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Pakistan's Sufi Muslims brave bombs to worship

A campaign of deadly suicide attacks fails to intimidate the mystic strain, which embraces tolerance and eschews the rigidity that characterizes hard-line Islamist doctrine.

June 14, 2011|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Twice a month, Qasim Javed Malik still visits the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore, undeterred by the suicide bombing attack at the Sufi shrine last summer that left him scarred and blind.
Twice a month, Qasim Javed Malik still visits the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore,… (Nadeem Ijaz, For The Times )

Reporting from Lahore, Pakistan — Amid the throngs of Sufi Muslim followers streaming through the white marble corridors of the Data Darbar shrine, a young man in a cream-colored tunic and oversized sunglasses shuffled gingerly, guided by a brother on one side and his father on the other.

Twice a month Qasim Javed Malik comes here, a place he associates with spiritual recharging, not with the deafening clap of a suicide bomb blast, the odor of charred flesh, the blinding flash before everything went black.

"There's a strong divine attraction that pulls me here," Malik, 28, said softly, his face and hands pocked with scars from a suicide bomb attack at the shrine last summer that also left him blind. "I cannot stop coming here."

Neither can thousands of other Pakistani adherents to Sufism, despite a campaign of suicide bombings targeting a strain of Islam that embraces tolerance, welcomes women to its shrines and eschews the rigidity that characterizes hard-line Islamist doctrine.

It's an open-mindedness that doesn't track with the attitude of the country's militant groups. Since last summer, militants have attacked Sufi shrines in four cities, killing at least 102 people and injuring 348. The blast that robbed Malik of his eyesight killed 47 people and injured 170. The latest suicide bomb attack, at a shrine in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan on April 3, killed 41 people.

"They consider it a service to Islam to cleanse the religion of all impurities," said Abdul Basit, an analyst at the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. "And for the militants, these practices at the shrines are impurities."

The campaign of terrorism against Sufi shrines reflects the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan that shows no signs of ebbing. Two leading moderate politicians, Punjabi provincial Gov. Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated this year for their opposition to the country's draconian blasphemy law, which can bring the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.

Washington is increasingly concerned that the Pakistani government is failing to adequately combat the growing extremism.

Some officials in the U.S. argue that Pakistani leaders are lax in tackling the problem because of the suspected link between the country's intelligence agencies and militant groups.

The discovery that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad, a city with a heavy military presence, for five years before U.S. commandos killed him in early May, only reinforced suspicions in Washington of collusion between Pakistan's intelligence community and terrorist networks.

Sufism was brought to South Asia by its mystics from the Middle East more than eight centuries ago. Its highly mystical, personal approach to Islam, marked by trance-like chants, dancing to pounding drumbeats, and its belief that Sufi saints and descendants known as pirs are conduits to God make it anathema to Muslim fundamentalists, who consider it idolatry.

Sufism's widespread popularity, particularly among large segments of Pakistan's underclass that embrace its emphasis on equality, is also perceived by militant groups as an existential threat. Experts say about 60% of Pakistani Muslims regard themselves as Sufi followers.

"The militants think that if you have an Islam that's soft and tolerant, then obviously they would never be able to impose their will," said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. "They need the structure of religion for their power game, and that structure can only be provided by their interpretation of Islam."

The Taliban's animosity toward Sufism was apparent in the rhetoric used by its militants to groom a 14-year-old boy for the attack on the shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan.

Two bombers carried out the attack. One was able to detonate his explosives-filled vest and died in the blast. The other, however, had a vest that only partially detonated. The explosion tore apart his large intestine and severed his left arm at the shoulder, but he survived and was able to recount to police what he was told by his Pakistani Taliban handlers.

"He was brought here and told: 'These are the infidels. They are not doing what Muslims should do. Anyone who kills them will go to heaven,' " said Mubarak Ahmed, a senior Dera Ghazi Khan police official.

Despite the threat, security at shrines is lax. There are 534 shrines in Punjab, Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous province, and more than half of them lack proper security, according to a Punjabi provincial official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

In the Punjabi city of Shekhupura, a drowsy security guard slouched motionless in a chair by the main gate of the Noori Poori Sarkar shrine while another man made a single, cursory wave with a hand-held metal detector to screen visitors before motioning them through.

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