Saturday, July 03, 2010

Backgrounder on Bombing of Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, Pakistan

The bombing of the Data Darbar shrine--tomb of the Sufi master Datta Ganj Bahksh--in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's Punjab province, is a big deal.

It's like setting off a bomb in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Data Durban is at the core of Punjabi cultural identity.

When Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia to join the general election contest in 2008, one of his first acts was to pay a high profile visit to Data Darbar.  (For comparison purposes, Benazir Bhutto patronized a Sufi shrine at Qalandar in her family's power base in Sindh.)

The visit not only cemented Sharif's image as a son of Punjab--his electoral base.  It also showed that he was not in thrall to the anti-Sufi bigotry of his Saudi Wahabbi patrons.

The Deobandi school of Islam to which the Taliban subscribe view Sufi observance as a form of heresy.  Indeed, Deobandi doctrine emerged as a reaction to Sufism and still retains some Sufi elements, particularly in the areas of charismatic leadership (the Taliban expects miracles of living exemplars like Mullah Omar, not dead mystics).

Sufism also has its political element, since the guardians of Sufi shrines--the pirs--are a bulwark of the conservative power structure. 

The Data Darbar atrocity may have been committed by the little-known Punjab Taliban as part of an effort to shatter the religious and social foundations of the province.  Or it may have been a conventional Taliban operation to punish Pakistan for its acquiescence to US-led military campaigns and drone strikes on the Afghan frontier.

Interestingly, the Punjab Taliban disavowed responsibility for the attack, though this may have been simply a response the widespread revulsion the attack evoked throughout the province.  Via The News:

PESHAWAR: The Punjabi Taliban on Friday denied their involvement in the devastating terrorist attacks at the Data Darbar in Lahore and condemned the killing of innocent worshippers in the shrine and the adjacent mosque.

Also, the Urdu-speaking militants’ spokesman termed the suicide attacks as acts of intelligence agencies and the US security firm Blackwater aimed at tarnishing the image of Mujahideen.

“We cannot even think of taking the life of a single innocent human-being. This brutality to defame the Mujahideen should be expected from spy agencies and Blackwater,” Mohammad Omar, the spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban, stressed. Omar called The News from an undisclosed location to clarify the position of his militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, about the Lahore attacks.

So did the Pakistani Taliban, according to the Daily Times:

TTP denies role in Lahore blasts

MIRANSHAH: The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Friday denied any involvement in a triple suicide bombing on the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore that killed 42 people and wounded 175 others. “We are not responsible for these attacks, this is a conspiracy by foreign secret agencies, you know we do not attack public places,” Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the TTP told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location. “We condemn this brutal act. Our target is very clear and we only attack police, army and other security personnel,” he added. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack in Lahore, a cultural hub considered a playground for the country’s elite and home to many military and intelligence top brass.

If the attack was a Pakistan or Punjab Taliban plot to spark a sectarian war inside Pakistan, they've changed their tack pretty quickly.

No denials from the Afghan Taliban yet.

In any case, AP reported a remarkable deficit in Taliban-directed outrage.  Anger has focused on the security and policy shortcomings of the Pakistan government.

It might have something to do with a Pakistan perception that they are being asked to endure the consequences of religiously-defined Pashtun extremists, while unable to deal with the root cause of the problem.

Pakistani opinion seems to believe that a successful war of extermination against extremist Pashtuns, either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan's NWFP and tribal areas, is doomed to failure.  All things being equal, I think that they would prefer to struggle against Taliban extremism by unambiguously occupying the moral and tactical high ground of religious moderation in a purely domestic political and social struggle.

Currently, the anti-Taliban campaign in Pakistan is hopelessly tangled up with the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to prop up a government perceived as pro-US and pro-Indian in order to exclude the Taliban from power.

Given the conspicuous if temporary faltering of the US effort in Afghanistan, Pakistanis might be questioning if its worth enduring such savage blowback from US drone attacks and military operations just to give the Karzai regime a few more months in office until the whole US adventure collapses or, as appears more likely, he negotiates a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban.

I think many Pakistanis feel that, if the Taliban returned to Kabul, it might be bad for Afghanistan but good for Pakistan.  The Taliban, secure in Afghanistan and no longer needing havens in the Tribal Areas, would be able to accommodate their patrons in the Pakistani intelligence services and rein in the indigenous Taliban movements inside NWFP, Punjab, and Karachi.  Taliban extremism does not travel well beyond its Pashtun heartland, the theory goes, and could be sliced and diced, divided and conquered, and rolled back to the mountains.

This may explain why Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, Chief Minister of Punjab, have yet to weigh in with an outraged denunciation of the forces suspected of executing the bombing.  Sharif's PML-N, though secular, pointedly distances itself from U.S. policy goals in Afghanistan and has been suspected of a willingness to work with and accommodate Islamic extremist parties.

I haven't seen any statements by Nawaz Sharif in the Pakistani press similar to the rather brave condemnation  he made of attacks on Ahmadis--an Islamicist sect explicitly disenfranchised by the Pakistan constitution for some spectacular and unpopular heresies-- by extremists on May 29.  Organized assaults killed 100--twice the number of fatalities as inflicted at the Data Darbar horror--at two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore.

The dominant confession in Pakistan's urbanized heartland is Barelvi--a pacifistic Sunni sect sympathetic to Sufism--not Deoband.

However, the minority Deobands punch far above their weight in Pakistan politics, thanks to government intelligence agency sponsorship (a by-product of the whole Pashtun/Afghanistan strategy), support from Saudi Arabia, and violent tendencies that, in the context of Pakistan's impoverished society and corrupted polity, resonate with too many unhappy people.

Local media reported that the Punjab police had succeeded in apprehending some miscreants involved in the May 29 attacks.  The extremists are astoundingly well-equipped.  Police seized 100 assault rifles, 18 suicide vests and more than 40,000 pounds of explosives during their raids.

Below the fold, more background on the religious landscape in Pakistan mined from two previous posts, Things Fall Apart (covering a similar attack on the most important Sufi shrine in NWFP, that of  Rehman Baba, in March 2009) and Blood on the Moon  (a discussion on how skirmishes over how to determine the appearance of the new moon and end of Ramadan reveal dangerous religious rifts within Pakistan).  Interested readers can click on the links for the full articles and hyperlinks.

Taliban and Deoband vs. Sufi and Barelvi

Sufi-tinged Islamic religious practice in non-Pashtun areas of Pakistan—and indeed, in much of South Asia--is formalized in a largely pacifist and mystical strain of orthodox Sunni Islam known as Barelvi, named after the town of Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, India..

Like the Deoband school, Barelvi observance emerged as an expression of religious thought in response to British colonial rule and the perceived crisis of Islam in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India.

The Barelvi school’s founder, Ahmad Raza Khan guaranteed lasting hostility between his school and the Deobands by issuing fatwas declaring them--and for good measure Saudi Arabia’s Wahabis--to be apostates. describes the striking ethnic divide between the Deobandi practices of the Pashtun areas with the Sufi and Barelvi-related practices of Punjab:

The non-Pakhtun population of Pakistan is predominantly Barelvi. The stronghold of Barelvism remains Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan. By one estimate, in Pakistan, the Shias are 18%,Iismailis 2%, Ahmediyas 2%, Barelvis 50%, Deobandis 20%, Ahle Hadith 4%, and other minorities 4%. … By another estimate some 15 per cent of Pakistan's Sunni Muslims would consider themselves Deobandi, and some 60 per cent, are in the Barelvi tradition based mostly in the province of Punjab.

Although the Deobandi school may only represent the religious observance of one out of five Pakistanis and is concentrated in the poorest frontier regions, it presents itself as the arbiter of Islamic orthodoxy and legitimacy inside Pakistan.

The anonymous author of the Global Security profile stated:

…some 64 per cent of the total seminaries are run by Deoband is, 25 per cent by the Barelvis, six percent by the Ahle Hadith and three percent by various Shiite organisations.

Sufi and Barelvi practices that Deoband-affiliated Pashtun militants consider heretical--and the local power structure they support--present a tempting target to the Taliban as it seeks to capitalize on the poverty and anger roiling the immense underclass of Pakistan’s heartland.

In other words, the Deoband practice of Islam, especially in its harsh, militant, and politicized form in NWFP, and the widespread, Sufi-oriented Barelvi popular religion of Pakistan would seem to be on a collision course.

One of the most disturbing developments in a year full of disturbing developments in the NWFP was the bombing of the tomb of Rehman Baba, the province’s most revered Sufi saint, in March 2009. This explicit attack on a religious institution that had no strategic significance but was one that the Taliban consider heterodox, may well be a harbinger of violence—and politics of division-- to come.

If the conflict comes, the Barelvi are likely to be outgunned.

The Pashtun Deobandi are militant, supported by zakat (Islamic charity contributions) from Saudi Arabia, and have numerous friends and supporters within Pakistan’s security apparatus.

The pacifist, underfunded, and underorganized Barelvi—with the exception of the reliably violent MQM in Karachi—appear to be reliant upon Pakistan’s rickety and equivocal civilian government to take the battle to the Taliban.

When the Barelvi attempt to stand up to the Taliban themselves, bad things happen.

A brave Barelvi cleric and head of one of the largest madrassahs in Pakistan, Dr. Sarfraz Hussain Naeemi, organized twenty Barelvi Sunni organizations into Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM). TNRM was intended as a counterweight to the Deobands and to support Pakistan’s civilian government in its military campaigns against the Taliban in Swat and in other sections of the NWFP and FATA.

On June 12, 2009, Dr. Naeemi, who had coordinated a committee of Islamic clerics that declared suicide bombing as haram or forbidden by Islamic law (he had already issued a fatwa against suicide bombing in 2005 in his individual capacity), was himself murdered by a suicide bomber in his office at his madrassah in Lahore after Friday prayers.

Baitullah Mehsud’s Pakistan Taliban organization, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the murder, and for a near simultaneous suicide attack that pancaked a mosque in a garrison town near Peshawar and killed five.

The security lapses surrounding Dr. Naeemi’s death were described by the Pakistan Tribune in sufficiently circumstantial detail to give the impression that the government was, at best, asleep at the switch.

The police sources also confirmed to our sources lapses in providing security cover to the respected cleric. Police sources, requesting anonymity, disclosed that one ASI and 10 constables were sent to Jamia Naeemia every Friday to provide security cover to the worshippers. However, this Friday only two constables of the Muhafiz Force had been deployed there.

… according to sources, the police later wrote a fake report in the Roznamcha (official diary) of the Police Chowki Bibi Pak Daman…

… Dr Sarfraz had been receiving threatening calls for the past many days and ironically no security was provided to him as well as the place where he lived…

According to the Jamia administration, only two policemen were deployed outside the Madrassa for frisking the visitors coming for the Juma prayers. Both the policemen left the place right after the Juma prayers, providing the attacker an opportunity to enter the premises unchecked, alleged the administration.

Dawn’s report on Dr. Naeemi’s funeral provides the requisite ironic coda:

Strict security measures were taken in and around Nasser Bagh with the deployment of 1,000 policemen, while 5,000 cops were put on alert across the city to avoid any untoward incident. No politician or top government official attended the funeral reportedly because of security concerns.

While the demands and priorities of the Deoband establishment receive anxious attention from the federal government, the Barelvi appear to be ignored.

Via All Things Pakistan comes the sad news that the Pakistan Taliban blew up the tomb of the revered 17th century Pashtun poet and Sufi saint Rehman Baba near Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province on March 5.

Rehman Baba’s tomb was targeted because it was a Sufi shrine, anathema to the Taliban brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the possibility of transcendent religious experience in this lifetime through the assistance of a charismatic teacher. Possibly, Sufism represents an attempt to reconcile traditional local religious practices with Islam as the latter swept across North Africa and South Asia.

Pakistan is dotted with the tombs of Sufi teachers and poets, which are popularly regarded as shrines and opportunities to obtain some kind of spiritual assistance, similar to the role that saints and relics play in popular Catholic practice.

As such, Sufism has always skirted close to idolatry or shirk in the eyes of Muslims cleaving to the absolute monotheism of orthodox Islam. The Salafi school of Islam and its strict sub-set of Wahabbism championed by Saudi Arabia (and famously practiced by Osama bin Laden) are notoriously hostile to Sufism. "Quburriyah"—apparently a contemptuous Arabic epithet meaning “tomb worshipers”—is used on Islamist websites to characterize Sufism.

Within Pakistan, there also appears to be a distinct desire to attribute the anti-Sufi campaign to the influence of Arab and Egyptian fundamentalists—outside agitators, if you will.

However, there are deep and significant local roots to the Pakistan Taliban’s opposition to popular Sufism.

Taliban religious doctrine grew out of South Asian Sufi traditions—its leader, Mullah Omar, has taken on the mystical trappings of a charismatic Sufi leader--but represents an effort to reconcile indigenous Sufism with the strict orthodoxy of the Arabic Islamic practice as promoted by the religious teacher Maulana Mohammed Ilyas (1885-1944) and his Tablighi Jama’at religious movement, centered on the north Indian town of Deobond and also called the Deobondi movement. The movement stresses concrete action over contemplation, and a revival of Islam through heightened religious observance, preaching, and prostelization.

Today, Tablighi Jama’at is perhaps the largest religious movement in the Islamic world. The second largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world (after the haj to Mecca) is the TJ’s annual congregation, the Bushwa Itjema, in Bangladesh.

Mullah Omar and many Taliban trained at Deobondi-inspired madrassas set up in western Pakistan.

Ilyas’ Deobondi movement was Sufi in its traditions, but represented a conscious effort to prevent the extinction of the minority Muslim faith within British India by asserting a distinct, separate Muslim identity through emphasis on adherence to sharia law and the orthodox Prophetic canon of Koran and Sunnah, and by purging the indigenous popular Sufi form of Islamic observance of corrupting non-Islamic elements.

Writing in a collection of essays entitled Sufism and the “modern” in Islam, (Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Day Howell, I.B.Tauris, 2007) Yoginder Sikan described the relation of the Ilyas’ strain of Deobondi fundamentalism to popular Sufism:

Also branded as “un-Islamic” and occupying a central place in what Ilyas saw as “un-Islamic” customary tradition, was the entire domain of popular Sufism. This included practices related to worship at the shrines of saints, such as prostration at their graves, musical sessions, and unrestricted mixing of the sexes.

Equally condemnable was a range of beliefs and social practices relating to the authority of the Sufis, whether living or dead. The notion that the buried Sufis were still alive and could intercede with God to grant one’s requests was fiercely condemned as un-Islamic” and as akin to shirk, the sin of associating partners with the one God.

Ilyas’ reformed Sufism…had crucial implications for the constitution of religious authority…[T]he TJ directly challenged the authority of the custodians of the religious shrine (sajjada-nishin)…who were seen as having a vested interest in in preserving popular custom for their own claims to authority rested on these.

[Ilyas] therefore effectively dismissed as ultimately of little worth the claims to authority of the sajjada-nishin, based on the reports of the miracles (karamat) performed by the saints whose shrines they tended. He stressed that punctilious observance of the sharia, and not karamat, was the only way to rise in God’s eyes.

There it is.

According to the tenets of Taliban theology, attacks on popular Sufi religious practice are inseparable from the imposition of sharia law.

In fact, given the extremely close relation between the Deobandi movement and the Sufi tradition from which it sprang, it’s almost inevitable that the Pakistan Taliban would actively confront what it saw as the abuses of popular Sufism in order to assert its fundamental identity and authority.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Pakistani Taliban would follow their successful campaign to impose sharia law in parts of NWFP with a conspicuous attack on a popular Sufi shrine.

Beyond the demands of Deobandi faith, igniting a religious struggle against popular Sufism is almost a tactical necessity. Fighting against the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps is not the same as battling the NATO and U.S. unbelievers in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Taliban are locked in a battle with the military forces of an Islamic state and need the trappings of a sustained Islamic religious struggle inside Pakistan in order to sustain its legitimacy, motivate its followers, and divide its opposition.

In fact, attacking Sufi religious practices is probably integral to the entire Taliban strategy of polarizing Pakistani society by attacking a weak link—the popular but difficult to defend (on strict Islamic terms) worship of local saints whose interred bodies reputedly have magic powers.

The central province of Punjab hosts several important Sufi shrines, raising the terrifying specter of attacks on heterodox religious practices in Pakistan’s heartland by an ostentatiously righteous, militant, and ascendant religious group whose stated mission is to rescue Islam not only from the West but from idolatry within its own ranks.

And, as a reading of Sikan indicates, challenging popular Sufism also means challenging the authority of the custodians who obtained legitimacy, wealth, and power from their control of the shrines and promises to link the Taliban to a populist, anti-elitist message that may find resonance in the impoverished areas of Pakistan far beyond its Pashtun base.

The United Arab Emirates paper The Nation pointed out how the Pakistan Taliban’s attack on popular Sufism is linked to an assault on the local elites trying to stem the tide of its advance:

Journalists said that, prior to both high-profile attacks, militants had confronted the shrines’ caretakers, warning them to put a stop to religious practices that are frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, such as prayers to the deceased saints and devotion to their living heirs, known locally as piri-faqiri.

“All the Taliban groupings loathe piri-faqiri and are prone to attacking any site that is used to practise it,” said Shaukat Khattak, the bureau chief of Samaa TV in Peshawar.

The Swat Taliban faced their stiffest resistance from Pir Samiullah, a gaddi nashin [one who holds the throne of a shrine—CH] who had formed a militia of followers and killed about 100 militants. He was shot dead in December in a battle with the Taliban, after army units called in for support went to the wrong location.

His corpse was exhumed by militants and put on display at the main square of Mingora, the capital of Swat region, to be buried later at an undisclosed location.

“They violated all the traditions of the area because they did not want his followers to build a shrine,” said the widow of a Swat politician assassinated by the Taliban, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the All Things Pakistan message boards, the thoughts of more than one commentator immediately turned to the tomb of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad ali Jinnah, in the heart of Karachi, an immense borderline-idolatrous mass called Mazar-i-Qaid (National Mausoleum) symbolizing the legitimacy and authority of the regime, as a possible target.

The fear and the outrage of ATP’s commentators reveals a dreaded awareness that the Pakistan Taliban is not just about pushing the U.S. and the West out of Afghanistan, or maintaining the autonomy and religiosity of the Pashtun regions against the encroachments of the central government.

The Taliban is on the attack, and it has a profitable bone to pick with heterodox Islam and Islam-sympathetic secularism as well. It possesses the doctrine, the will, and, fatally, the means, opportunity, and incentive to conduct a terror campaign against Pakistan’s secular-leaning, equivocally Islamic elites in order to cow them into submission.

And one victim of the Pakistan Taliban’s relentless pursuit of orthodoxy and polarization will be the weakly articulated commitment to cosmopolitan culture, tolerance, and syncretic traditions that form the shaky underpinnings of Pakistan’s modernist multi-ethnic state.

Pakistan's Persecuted Sect: the Ahmadists

So what’s a Qadiani? And where is Rabwah? (insulting references to heretic Muslims in Pakistan)

Qadiani are a branch of the Ahmadyya sect of Islam. Ahmadis revere Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1839-1908). His teachings arose from the same ferment of embattled, anti-colonial Islam that produced the Deoband school. While the Deobands practiced a rigorous, back to basics brand of Islam that came to form a basis for the ideology of the Taliban (and the guiding theology for an extensive network of madrassahs in the NWFP), Ahmad went in the other direction, claiming he had received divine revelation, eventually declaring himself both the Mahdi and the last avatar of Vishnu.

Not surprisingly, the Qadiani are reviled by fundamentalist Muslims as nothing more than pseudo-Muslims.

Deobandi theologians of Peshawar have inveighed against the Ahmadite sect since the 1950s in order to assert their identity as the definers and protectors of Islamic orthodoxy in Pakistan.

In response to Deobandi agitation and in order to assert its pretensions as protector of Islam, in 1974 the government of Pakistan under Benazir Bhutto’s father constitutionally stripped Ahmadists of the right to call themselves Muslims, quote the Quran, or make the hajj to Mecca.

Ahmadists routinely serve as metaphorical and literal punching bags for politicians and clerics seeking to flaunt their orthodox credentials. Sunni bigots lead confrontational marches through the town of Rabwah, a center of Ahmadist observance in Pakistan’s Punjab.

There is an assiduously propagated rumor that ex-President Musharraf’s wife is an Ahmadist. Supposedly, this would taint Musharraf himself with apostasy and make him a non-Muslim. Conspiracy theorists go the extra mile to talk of a “Qadiani conspiracy” centered on Musharraf, hostile to Islam and in league with Israel and the United States.


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