The most recent Islamist terror attack on a major Pakistani Sufi shrine struck the mausoleum of Baba Fariddudin Ganj Shakkar in the Punjab city of Pakpattan on October 25. Bombs hidden in milk cans, carried on a motorcycle, killed six people and left 15 injured.
Baba Farid, as he is commonly known, was a 13th-century preacher in the Chishti Sufi order, and a leading figure in the development of the Punjabi language and its literature. His burial site has long attracted Hindu and Sikh devotees as well as Muslims. Guru Nanak, the 16th-century founder of Sikhism, wrote in praise of Baba Farid, declaring that he shared with the Muslim mystic the quest for divine grace.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and their backers in al Qaeda, have made 2010 especially bloody for South Asian Sufis. The year began with the desecration and demolition of tombs and shrines by the Pakistan Taliban in Orakzai, within the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghan border. The FATA also includes Waziristan, the Taliban stronghold. In June, the Taliban attacked deeper in Pakistan, devastating the Mian Umar Baba shrine in Peshawar, in an offensive against Sufi institutions in that city’s environs that began in 2007. The violence seemed to have peaked on July 1 of this year, when three bombers killed 45 people and left 175 wounded at the Data Durbar shrine, in Lahore, near the Pakistani border with India. That monument shelters the sarcophagus of the 10th-century Sufi known as Data Ganj Baksh.
The Data Durbar horror provoked deep revulsion in South Asia and around the world, as well as heightened security precautions in Pakistan itself. In Sindh, the province on the country’s southeast border with India, dozens of structures were put under guard. But terrorists succeeded on October 7 in bombing the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, the capital of Sindh and former capital of Pakistan. Ten people were killed and at least 50 people were injured Abdullah Shah Ghazi was seen by the local populace as a symbol of common devotion by non-Muslims as well as Muslims, like Baba Farid and Data Ganj Baksh.
The campaign against Sufi shrines by the Pakistan Taliban and other jihadists has several aims. One is to dramatize the radical fundamentalist claim that Muslims cannot live at peace with non-Muslims, since Sufi institutions provide a space for social bonding between the differing religions in South Asia. This argument is pursued by jihadis in Kashmir, where the Sufi mausoleum of the 14th-century Sheikh Nooruddin Rishi, frequently visited by Hindus as well as Muslims, was burned in 1995. A second goal is to terrorize the Sufis themselves, whose spiritual practices, including prayer and observances at gravesites in devotion to Muslim mystics, is condemned by the Wahhabi-like Deobandi sect from whose ranks the Taliban are drawn. Wahhabis and Deobandis additionally hate Sufi shrines because women throughout the Muslim lands visit them frequently, to pray for blessings in their family lives.
But most important, the terrorists, roaming destructively across Pakistan, have demonstrated that they can act with impunity and exposed, yet once more, the weakness of the Islamabad government in providing security for its citizens as well as in combating the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, the main anti-Sufi campaign in South Asia began with bloodletting in Islamabad in 2005, when a blast at the Bari Imam shrine in the modern capital took 18 lives during a Shia Muslim commemoration. It has now touched all the main Pakistani cities.
The anti-Sufi war in South Asia is trans-national. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and other jihadis attack in all directions; contrary to the apparent belief of the Obama administration, the Taliban cannot be “contained,” but must be decisively defeated, and be seen to have been defeated. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Pakistani jihadis do not seek domination over South Asia as an end in itself, but to gain a platform for wider aggression. Afghan Taliban crossed the border to destroy the tomb in Peshawar of a greatly-beloved 17th-century Pashtun Sufi poet, Rehman Baba, in 2009. The capacity of the terrorists to shed blood inside India was shown by the atrocities committed in Bombay at the end of 2008. But the Indian Sufis had already been hit by the terrorists in 2007, when the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, a 12th-century figure and the most famous of the subcontinent’s Islamic mystics, was bombed, leading two dead and 20 injured.
While violence against Sufis has become a prominent feature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan terror war, Western media typically note it and then move on, as if it were not a crucial factor in the conflict. Reporting on the Baba Farid assault, the Washington Post quoted Hamid Saeed Kazmi, Pakistani minister of religious affairs, who said the radicals “want to convert the war on terror into a sectarian war.” But the terrorists’ aim has always been sectarian conflict--as much when al Qaeda cadres attack the U.S. or murder Christians and Shia Muslims in Iraq, as when the Taliban massacre Sufis and Shias.
The sectarian hatreds of the Deobandis have been imported into Britain, where believers of South Asian origin make up the majority of Muslims. Radical preachers and the Deobandi missionary movement Tabligh-i-Jamaat (TJ) take over British mosques built by the conservative but law-abiding and apolitical Barelvi Muslims, or erect new structures from which they spread their venom and in which they recruit the young. In the United States, where South Asians form the plurality of the Muslim community, the Pakistan-based jihadi movement Jamaat-e Islami (JI) controls mosques and spreads extremism through the paramilitary Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the most influential organization among Pakistani-American Muslims. Worse, the al Qaeda-auxiliary Lashkar-e-Taiba, which attacked Bombay, has maintained an active network in the UK and U.S. for years.
As terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan expands, it’s time for anti-terror strategists and media experts to recognize the anti-Sufi war in South Asia for what it is: rather than an esoteric quarrel involving a curious and picturesque form of Islam, it is the vanguard of the radical assault throughout the region, and, by manipulating the South Asian Muslim diaspora in the West, against the world.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.