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Pakistanis lose faith in extremist education

Tom Hussain,


Foreign Correspondent


Last Updated: November 24. 2008 6:06PM UAE / November 24. 2008 2:06PM GMT 


Pakistani Muslims are adopting the apolitical religious practices prevalent before the propagation of jihad. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo



ISLAMABAD // Widespread public disillusionment with hardliners among Pakistan’s clergy, who for 30 years preached romantic notions of jihad, has sparked a renaissance of sorts in traditional Islamic practices, social observers say.


The trend represents a mass about-face among Pakistanis who, from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan until September 11, were subjected to jihad-focused indoctrination through a state-proscribed school curriculum that reinforced fiery sermons to congregations.


However, the impact of that indoctrination – which fuelled enrolment in seminaries that produced fighters for the anti-Soviet mujahideen and, subsequently, the Taliban – is waning after the increase in terrorist attacks in the Pakistani heartland, which has peaked this year.


Repulsed by graphic live television imagery of terrorist carnage, the general public has responded by turning their backs on militant clerics and adopting the apolitical religious practices prevalent before the propagation of jihad.


“There is a growing sense of betrayal among the general public … a sense of realisation that the jihadist mullahs have misguided them,” said Mohammed Afzal Bajwa, a journalist and Sufism research scholar at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.


Sufism was popularised in South Asia during the 13th century by the saints Ali Usman Hajveri, “Data Ganj Baksh” (giver of infinite salvation) of Lahore, and Baba Fariduddin, “Shakarganj” (giver of infinite sweetness) of Pakpattan in East Pakistan.


The Sufis’ use of music as a means of conversion subsequently led to the development of many forms of Indian classical music.


Pakistani Muslims, who account for about 93 per cent of the estimated population of 170 million, are predominantly Sunni followers of the 11th century Arab scholar, Abu Hanifa.


They are divided into two schools of thought: the Sufi interpretation taught by the Bareilly seminary in northern India is popular among the rural majority; urbanites prefer the formal practices advocated by the Deoband seminary, also in northern India, which is the home of the global proselytiser movement known as Tablighi Jama’at.


An estimated 15 per cent of Pakistani Muslims are Shiites who share the Barelvi passion for Sufism, but are historically at odds with Deobandi teachings.


Pakistani Muslims increasingly are questioning the motives of the leaders, fuelling the loss of support for them.


“Wise Muslims have come to understand that our misguided brothers have allowed themselves to be used to serve the purpose of our enemy,” said Ashfaq Ahmed, the Deobandi khateeb (prayer leader) of a mosque in a suburb of Rawalpindi.


The disillusionment has extended to mainstream theological politicians such as Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose Deoband-linked Jamiat Ulema-I-Islam (JUI) party swept to power in the Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces bordering Afghanistan on a wave of pro-Taliban sympathy in 2002.


Seminaries operated by the JUI and its splinter groups produced the majority of Pakistani Taliban prior to Nato intervention, but the party has since distanced itself from the militants.


Mr Rehman, who was leader of the opposition in the national assembly from 2002 to 2007, is now fighting press revelations that he and his family were illegally allocated public and military land at throwaway prices by the administration of Gen Pervez Musharraf, the former president.


The deteriorating reputation of the theological leadership has prompted residents in the three most prosperous suburbs of Lahore to invite educated layman preachers, including retired university professors, to deliver sermons to the Friday weekly congregation. That, in turn, follows the rise in popularity of anti-militant cable TV networks, such as the Peace TV channel of Zakir Naik, a be-suited Indian Islamic scholar.


Observers believe the recent negative reaction towards militants and their erstwhile patrons symbolises the inherently modernist aspirations of Pakistanis.


“We love to demonstrate piety and conservative morals, but what is the first thing we do when our financial position improves? We register our children for schools with the British curriculum,” said Suhail Warraich, a widely published political historian and popular television show host.


He believes the turning point for public opinion was the September suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad; the bomber struck while diners were breaking their Ramadan fasts.


“What people saw was an assault on their dreams for a better future. The Taliban has felt the change of sentiment and has greatly scaled back its attacks on public places since,” Mr Warraich said.


However, there is little prospect of a depoliticisation of religion within Pakistan. The professedly secular government that assumed power in March has dragged Barelvi politicians – particularly those claiming hereditary links to Sufi saints – into the war against the Taliban. Several have gathered followers into poorly armed militia, which have not faired well against battle-hardened militants. One, Noorul Qadri, was appointed federal minister for religious affairs in a recent cabinet reshuffle.


That move has been greeted with scepticism by observers who feel the government is missing the point of the Islamic tradition of South Asia.


“Political interference is a digression in history, because Islamic scholars always represented a voice of opposition to the ruling order. Religion is always most popular during times of difficulty, and people are now reverting to type. Any attempt now to manipulate beliefs is doomed,” said Habib Akram, a journalist for Samaa TV.

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