Extremists winning the mind games
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD – The promotion of a progressive intellectual movement in the Muslim world was the brain-child of various American think-tanks as a means to counter radical Islam and al-Qaeda’s ideological appeal.
In Pakistan, the regime of General Pervez Musharraf (president from June 2001 to August 2008) adopted the idea and brought forward credible modernist Islamic scholars and their schools of thought.
Another experiment after Musharraf stepped down and his idea fizzled was to launch a Sufi movement to confront radical Islam. Sufism is defined by its adherents as “the inner, mystical dimension of Islam”.
However, this creeping modernizing, which attained considerable success, was halted in its tracks, handing the advantage back to extremists, including the Taliban.
The establishment-backed Sufi movement was led by the Brelvi school of thought, but it turned the debate of enlightenment and radicalism into a sectarian debate over Sufis and Salafis (Sunni Muslims in general opposed to both Sufi and Shi’ite doctrines).
Sufis were promoted in Khyber Agency and in the Swat area and other parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province to convince the population to turn against the Taliban. Government-sponsored conferences by the Brelvi school of thought against the Taliban were staged in urban centers.
Militants, though, exploited this sectarian sentiment to such a degree that the whole process of modernization was taken back to square one, and the government had to enlist the help of traditionalists to quell spiraling violence – more than 46 Sufis were killed in Swat in 2009.
Unrest continues, and this year militants have carried out organized attacks on Sufi shrines. The most recent strike was on October 7 against Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s tomb in the port city of Karachi in which two suicide bombers killed eight people. This forced the closure of other shrines in Sindh province.
This sectarian strife has further evolved into a battle between radical Islam and moderates, whether they adhere to Sufism or a modernist Islamic school. Hence, articulate and non-aggressive modernist intellectuals have also been drawn into the line of fire.
A prominent Pakistani psychiatrist and religious scholar, Dr Farooq Khan, was among the modernist scholars; he was shot dead by the Taliban after they issued a target list of intellectuals working against their interests.
The main ideologue of the modernist movement, Dr Javed Ghamidi, left the country for Malaysia after learning of this threat, while others went into hiding and dropped out of the public eye.
The attack on the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine was the third high-profile incident in the past few months. Militants bombed the shrine of Sufi poet Rahman Baba in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, attacked the shrine of Syed Ali Hijwari in Lahore, beside assaults on a number of small shrines across the country. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds injured.
“We simply don’t have the police force to guarantee the safety of these shrines which have now become very vulnerable – every day crowds of hundreds go to them,” a senior police official told Asia Times Online, adding that there were hundreds of shrines in Punjab alone. “It’s not humanly possible to protect them.”
Musharraf’s move to launch an intellectual movement against radical Islam was risky as it meant going against centuries-old religious beliefs, in particular the Mavera-un-Nahri traditions of Islam, a promoter of radicalism.
Musharraf’s important policy speeches were written by a select group of modernist scholars who harshly criticized traditionalists. One of the most prominent, Javed Ghamidi, was installed as chairman of the Islamic Ideological Council, an official organization for the interpretation of Islamic tenets.
The Ministry of Information sponsored television programs that introduced Ghamidi and his ideological aides, including Khan – who left the country – and Dr Khalid Zaheer.
This intellectual movement emphasized that only a Muslim state could declare jihad (war) and therefore dismissed the Taliban-led Afghan resistance, the Palestinian struggle, the Iraqi resistance and all other Muslim struggles, saying they were not jihad.
Most of these modernist scholars, including Ghamidi, were formerly prominent figures of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI – a South Asian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political group that was founded in 1928 in Egypt.)
The JI has for years been the premier Islamic party in Pakistan and traditionally it has been considered the only intellectual Islamic movement that challenges liberal and secular systems in South Asia. In Pakistan, 80% of opinion leaders are believed to be adherents of the JI.
However, after leaving the JI, Ghamidi started to change the ideological course of the country. While lower cadre in the JI were siphoned off by al-Qaeda, the intellectual cadre were completely, according to a JI leader’s own term, “Ghamidized”. (See Pakistani students prefer guns to books Asia Times Online, July 27, 2010.)
At the same time, a sizeable number of young intellectuals in the radical camp were turned by the moderates, and these new “recruits” broadcast their newfound views in the media and in books.
Some of them became effective preachers on popular television channels against jihad. These scholars adopted a very moderate approach on other tenets of Islam, such as wearing the veil and music, and they strengthened Musharraf’s argument for “enlightened moderation” in Pakistan. They also built up support for a modern syllabus in madrassas (seminaries) that traditional clerics had no choice but to accept.
At this point, Musharraf resigned and the movement lost momentum. The subsequent attempt to induct Sufism as an opposition force against the Taliban has now backfired and rolled back the whole process.
The main ideologue of the Sufi movement, Dr Sarfaraz Naeemi, was killed by a suicide bomber in 2009 and the serious of attacks on shrines this year has effectively closed down the epicenters of Sufism in Pakistan and silenced key leaders.
The government has even removed Ghamidi as chairman of the Islamic Ideology Council and replaced him with a traditionalist, Maulana Mohammad Khan Shirani, a member of the pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema-s-Islami.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org