The South Asia Channel

Engaging Pakistan’s moderate majority

Only a few miles away from the modern concrete villas and wide roads of Islamabad, lies the shrine of Golra Sherif. Muslims from all over Pakistan visit this spot to ask the buried saints to plead their case in front of God. Poor farmers ask for their Murree Whiskey-flavoured indiscretions to be overlooked. Young female ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Only a few miles away from the modern concrete villas and wide roads of Islamabad, lies the shrine of Golra Sherif. Muslims from all over Pakistan visit this spot to ask the buried saints to plead their case in front of God. Poor farmers ask for their Murree Whiskey-flavoured indiscretions to be overlooked. Young female graduates pray for a job. A handful of senior civil servants read the Quran by a graveside hoping God will understand why they keep a mistress. You might even find a feudal landlord or two proving his piety with a high-profile visit.

Political leaders mean little in the everyday lives of 180 million people who, for the most part, live in rural areas and have little to no contact with the government. What counts past the city limits of the large towns are the whims of feudal lords and the spiritual sanctuary provided by Pakistan’s traditional religious infrastructure of shrines, soup kitchens and religious schools.

These shrines and the ceremonies that revolve around them are Islam for the vast majority of people in Pakistan, and this is the Islam that suicide bombers declared war on when they killed around 40 worshippers at Pakistan’s most prominent religious shrine on July 1. Even as the Data Darbar complex in the heart of Lahore is being cleared of rubble, tensions that have been building for years between the two main Sunni traditions in Pakistan are about to turn combustible.

Pakistan’s religious landscape is as varied as the ethnic mix that makes up the population. For the vast majority of Pakistanis, Islam is a religion of live and let live that calls on political leaders to ensure social justice and gives the lay follower plenty of opportunity to exercise and express his or her spirituality thorough celebrations and devotion to saints. However, extremism also has a long history in the area that is now Pakistan. The idea of enforcing Islamic observance through the power of the state gained traction in the subcontinent through Sayed Ahmad, a former student of religion from northern India who travelled to Pashtun lands and roused the tribes to fight in the name of Islam against non-Muslim influence over the crumbling Mughal Empire. Ahmad was a near contemporary of Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, the spiritual founder of the strict interpretation of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia known as Salafism. Al-Qaeda also sees itself as a Salafi organisation.

Broadly speaking, the Sunni majority comprises of two main groupings — Deobandis and Barelvis. Most Pakistani Muslims might not identify themselves as either. But in recent years, as the influence of extremist ideas has grown, the Barelvis, who often refer to themselves as Sufis, have become the defacto defenders of traditional Islamic practice. Meanwhile, Deobandis, who are ideologically close to the Salafis of the Middle East, are rooted in strict literal observance and are generally sympathetic to those, including the Taliban, who seek to impose religious observation on the masses. The two strands together exercise a massive influence over religious political dialogue in Pakistan.

Barelvis and more moderate Deobandis have come to represent Pakistan’s mainstream. But the center ground is embattled. Militants, whether they are Taliban, the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan or the traditionally Kashmir-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba, are gaining ground by convincing growing numbers of Pakistanis that the ultimate expression of Islam is to follow an unforgiving code that actively hates other religious traditions and condones killing innocent people to make a point.

In October last year, I arrived in Pakistan to work on a project called Karvaan-e-Amn, or Caravan of Peace, which is run by a British Muslim organization called Radical Middle Way (RMW). The aim of the initiative is to bring mainstream Islamic voices to Pakistanis through radio, print, television and the Internet to challenge extremists’ carefully cultivated image as the epitome of Islamic practice.

What I found was a community embattled physically as well as ideologically. Sarfraz Naimi, a Barelvi leader, had been killed by a suicide bomber not long after declaring suicide bombing religiously forbidden. At around the same time, the Taliban had started bombing shrines in the former North West Frontier Province, now known as Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa.

In my first few weeks on the project, I helped organize a series of conferences that brought together religious leaders from all over Pakistan and introduced them to high-profile Islamic leaders from abroad. The idea was for the meetings to provide a morale boost to people who were feeling increasingly isolated and to allow them to demonstrate to their followers that they indeed were the majority in the wider Muslim community.

Pakistan’s freewheeling media is quick to blame terrorism on shadowy foreign organizations, but the leaders who spoke at the conferences were not interested in passing the buck.

"Of all the terrorist attacks carried out so far, no American culprit has been caught, no one from Britain and no Israeli. All those who have been apprehended belong here. And with great sorrow, I say that they have been men with beards (religious men)," said one speaker, who holds a high-profile position within Pakistan’s religious education establishment.

Many of the other delegates thought extremists were much better organised than them and lamented the fact it had taken so long for their leaders to meet together.

One of Pakistan’s highest-ranking religious officials said of extremists; "In religious garb they organised hatred into a force. Now it is an organised force. These people are in society… The attacks on army installations were done by their followers who are in the army."

Most of the venerable men in beards and turbans thought they had made a mistake staying out of politics. "The problem is that Sufis left the political arena. We handed power over to the feudals and tyrants," said one. They all agreed that they needed to adapt to their new reality. They needed to organise, to become more assertive and to become relevant to political discussion. They chaffed at being seen to be pro-government, and therefore pro-West. They were keen to demonstrate that killing civilians was no way to express anger or to deal with differences in opinion.

But an influential minority wanted to go further. In the conferences, people made references about "the need for strength," some referred to the need to "answer the Taliban." In a madrassa in the rural hinterland of Punjab, an elderly former Barelvi leader with still considerable influence within the community’s nationwide network said Barelvis should arm and organise a militia to take on the Taliban. "Our ideology is lying in its grave. And before long, if we do nothing, our lifeless bodies will be joining it," he said in Punjabi.

Analysts and former government officials I spoke to in Islamabad said armed conflict between the Barelvis and Deobandis would mean death and destruction on a scale that would make Pakistan’s present violence pale in comparison.

The attack on Data Darbar makes that scenario frighteningly likely. In Iraq, provoking sectarian warfare was a central part of al-Qaeda’s strategy. Although no one has officially claimed responsibility for the attack in Lahore, many analysts suspect Osama bin Laden’s organization is attempting to pitch Pakistani Sunnis against each other as well as against other religious groups, and then profit from the bloodbath.

A leading Barelvi figure told me relations between his group and Deobandis were deteriorating. "Things are getting hot. We asked them to condemn the Taliban but they won’t. They are distributing leaflets calling for the killing of those who visit shrines… If someone doesn’t take action to calm things, we will be seeing violence."

The government is the obvious "someone," but politics makes democratically elected leaders unwilling to upset influential groups. After the bombings, a Deobandi gathering that included a former leading member of the sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi issued a statement threatening to make the provincial Punjab government pay in the polls if it acted against their interests.

The Barelvis for their part have called on officials to resign for their perceived support of banned Deobandi groups and are organizing protests in Lahore and Islamabad.

As Deobandis and Barelvis face off, a relatively peaceful June in Pakistan looks more likely to have been a brief respite rather than the portent of peace that everyone hoped. The smaller attacks, which hardly ever make the news, have started again. On July 15, a bomb in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa destroyed a hundred year old shrine.

For decades internal and external actors have been exploiting religious fervor in Pakistan for political gain. That feeling has morphed, evolved, and developed a life of its own. The future of Pakistan will be decided by the outlook adopted by its people. And as of yet, that outlook is still being formed. Right now, despite the best efforts of extremists, the majority of Pakistanis see the core principles of their faith revolving around peaceful coexistence, social justice and community service. If the public sees Barelvis and Deobandi leaders marching their communities to war, the groups will threaten their own legitimacy. On the other hand, if extremists succeed in redefining what is considered "Islamic" and convincing ordinary Pakistanis that differing views of religion are worth fighting and killing over, the consequences will be devastating for Pakistan, and disastrous for the world.

It is not too late to engage with Pakistanis instead of leaving the field open for extremists. But that does mean developing the willingness and understanding to navigate Pakistan’s religious environment.

Amil Khan works in Pakistan for Radical Middle Way and writes on issues connected to terrorism and extremism as Londonstani on the Center for New American Security’s blog Abu Muqawama.

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