslims found around the world. In ignoring the slaughter by the fundamentalists, who have infiltrated the Pakistani military and police, of the poorer, common Muslims, the rest of the world encourages those who will turn against it with equal or worse ferocity.
On October 7, in Karachi, Pakistan's former capital and commercial center, two terrorists killed 10 people and injured at least 50 when they blew themselves up in the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Although he lived more than a thousand years ago, Abdullah Shah Ghazi is beloved as a symbol of spiritual protection for Karachi: visits and observances at his house for study and mausoleum drew both Muslims and non-Muslims. The tomb had been placed under government security, but as so often in Pakistan, official action was insufficient to prevent an atrocity.
At the beginning of this year, the Pakistani Taliban demolished tombs and shrines in the Orakzai Agency, located in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a long, slender cluster of territories along its Afghan border. The local Stori Khel people fought the Taliban in Orakzai, but the FATA also includes the Taliban stronghold of Waziristan and the Kurram agency, where Osama Bin Laden allegedly took refuge in 2001, but where many of its inhabitants, who are Shia, rejected him.
The Shia in the Kurram agency paid for this defiance in blood and horror, with mass murders in Parachinar, its main town, in 2008.
The Taliban conducted a similarly methodical campaign to destroy Sufi shrines around Peshawar, close to Afghanistan, and targeted the Data Durbar shrine in Lahore in the Pakistani northeast. This assault led the authorities in Sindh to warn of the vulnerability to assault of 80 Sufi sites in the province, including 36 around Karachi – a warning that the bombing of the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine showed was correct.
The offensive by the jihadis -- and, just behind them, Al-Qaida -- against Muslims they believe to be apostates, especially Sufis and Shias, has a double edge.
First, terrorism against Muslims in countries Wahhabi radicals seek to penetrate, beginning more than two centuries ago in the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, has always commenced with attacks on the Sufis and Shias.
Sufism was long prohibited in the Saudi kingdom; and the Shias of Saudi Arabia are well-known for their condition of oppression. That pattern has been repeated against the Sufis in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Shias in Iraq itself under Saddam Hussein, and it is now continuing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Balkans, and elsewhere.
Second, the mass murder of Sufis and Shias foreshadows the fate that all of Pakistan may face if the Taliban regain power in Afghanistan, and move with full force against their neighbor and frequent patron.
The radicals aim their weapons first at the communities they feel are least able to protect themselves, but those in higher positions are soon to feel the effects of intimidation: the Taliban have already threatened the political authorities in Karachi.
Sindhi provincial officials express fear that the Taliban are motivated by "revenge" over military support from Islamabad attempting to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaida. In Afghanistan, the Taliban seek not only to flaunt their influence inside Afghanistan but to show that resistance to their advance by Pakistan will be punished far from the theater of open war. The Taliban, Al-Qaida, and their associated networks – mainly Lashkar-e-Taiba [LET, or Army of the Righteous] have been recruiting people for terror, and conspiring to commit murder in the US and UK, just as they carried out the horrific carnage in Mumbai in 2008.
Another satellite in the terror system is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, known as LEJ or "the Army of Jhangvi," named for the founder of a violent anti-Shia group, as well as a splinter from a better-known movement, Sipah-e-Sahaba or "Knights of the Prophet's Companions." LEJ and other exponents of homicidal sectarianism have conducted a relentlessly violent offensive against the Shias in Pakistan. In 2003, the bombing of a Shia mosque in the town of Quetta – known for its domination by the Taliban and the fundamentalist Deobandi sect that inspire them – took the lives of 48 Shias and left 50 wounded. In 2005, terrorists killed 18 Shias at the Bari Imam Sufi shrine in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
While the police investigation of the Abdullah Shah Ghazi bombing last week was underway, Karachi police chief Fayyaz Leghari announced the arrest of two LEJ activists – Nasim Haider and Asif Rasheed – on suspicion of terrorist murders and bombings there.
As long as no one stops the Taliban either in Pakistan, Afghanistan or in the West, their power, domination and violence will continue to escalate.