On October 7, 2010 the peace of the Sufi shrine in Karachi, a building with green and white mosaics ascending to a cupola, shattered in a double explosion from two suicide bombers, killing seven civilians and injuring 65 others. As the shrine’s tiles lay smashed in the street, the destroyed temple provided a visual symbol of a derelict Pakistani government torn apart by a new wave of violent domestic terrorism.
Since 2005, militant organizations including the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam have targeted the shrines of Sufi Saints in two provinces of North West Pakistan, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Since November 2010, Pakistan has witnessed a startling increase in the intensity of attacks on Sufi shrines throughout the country, striking popular shrines in urban areas at times when thousands of visitors were present. In less than three years, more than 6,000 people have been killed in nearly 200 explosions, the last attack as recent as February 3, 2011. This escalating violence has repercussions that extend far beyond even the lives tragically lost in the explosions—it has deepened the rift between different branches of Islam, which may spur a new wave of domestic anti-terrorism policy in Pakistan.
While we often associate terrorism with violent attacks by Islamic extremists on Western states, predominantly Muslim states in the Middle East are just as vulnerable—terrorists often consider different Islamic sects to be just as foreign and heretical as the religions of the Western world. Recently, Sufi Muslims have become some of the hardest-hit victims of terrorism in Pakistan. As Dr. Peter Awn, professor of religion at Columbia University, explained, conservative Islamic sects see Sufism as a threat because of its acceptance of pluralism and its willingness to break down the barriers between multiple sects. The moderate, more flexible blend of Sufi Islam practiced by most Pakistanis challenges the strict traditionalist revivalism extolled by fundamentalists, such as the politically vocal minority Deobandi Sunni sect. Its adherents, including the Taliban and allied militant groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, follow a hard-line, Saudi-inspired version of Islam. Sufism heresy, especially because of the sect’s veneration of saints and its devotional singing and dancing, and militants have bombed dozens of Sufi shrines and killed hundreds of worshippers since 2005. Sufism, with its focus on harmony and homogeneity is an easy target for militants looking to exacerbate the divide between strict traditionalists and modern, more passive Muslims.
The most pressing threat to Pakistan’s national security is “home-grown” domestic terrorism. The politically motivated killings, near the Afghan border and in the largest city centers of Islamabad and Karachi, of civilians from various Islamic sects, police officials and foreigners have destabilized key areas of the country. This current violence is an outgrowth of events that occurred in the 1980s, when Pakistani President, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq began to support the Mujahideen terrorist movement during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Mujahideen originated as the local warlord resistance movement against Soviet intervention but became more sophisticated as regional coordination and government support through arms funding increased. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in conjunction with the CIA, its American counterpart, armed and encouraged the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union. However, after the proxy war, Mujahideen extremists were never pressured to disarm. Instead, the Pakistani government realized that the Mujahideen would be useful agents to help achieve Pakistan’s goals of increased land control, and the Pakistani government continued to encourage the Mujahideen to wield violent guerilla warfare against “foreign threats” and civilian forces in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Three decades later, the numbers of armed Mujahideen extremists has only grown, and they have perpetuated widespread domestic violence.
The Pakistani government’s alignment with the United States in the “War on Terror” has also contributed to the escalation of domestic terrorism in Pakistan. The Obama administration has established a security assistance package of $2 billion over the next five years to help Pakistan fight extremists on its Afghan border. This aid package is on top of the billions of dollars in military aid the U.S. already provides plus a $7.5 billion aid package over five years in non-military counter-terrorism assistance approved by Congress in 2009. The Pakistani state’s new affirmation of and cooperation with the West has set off a conservative Islamic backlash against the modernization of cultural values. As Dr. Karen Barkey, director of the sociology department at Columbia University, explained, the underlying mission of many Muslim fundamentalists is to purge the “ignorant” world of jahiliyyah —the condition of non-believers of Islam. The United States’ anti-terror funding in Pakistan, although supportive of the Pakistani government’s counter-terrorism efforts, is also represnative of Western intervention in an otherwise ideologically conservative state. Due to this Western involvement, Sufi Muslims have become the scapegoats of anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan, which compounds extremists’ preexisting anti-Sufi views.
After a series of violent attacks of gradually growing scale, Sufi Muslims are slowly beginning to rethink their characteristic passivity in Pakistani politics. The major turning point in Sufi attitudes was the twin suicide bombings in July 2010 at one of the oldest Muslim shrines on the subcontinent—Lahore’s revered Data Darbar shrine. The loss of 44 lives and 180 sustained injuries mobilized a non-violent resistant movement. The Sunni Ittehad Council, a grouping of Barelvi organizations—which accommodate many of the rites and practices of Sufism—was formed in May last year to fight the growing “Talibanization” of Pakistan. In only nine months, the SIC has flourished from the eight parties at its launch to 60 parties and counting. Sayyed Safdar Shah Gilani, a Sufi cleric and the central chief organizer of the SIC, said in an ultimate presentation of Sufi grounding and congeniality, “We’re thankful to them, those who started destroying things like the shrines, because they forced us to wake up, come together and confront them, God willing.”
Barelvi clerics, who have traditionally shunned politics, have now realized that innocent Sufis will be continue to be killed if the leading figures of the Sufi sect do not take action. Barelvis have realized the need for a direct voice in Parliament and are taking a greater role in Parliament by organizing candidates to field in the next parliamentary elections in 2013. However, since the election is still years away, the council coordinated a nationwide awareness campaign to politically engage followers and raise awareness about the evils of Taliban ideology. Thousands of members of the Sufi community staged a march in Lahore—the capital of the largest province of Punjab and the second largest city in Pakistan. The “Save Pakistan” march, also known as the “Long March,” that took place on November 27, 2010, has been the highlight of the campaign thus far. The march had consequences that lasted far beyond that November morning: Pakistanis today, across multiple Sunni Islamic sects, have been re-energized by the nonviolent cause of the Sufis to act upon their anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda sentiments. The clearest example of their new dynamism has been their willingness to band across religious differences.
Sufi fervor against religious terrorism among Pakistani civilians, especially in light of the recent political activism seen in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, has led many analysts to question whether the Sufi shrine bombings, given widespread popular sympathy and identification with Sufi culture and ideals, could have unified various Islamic sects and even non-Muslims and set off a chain of internal change. The thousands of supporters that took to the streets for the Long March placed new pressure on the Pakistani government to take action. The SIC is openly pushing for a nationwide ban on incendiary Deobandi literature, a clampdown on extremist groups that are ostensibly banned but continue to operate freely in Pakistan, and the monitoring of Pakistanis who have fought in Afghanistan. The Barelvis have also called for stronger police and judicial action against terrorism suspects and for the establishment of an internal police unit to root out officers suspected of helping terrorists.
Some of Pakistan’s most pertinent challenges in dealing with budding terrorist organizations include a burgeoning youth population, inadequate education resources and high unemployment. Simultaneously, there is the growing Talibanization of Pakistan because of terrorist havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government has had prior difficulty in confronting these issues primarily because of the lack of support from their own young, easily-bribable population. But the Sufi shrine bombings seem to have served as a sort of wake-up call for Sufis as well as the vast majority of non-extremist Pakistani Muslims in favor of keeping the peace in their homeland.
This domestic pressure for new anti-terrorism policy has the potential to mark the advent of longer-lasting anti-terrorism efforts. Internal change from the bottom-up is often more permanent and effective than an invasive top-down, externally forced change. Exporting democracy through war contradicts the very nature of the democratic process, which requires democracy to be built from below and not from above. At first glance, the internal fervor following religious divisions would destabilize society rather than create unified change. Sectarian strife and domestic unrest would create a haven for terrorists, who might benefit by setting up bases and sanctuaries in cities. “Obviously, the purpose of the [mosque] bombing was to create chaos, uncertainty, to challenge the state authority and weaken people’s confidence in the state,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst told The Washington Times. However, the Barelvi movement has been a unifying force for Pakistani Muslims. Still, in a dichotomy of forces, the strength in numbers is simultaneously providing a megaphone to a previously silent majority and shaking the foundation of Pakistani society.
The current national spirit in the greater Middle East and Pakistan challenges recent discourse on government reform in two important ways. Previously, change was never thought to be immediate, but rather attained through incremental, long-term reforms. Events in North Africa and the Middle East over the last two weeks suggest that such norms may not always apply when popular grass roots action takes the stage—just 18 days of relentless pressure from street demonstrations brought an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule over Egypt. Such evidence of the power of a unified people has driven Pakistanis to defend elements of pluralism in their own home nation. Minority groups, including Christian and Hindu groups, have joined in the anti-terrorism riots. The events organized through the SIC have become the inchoate sign for cross-community mobilization. In a manner that escapes the predictions of statisticians and the lessons learned of development agencies, Tunisia, Egypt, and the recently riot-filled Yemen institute the chain of reform in governance that has literally taken the region by storm. As Dr. Awn further noted, it is likely for Pakistanis to rally to reform their government under President Asif Zardari but without dethroning the current administration. However, whether this cycle of change is an aftershock to the Tunisia regime change or the beginning of a tsunami has yet to be seen.
A series of traumatic events, the increasingly violent bombings of Sufi shrines, has, in a twist of constructive irony, become one of the most positive driving forces for Pakistani civilians vying for peace. Whether Pakistan is indeed on a new upturn against Islamic terrorism and sectarian violence has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, Pakistan has set a new precedent for dealing with terrorism peacefully through the strength of Sunni majorities tired of victimization by fundamentalists and the politicization of Islam.