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Cafe Black: The last bastion

Updated June 06, 2013

A cultural centre near the shrine of Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Lateef in Bhit Shah, Sindh.
A cultural centre near the shrine of Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Lateef in Bhit Shah, Sindh.


During the previous PPP-led government, plans were afoot to build the world’s first ever international Sufi university near Bhit Shah in Sindh(1).

The main purpose of the institution was stated to promote interfaith and intercultural education to tackle religious extremism in the country.

Such a thought and project could only have come about in Sindh. Especially in the context of what Pakistan has been going through in the last many years.

Not only have the country’s other provinces – especially the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Sindh’s capital, Karachi – become central targets of horrid terrorist attacks by extremist organisations, the Punjab province in particular has been witnessing a steady growth of faith-based conservatism within its urban middle and lower middle-classes.

When extremists (calling themselves ‘Punjabi Taliban’) attacked the famous Sufi shrine, Data Darbar, in Lahore in 2010, economist and political analyst, Asad Sayeed, made a rather insightful observation.

He said that had such an attack on the Darbar taken place 20 years ago, thousands of Lahorites would have poured out to protest.

But not anymore. The attack on one of Punjab’s most popular Sufi shrines was simply treated as just another terrorist attack.


The aftermath of the 2010 Data Darbar attack in Lahore.
The aftermath of the 2010 Data Darbar attack in Lahore.


Though it is now clear that extremists from within the ‘Wahabi’and Deobandi strands of the faith have been going around blowing up Sufi shrines frequented by the majority (and the more moderate) Barelvi Muslims, the Barelvi leadership has mostly looked elsewhere, putting the blame on the ever-elusive ‘foreign hands.’

Journalist and intellectual Khaled Ahmed once wrote a telling tongue-in-cheek article about the annual gathering of the Dawat-i-Islami in Multan.

The Dawat is the Barelvi equivalent of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamat. Both outfits are considered to be non-political organisations that are more interested in evangelising their respective versions of Islam and its rituals.

One should also mention that both these strains of Islam accuse each another of being ‘flawed Muslims.’

Ahmed wrote(2) how after Dawat’s huge congregation in Multan, when police found some bullet-riddled bodies of Dawat members, the outfit’s main leadership simply refused to acknowledge the glaring evidence that pointed towards the involvement of an opposing Sunni sect’s organisation in the murders.

Ahmed adds that Dawat leaders began babbling about ‘outside forces (RAW, CIA, Mossad)’ who wanted to create disharmony between Pakistan’s Barelvi majority and the Deobandi and Wahabi sects.

One can understand the above-mentioned episode as an example of the confusion Barelvi spiritual leadership has gone through since the 1980s.

From its inception in the 19th century(3) and until about the mid-1980s, the Barelvi sect was largely apolitical in orientation, non-Jihadist and followers of some of the most relaxed dictates of the Hanafi madhab.

‘Barelvi Islam’ (as it is sometimes called) is purely a South Asian phenomenon(4) that fuses elements of South Asian Sufism with the folk and populist strains of various cultures that exist in the area.

It is also called the ‘folk Islam’ of the region in which a high degree of tolerance exists between various faiths, sects, classes and ethnicities and in which the puritanical aspects of other Islamic sects are eschewed and even rejected.

The Sufi shrine and an intense reverence of the Prophet play a central role in Barelvi Islam. Its populist and moderate make-up helped it become the majority Sunni sect amongst the Muslims of South Asia.

Two of its leading opponents have been the Sunni Deobandi sect (also a product of South Asia) and the Puritanical Saudi-inspired ‘Wahabism.’

Both have accused Barelvis of ‘adopting non-Muslim rituals and practices’ and assorted ‘heresies.’

In spite of being the majority sect amongst Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, ‘Barelvi Islam’ hardly ever had a coherent political expression in shape of a mass-based political party or organisation.

Its spiritual leadership largely remained pro-Jinnah (unlike most Deobandi organisations of undivided India), and various Pakistani political leaders have continued to appeal to the symbolism and lingo associated with various populist aspects of Barelvi-ism.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the most successful in this respect.

Bhutto was also one of the first leading Pakistani political figures to popularise the act of regularly visiting famous Sufi shrines in Sindh and the Punjab.


ZA Bhutto showering rose petals on the grave of Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, in Lahore (1974).
ZA Bhutto showering rose petals on the grave of Sufi saint, Data Ganj Bakhsh, in Lahore (1974).


Barelvis are in the majority in Sindh and the Punjab(5) , whereas Deobandis are largely centred in KPK and in the Pushtun-dominated areas of Balochistan.

Until the 1970s Barelvi-ism also prevailed among many of Sindh and Punjab’s urban middle-classes, especially those who considered themselves to be progressive and likely supporters of secular politics.

However, the arrangement in this context was suddenly disturbed with the arrival of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in 1977.

Dipped in the political Islam of scholar and founder of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), Abul Ala Mauddudi, Zia soon moved towards infiltrating the spiritual and political nerve centres of Barelvi-ism in an attempt to ‘reform’ them.


Founder of the Jamat-i-Islami, and one of the main architects of 20th century ‘Political Islam,’ Abul Ala Maududi was a huge influence on General Ziaul Haq.
Founder of the Jamat-i-Islami, and one of the main architects of 20th century ‘Political Islam,’ Abul Ala Maududi was a huge influence on General Ziaul Haq.


Stunned by the ‘Islamic revolution’ in the Shia-dominated Iran in 1979, Saudi Arabian monarchy and its ‘Wahabi’ Sunni religious elite began seeing Pakistan’s Barelvi-dominated make-up as vulnerable to Shia-ism’s revolutionary symbolism.

At least that was one of the reasons used by Zia and his Saudi allies to draw the United States into giving Pakistan billions of dollars worth of aid and arms – apart from the fact that Soviet forces had invaded neighbouring Afghanistan in December 1979.

With the aid also came ‘Wahabi’ propaganda literature and the elevation of clerics who began setting up madressas and mosques.

These madressas operated as institutions that would indoctrinate young Pakistanis – most of whom were immersed in the non-Jihadi traditions of Barelvi-ism – and prepare them for Jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan(6) .

Zia also began describing famous Sufi saints as ulema and banned (in the media) all criticism and humour aimed at the clergy.

The Afghan war, Saudi propaganda, the mushrooming of Deobandi and ‘Wahabi’ madressas and televangelists, and a concentrated campaign by the Zia regime to equate the dictatorship’s corporate-Islamist makeup as something in accordance with the Shariah had a telling impact on Pakistan’s religious sociology.

In the KPK many moderate and progressive Deobandi strands that had prevailed in the province began sliding into the sect’s more radical dictates, coming closer to the puritanical ‘Wahabi’ and Salafi ideas about faith.

This slide was celebrated by the Zia dictatorship as a successful blow to the secular and ‘treacherous’ Pushtun separatist tendencies.

In the Punjab, the province benefited the most from Zia’s Punjab-centric capitalist manoeuvres. This coupled with unprecedented remittances coming from Pakistanis who had begun travelling to the Gulf States for work from the 1970s onwards, gave birth to new moneyed classes.

Many from the petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie sections began moving away from their Barelvi heritage and towards the more puritanical strains of faith.

Their Barelvi past now reminded them of their economic modesty, and consequently they began relating their enhanced economic standing with the adoption of the more puritanical strands of the faith that they came across in countries like Saudi Arabia.


Many urban Pakistanis began reflecting their enhanced economic standing with the adoption of the more puritanical strands of the faith that they came across in countries like Saudi Arabia.
Many urban Pakistanis began reflecting their enhanced economic standing with the adoption of the more puritanical strands of the faith that they came across in countries like Saudi Arabia.


That’s why the growth of Islamist and sectarian organisations in the Punjab and KPK under Zia, was whole-heartedly supplemented by local funding coming from Punjab’s nouveau-riche and petty-bourgeois trader classes.

Interestingly, it was also the same classes that also pushed the Barelvi leadership to become more conservative and radical.

Those sections of the Punjabi petty-bourgeoisie that stuck to Barelvi-ism encouraged their spiritual leadership to compete with the Puritanism and radicalism of the growing influence of Deobandi and ‘Wahabi’ groups.

This trend saw the first ever emergence of radical Barelvi groups. In the early 1980s, the Dawat-i-Islami was formed to counterbalance the growth of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamaat that had begun making deep inroads into Punjab and KPK’s bourgeoisie and the military.


Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir was Director General of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, from 1992 till may 1993. He was also a committed member of the Tableeghi Jamat.
Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir was Director General of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, from 1992 till may 1993. He was also a committed member of the Tableeghi Jamat.


The Dawat discouraged the Barelvis from indulging in antics associated with the region’s folk Islam, emphasising an increased reverence of holy personalities and encouraging holding of recitals of just naats and milads instead of quwalis and *dhamals**(7)* that have been integral parts of ‘folk Islam’ in South Asia.

1992 saw the formation of the Sunni Tehreek (ST). A militant Barelvi outfit that emerged from the splintering of one of the oldest Barelvi Islamic political party, the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

Such occurrences did not really help the Barelvi sect defend its traditions in the face of the state-sponsored Deobandi and Wahabi onslaught - rather, these organisations began turning Barelvi-ism into an equally anti-pluralistic and militant political phenomenon.

By the 1990s, Zia’s manoeuvres and Saudi involvement in reshaping Pakistan’s religious tradition had already seen KPK and Punjab become hostage to various violent Deobandi militant and extremist outfits and new-born Barelvi reactionary-ism.


Leaders of the Sunni Tehreek at a party rally in Karachi
Leaders of the Sunni Tehreek at a party rally in Karachi


The Punjab also saw a rise in the use of reactionary political and religious narratives within its lower-middle and middle-classes, whereas in Balochistan attempts were being made (allegedly by the ‘establishment’) to neutralize secular Baloch nationalist militancy with the help of both puritanical evangelical as well as militant outfits.

This had already been done successfully in KPK in the 1980s.

But Sindh …

But what happened in Sindh? Barelvi-ism in Sindh (outside of its capital Karachi) has always been a lot more secular and pluralistic than the Barelvi-ism in the Punjab.

The strand’s sociology in Sindh heavily revolves around the staunchly secular historicity that the province’s famous scholar, GM Syed’s literary works generated.

He described a highly pluralistic and secular reading of Sufism as being the cultural and religious heritage of the Sindhis and it is this narrative that still rules the roost in the province’s social and religious psyche.


A 1979 poster of Sindhi scholar and nationalist, GM Syed.
A 1979 poster of Sindhi scholar and nationalist, GM Syed.


This is one of the reasons why Zia almost completely failed to impose his version of Islam here. Also, just like the majority of the Baloch who equate puritanical Islam with the ‘Punjabi elite,’ so does the socio-political discourse in Sindh(8).

On the other hand, in Karachi, though Zia-backed Deobandi and Wahabi radical outfits did manage to find a foothold, two things have always worked against these outfits here.

The first is the fact that the sprawling ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity found in Karachi actually absorbs and neutralises any attempt by an outfit to impose its version of Islam.

Secondly, MQM, a party that first emerged as a mohajir nationalist group, adopted almost the same populist Barelvi symbolism and lingo as Bhutto did in the 1970s.

Also, the other major political party in the city too is secular (in Pakistan’s context): the PPP.

Though the Sunni Thereek (ST) has managed to infiltrate some sections of MQM’s support base, ST is Barelvi and anti-Taliban (albeit equally reactionary).

In spite of the rampant crime and ethnic tensions that are a constant in Karachi, it will not be an overstatement to suggest that the rest of Sindh today stands to be perhaps the only sanctuary in present-day Pakistan that is (comparatively-speaking) largely free of the factors that have created opportunities in the Punjab and KP for violent extremist activity and socio-political conservatism.

Sindh: The last bastion?

Last year newspapers reported a series of bomb attacks on railway tracks in the Sindh province.

The attacks were owned by an obscure organisation called the Sindhudesh Liberation Front.

The name took a lot of non-Sindhis by surprise. Why would there be an angry Sindhi movement when there have already been two Sindhi prime ministers and, what’s more, a Sindhi president is currently at the helm of the federation?

However, according to Sindhi nationalists, the original architect of Sindhi nationalism, the late G M Syed, is back in vogue amongst the new generation of Sindhi nationalists.


A T-Shirt that has become popular among young educated Sindhis.
A T-Shirt that has become popular among young educated Sindhis.


Back in the 1960s, G M Syed, an accomplished scholar and politician, painstakingly constructed an elaborate historical narrative of Sindh and its people.

It presented Sindh as an ancient land whose people have always been one of the most pluralistic and secular under both Hindu as well as Muslim rule.

The narrative goes on to suggest that during the long Muslim rule in the region, Sindh’s pluralistic tradition was carried on by a number of Muslim mystics (Sufi saints) and Sindhis have continued to demonstrate a passionate attachment to these mystics.

Syed’s narratives on Sindh may now have become common knowledge to most Pakistanis, but this was not always the case.

In fact, just like Pashtun nationalist, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and many Baloch nationalist thinkers, Syed too was constantly put on the spot by the state for preaching anti-Pakistan and ‘anti-Islam’ ideas.

Syed was a magnet for all sorts of ironies. During the Pakistan Movement he steadfastly stood with Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But soon after independence, he became one of the first prominent men to decry the hegemony of the ‘Punjab-dominated elite’ over other provinces.

Another irony that Syed could never reconcile his politics with was the Bhutto phenomenon.

Z A. Bhutto, a Sindhi, and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), experienced a sudden, meteoric rise (in the late 1960s) when Syed’s narrative had begun to take hold among Sindhi youth.

Syed did not applaud Bhutto’s rise in spite of the fact that Bhutto was a Sindhi and a declared progressive.

Bhutto’s Federalist-nationalistic rhetoric did not sit well with Syed. To Syed if one brushed off Bhutto’s leftist notions from the surface, underneath was a man wilfully doing the bidding of the ‘Punjabi ruling elite’.

Syed’s analysis had deemed Pakistan to be a state that was destined to fragment. And just like his Baloch, Pashtun and Bengali nationalist contemporaries, Syed too blamed the myopic politics of the ruling elite for this.

He accused the civil and military members of the said elite for undermining the cultural histories and traditions of the many ethnicities that resided in Pakistan.

He accused them of imposing upon the ‘oppressed ethnicities’ a cosmetic version of nationhood.

Syed’s suspicion of Bhutto turned hostile when Bhutto used a constitutional process to reinforce the kind of nationhood and faith Syed had accused the establishment of imposing.

To Bhutto it was the dictatorial way that this concept of nationhood had been imposed that made East Pakistan break away (1971) and repulsed the non-Punjabi ethnicities. Syed disagreed. To him Bhutto was merely giving ‘Punjabi hegemony’ a constitutional sheen. In 1973 Syed finally called for an independent Sindh (‘Sindhudesh’).


Graffiti in on a wall in Dadu calling for an Independent ‘Sindhudesh’.
Graffiti in on a wall in Dadu calling for an Independent ‘Sindhudesh’.


In April 1979 when, through a sham trial, the Ziaul Haq dictatorship sent Bhutto to the gallows, Syed termed Bhutto’s tragic demise as a great loss to the establishment.

Mocking the establishment’s arrogance Syed remarked, ‘today they (the establishment) have killed their own, best man.’

With Bhutto out of the way and a reactionary Punjabi general ruling the roost, did Syed finally make Sindhis rise up for Sindhudesh?

No. Even though Sindhis did rise up, especially during the 1983 anti-Zia MRD movement led by the PPP in which hundreds were killed, Syed did not support the uprising.

This time another Bhutto had appeared, Benazir. To Syed here was another popular Sindhi who was willing to clean up yet another mess created by the establishment so the federation could be saved - a federation Syed had no hope in.

But why has the federalist PPP continued to win elections in Sindh instead of the Sindhi nationalists?

In the 2013 election, the PPP once again swept Sindh. One theory attributes the PPP’s victory in the province to its former government's ambitious social welfare scheme, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

The scheme had largely benefitted peasant and working-class women. Consequently, these women ventured out (many for the first time) to vote. Voting in droves for the PPP, their votes strengthened the party’s traditional vote-bank in the province and gave it the edge that it needed to ward-off the challenge posed by the desperate alliance of conservative and pro-establishment PML-F and some Sindhi nationalist parties.

Another observation suggests that by voting heavily for the PPP, the Sindhis usually vote rationally because they are aware that their best access to mainstream centres of decision-making and influence still lies by way of the PPP.

This observation also goes on to add an ethic dimension to it by further suggesting that to most Sindhis the PPP offers the best balance between the Sindhis’ practical need to remain attached to Federalism and their inherent Sindhi nationalist sentiment. Other large mainstream parties like the PML-N are still viewed as an extension of ‘Punjabi hegemony’ here.


Women at a PPP rally in Hyderabad, Sindh.
Women at a PPP rally in Hyderabad, Sindh.


Recently a young Sindhi (and PPP voter) told me that the ‘establishment’ has started playing a game in Sindh which even the PPP won’t be able to check.

On further inquiry he explained that some sections of the ‘establishment’ believe that they can subdue Sindhi nationalism the way they did Pashtun nationalism and the way they are trying to suppress Baloch nationalism, i.e. by crudely injecting a puritanical strain of Islam into what are almost entirely secular nationalisms.

‘Look what has happened in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?’ The young Sindhi asked. ‘Look how sectarian organisations are roaming freely in Balochistan. They (the ‘establishment’) are now helping fanatics to build madressas in Sindh as well so that Syed Sain’s legacy and those of the Sufis in Sindh can be replaced by mullahs and extremists’.

To this young Sindhi, Sindhudesh Liberation Movement, is a reaction to this.


‘Sufi University to be set up in Bhit Shah’: http://sindhstudy.com/node/5164

Khalid Ahmed, Pakistan: The State in Crises (Venguard, 2002) p.38

Pnina Werbner, Pilgrims of Love, (C Hurst Publishing, 2003) p 242

Barelvi Islam: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/intro/islam-barelvi.htm

Eamon Murphy, The Making of Terrorism in Pakistan, (Routledge, 2012) p.24

Irfan Husain, Fatal Fault Lines, (Arc Manor LLC, 2012) p.201

Anjana Narayan, Bandana Purkayastha, Living Our Religions, (Kumarian Press, 2009) p.75

Farhan Hanif, The Politics of Ethnicity in Pakistan (Routledge, 2012) p.79

Michiel Baud, Rosanne Rutten, Intellectuals & Social Movements, (Cambridge University Press, 2002) p.82