IN THE MONTH of February, terrorists in Pakistan have killed over a hundred Muslims, leaving many crippled for life, in just five days. This cracks the myth that Pakistan has conquered its terror problem and that incidents of violence have gone down by more than half. On February 16th, Afghanistan- based Islamic State (IS) suicide-bombed the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif in Sindh, killing 88 and injuring 342, and then sent out a message in Arabic that it had destroyed ‘a Shia place of worship’. Most devotees of Lal Shahbaz didn’t know the shrine was of the Shia sect of Islam.
Then IS added another irony to an already ironic fact: it said that the ‘martyr’, the bomber who attacked Sehwan, was named Usman Ansari, a name that a Shia is highly unlikely to have because Usman was one of the caliphs after Prophet Muhammad’s death who deprived his nephew, Shia-revered Ali, of the right to rule Muslims. The Afghanistan-born patron saint of the Lal Shahbaz shrine was Usman Marwandi, a name possibly taken to avoid being identified as Shia, though his faith was later amply demonstrated by his devotional verse.
Afghan extremists turned on Shias because their Islam was Deobandi, an anti-Shia and pro-Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam that had its origins in India in antiquity and is now used for jihad.
Many in Pakistan will do a double- take on hearing that Sehwan is a Shia shrine. All kinds of Muslims and even Hindus throng here and dance till they go into a trance of self-forgetting. The custodian of the shrine is traditionally a Hindu, representing a community that has found relief in a saint that Muslims themselves couldn’t have accepted if they knew. I agree with Nandita Bhavani when she says in her 2014 book, The Making of Exile: Sindhi Hindus and the Partition of India, that minority communities are shaped by the fear of conversion. Hindu Bhakti and Muslim Sufi mysticism have taken these ‘threatened’ communities into their fold without asking them questions of identity. Love rather than piety is the message of this identity-erasing cult that the state hasn’t found a way of reconciling with.
Pakistan has an ideology that it shares with its killers, Al Qaeda and IS, but is at a loss to reconcile with the shrines its people refuse to abandon. Of course, it doesn’t know that one way to counter the extremists is to allow the proliferation of humanism through mystical teachings. The countless madrassas, registered and unregistered, that the state recognises find themselves siding with Shia-killing terrorists against the pacifist shrine. The state is embarrassed by a constitution that couldn’t call the Shia ‘apostate’ in a manner that its latter-day patron, Saudi Arabia, may want. But anti-Iran and anti-Shia forces are all over Pakistan. The IS, with revenues from its Syria-Iraq territory now at $2 billion annually, has recruited entire swathes of Pakistan’s tribal territory to that cause. The country was shocked when the US commander in Afghanistan General Nicholson said that the entire tribal agency of Orakzai in Pakistan had gone the IS way.
The message of love from Sehwan’s Lal Shahbaz is rejected by a more strict ideology of the state which has evolved into its current hardness since 1949 when Pakistan decided to live under the Qur’an and Sunnah
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A shared ideology with terrorists has humbled Pakistan. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s tract, Morning and the Lamp, was meant as an alternative Pakistani constitution, and madrassas embraced it. The IS is of the same Wahhabi mindset, but with a sharp edge of anti-Shiism added in. And since Sufi shrines are anathema to the followers of Abdul Wahhab, both Al Qaeda and IS have attacked them: Barri Imam near Islamabad in May 2005, killing 20 who didn’t even know the shrine was Shia; the Rehman Baba shrine in Peshawar in March 2009; Data Darbar in Lahore in July 2010, killing 35; the shrine in Pakpattan of Baba Farid, whose verse forms a part of the Granth Sahib, in Oct 2010; Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi in February 2013; and Dargah Shah Noorani in Balochistan in November 2016, killing 50.
This February, the terrorist outfit Jamaatul Ahrar struck in Lahore and killed two senior police officers together with 13 others as collateral damage. This was Mullah Fazlullah’s ongoing revenge for his ouster from the valley of Swat where he ruled savagely for three years before being ejected by a military operation in 2008. (Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad who was allowed by Pakistan to take his personal army to fight the Afghan war in the 1990s). He called the Lahore attack ‘Operation Ghazi’, after the brother of the current head of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who doesn’t think Pakistani soldiers dying fighting terrorists could be called ‘martyrs’. No one in Islamabad can fathom why the state of Pakistan still allows the Red Mosque to function in the heart of the capital.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was launched by Al Qaeda after the Red Mosque was attacked by Pakistan army commandos on receipt of a Chinese complaint that a group of China’s rebel Uighurs were hiding inside the madrassa. Rasheed Ghazi had died in this operation in 2007. It is instructive that the Zarrar Company of army commandos who carried out the Red Mosque operation were all killed—not by India, but by a child suicide-bomber taken into their mess by a fellow-commando who had defected to Al Qaeda.
In the recent past, the state of Pakistan has missed many ominous developments. Grown out of its proxy war are clerics who make money by training children as suicide-bombers, drawn usually from residential seminaries, inculcating a more virulent or ‘true’ version of the ideology of Pakistan. Each Pakistani terrorist gets around $400 a month from Al Qaeda and IS, and every child suicide-bomber’s family is adequately compensated. More than money, what matters is the way Islamic State’s message resonates with thousands of unregistered madrassas—including those in Islamabad—who supply it with warriors. That these seminaries have immunity was proved by a recent plaint by the Sindh state government to Islamabad that 91 madrassas in Karachi were involved in dubious activities. The warning was ignored with a rebuke.
The first implication is that Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, meant to flush out terrorists—including the Afghan Haqqani Network—from North Waziristan has not proved conclusive and the tribal agency is still a source of worry. The second is that the IS’s sectarian appeal has attracted TTP warriors, for which evidence was provided by the Quetta massacre of lawyers last year and the recent bomb attacks on Shias in Parachinar, Kurram agency, which is located next to traditionally sectarian Orakzai. Pakistan is under threat increasingly from IS attracting youths as far away as Karachi, which has a large Shia population.
The message of love from Sehwan’s Lal Shahbaz is rejected by a more strict ideology of the state which has evolved into its current hardness since 1949 when Pakistan decided to live under the Qur’an and Sunnah. This year, Dawn conducted a poll in which more than 80 per cent readers agreed with an Islamabad High Court ruling to ban Valentine’s Day because it was ‘against Islamic teachings’. The court also told Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) to stop Valentine’s Day promotions. The act of spreading love, against which there is no law, in an environment vitiated by hate speech, against which there exists a law, has been outlawed. A seller of balloons with ‘Valentine’s Day’ written on them was arrested.
Why was February chosen by the Jamaatul Ahrar to hit Lahore and by Islamic State to bomb Sehwan? The madrassas of Pakistan have always vocally opposed Valentine’s Day as an act of impiety, but IS was the first to actively suppress it. In 2015, Saad Aziz, a graduate of one of Karachi’s prestigious business schools, joined the IS in Afghanistan and killed human rights worker Sabeen Mahmud. He later admitted: “We shot her for holding a Valentine’s Day rally. My friend was riding the motorcycle but I was sitting at the back and I shot her five times.”
At the UN Security Council, Pakistan continues to plead an ‘external threat’. A kind of shock was registered by the nation when Pakistan’s former army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg chose to argue in favour of a harder Islam and wrote in The Nation right after a terrorist onslaught on January 17th: ‘Unfortunately democracy [in Pakistan] has been preferred over the principles of the Quran and Sunnah. No government in the past or the present one, nor the conglomeration of over two dozen religious parties, ever made any serious attempt to fortify our ideological identity. We have failed to give our children their Muslim identity, because our education system is devoid of teachings of the principles of the Quran and Sunnah.’
William Dalrymple was in Sehwan some years ago when he ran into a cleric of ‘the largest madrassa located in an old haveli not far from the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’. He was shocked by what he heard the man say standing right next to the saint’s mausoleum: “We don’t like tomb worship,” he said. “The Qur’an is quite clear about this … We must not pray to dead men and ask things from them, even the saints.”