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Pakistan’s Endangered Sufi Spirit

A man weeps while praying for victims at the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore, , where a double suicide attack in July killed 40 people and injured more than 200.
A man weeps while praying for victims at the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore, , where a double suicide attack in July killed 40 people and injured more than 200.
Peace, tolerance, and humanity are the fundamental values of Sufi thought, while violence and intolerance are the hallmarks of religious extremism. Islamic militants in Pakistan view the country’s native Sufi traditions as a major impediment to the imposition of their extremist religious agenda. The result has been a relentless assault on Sufi shrines from the Peshawar Valley to the plains of Punjab to the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Taliban militants have attacked every religious, social, and cultural institution that does not fit within their narrow interpretation of religion, from village schools and other educational establishments to centuries-old shrines and landmarks. The shrine of legendary Pashtun Sufi poet Abdurrahman Baba was destroyed. The shrine of Sufi saint Syed Ali Tirmizi (aka Pir Baba) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was desecrated. Suicide bombers struck the shrines of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, Baba Farid, and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the Punjab and Sindh Provinces.

The message sent by these attacks is clear – nothing is respected or sacred to the Taliban and other extremists, and nothing outside their narrow ideological framework can be tolerated.

In 2007, Taliban militants bombed an ancient statue of Buddha in Swat Valley. I asked the local Taliban leader, Maulan Fazlullah, why. “We want to remove all symbols of the infidels,” he answered bluntly. A few months later, Fazlullah’s gang burnt down the mausoleum of 15-century mystic Pir Baba in neighboring Buner Valley. Although there is a world of difference between a statue of Buddha and the shrine of a Sufi mystic, both were icons of love, peace, and tolerance. Hence, both were the same in the eyes of the militants.

Scholars of Islamic philosophy such as Qasim Mehmod argue that killing innocent people and destroying shrines because of religious differences violates Islamic law and disgraces Islam generally. In Pakistan, the use of violence to resolve religious differences is a new and frightening phenomenon. Sufi shrines are not only holy places, but also cultural centers where people from all classes and walks of life have traditionally congregated to find spiritual and aesthetic satisfaction, to express their sense of community, and to find meaning in their lives.

Many experts see this as a war against a century-old cultural identity that is now being threatened with extinction -- a possibility fraught with dangerous socio-cultural consequences for the entire country.

Rajwali Shah Khattak, an expert on Pashtun culture and director of the Pashtu Academy in Peshawar, argues that “attacks on shrines not only remind us of the religious polarization in our society, the important point is it is a campaign against the culture of tolerance in the region.”

Societal Repercussions

The cultural dislocation created by this assault in south and central Punjab, the urban centers of Sindh Province, and in the tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has left many young men vulnerable to recruitment by militants. The Sufi creed that peace and glory can only be achieved by being at peace with yourself and your community is being superseded by an extremist dogma that glory can be achieved in the hereafter by sacrificing oneself in the name of religion.

The rising tide of religious militancy cannot be stemmed by military operations alone. The Taliban’s cultural assault comes at a time when youths are already in despair after years of neglect, bad governance, and official indifference to the real problems of the people. The new generation has no vision of a peaceful, prosperous future for themselves or their country.

My friends say we are fighting a war against terror and urge the world to help with military and economic aid. But while these billions of dollars can erect some buildings or buy more destructive weapons, they cannot cure the spiritual crisis that is eroding the very soul of our society. Pakistan’s 35 million youths want education and opportunity, but they also need a productive connection to the past and a realistic vision for the future.

The journey to temporal and spiritual glory begins within oneself. Our saints have armed us with teachings and examples that can immunize us against jingoism, extremism, and obscurantism. They presented a vision of an inclusive, pluralistic, and peaceful society based on universal human values. As Abdurrahman Babi, the mystic poet of the Pashtuns, wrote: “We are all one body. Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.”

Shaheen Buneri works as broadcaster for RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.