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Pakistan: Blasting away culture

Thursday 24 November 2016, by siawi3


by Kamila Hyat

The News - November 17, 2016

The bomb blast at the shrine of Sufi saint Shah Noorani in Khuzdar, Balochistan has added to the hundreds killed in similar attacks on Sufi centres of worship; these attacks began a decade ago. Since then there have been at least 25 major attacks, targeting devotees at shrines which include Data Gang Bakhsh in Lahore, Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi and Rehman Baba the Pashto poet and scholar whose writings on Sufism are a subject of scholarly study for experts on the tradition.

These attacks have been conducted by hard-line, extremist forces whose orthodox line of thinking opposes core Sufi beliefs including tolerance, peace and coexistence. Sufi poetry and thought is of course embedded deep in our culture with people across the rural Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan able to recite or sing verses from their works almost continuously.

For centuries, the Sufi tradition held many sects and groups together in the Subcontinent, uniting them in a common belief in humanity. Sufi philosophy is a matter of study at many institutes of learning not only within the Subcontinent but across the world, and its depth of meaning equals that of philosophers who have helped shaped the world.

For today, in our own country we can say with some confidence that the majority of people still belief in Sufi traditions and respect the men, and women, who helped developed these in the region. The attacks from orthodox groups represent a deliberate attempt to change culture and tradition and intervene directly in the lives of people.

It is ironic that in many areas, for example in Lahore where Sufi saints lie buried, top security measures have had to be put into place with surveillance cameras now going up in some streets to guard against a possible bombing or suicide attack. But of course as we already know from past experience such security measures cannot ward off every threat. One way or the other determined killers will still get through, especially since many of the shrines are scattered along relatively remote areas of the country in all the provinces.

Attempts to gun down guardians of the Sufi tradition, notably in interior Sindh, is an example of the determination to silence the followers of Sufism and create a situation where they are less significant in the country.

The reality is that Sufism goes far beyond religion alone. It is the part of culture that is handed down from generation to generation with the verses of the best known poets such as Bulleh Shah or Rehman Baba still moving millions, and the thought they express inviting many to ponder a little more about their lives and the manner in which they lead them. The question of ‘good’ and relationship to the higher power come again and again in Sufi writings, and discussions and debates about these matters is extremely important, in a world that is today caught in mass confusion over its identity and its beliefs.

What is hard to assess is how many people have been affected in any real manner by the new hard-line trends brought in essentially from the Middle East and used by powers in the country for their own self interest. We saw this happen most markedly in the 198s, when the schism between religious sects was quite deliberately created in order to ensure greater control over all that happened within the country.

While every blast, every explosion and every verdict by groups such as the Council on Islamic Ideology, at present led by a hard-line cleric with a limited vision, naturally enough make headlines what we do not know is what the majority of people actually think and how they behave. It is obvious that for both spiritual and psychological reasons shrines remain popular places for millions of devotees of all ages and all schools of belief.

The traditions linked to these shrines play in with the mindset of people and the indigenous culture of the Subcontinent, a region of the world where poetry, verse and philosophical thought have been rooted from an age that predates the arrival of Islam in the area. The Sufi scholars added a great deal to this and created an especially enlightened view of the world expressed in a manner that people could easily understand and follow.

It is a huge tragedy that we today see this tradition under attack. Quite beyond the matter of bomb blasts or killings, warnings and threats have been made to persons who arrange Sufi-style gatherings within the privacy of their homes. Clearly these individuals are under watch which in itself is a frightening idea. We need to do much more to protect what is an important part of our heritage. Taking this away from people robs them of much that belongs to them and to the very soil that gave them life. We must not allow it to be taken away quite so easily and without a fight.

How is this fight to be conducted? Sadly many of the forums which help frame opinions have been taken over by orthodox and particularly obscurantist views on religion. These include media channels and the content of textbooks in most educational institutions. Beyond this we also have clerics with only a limited education or understanding of their religion. The same is true of people who follow them blindly and without understanding.

The Sufis argued for understanding as a primary human need. They held that, until basic concepts about religiosity and power on this earth and beyond it were comprehended, it could be difficult to move forward in any direction. We can argue about these thoughts. But no thinking should be destroyed or demolished through violence. To prevent this requires something a little more than security measures at shrines or the mass deployments of police when an ‘urs’ or other important event is taking place. The solution has to lie both in eliminating the small number of extremists who have used violence to take control of so much in our country.

We need to remember that their numbers are limited. We can fight back against them by making a thought-out effort to encourage people to use their own minds to follow the traditions that their elders have adhered to for so many years. These traditions were born and moulded in the Subcontinent. They have taken shape from its earth and in turn shaped the people who live on it.

It would be a travesty to try and meddle with this in any way. A country that loses large portions of its culture becomes a weaker and less integrated one. Tradition is not always a positive influence, but in so many ways what it consists of unifies people and brings them together.

We need this unity today more than at any other time in the past. To ensure it is not stripped away it is vital to act against extremist groups such as Isis while at the same time giving people space to hold on to their own beliefs without the fear that they would be killed in the process of doing so. There is a danger that we are losing our heritage. It is crucial that we fight off this threat and reassert all that we truly believe in.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.