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Pakistan's mystics targeted by Taliban

Worshippers still flock to the grave of Rahman Baba. But they now pray at a mound of rubble and twisted steel — all that remains of his tomb since militants bombed it.
Pakistan Sufis Under Fire
Devotees of more tolerant brands of Islam have had to institute security checks in order to prevent attacks.Emilio Morenatti / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Worshippers still flock to the grave of Rahman Baba, a Muslim mystic revered by millions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But they now pray at a mound of rubble and twisted steel — all that remains of his tomb since militants bombed it.

The blast in March was the most high-profile in a recent spate of attacks against Pakistan's homespun, tolerant brand of Islam by hard-liners trying to replace it with the more austere version espoused by the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups.

"This hurts deep in my heart," said Ihasan ul-Haq, as he looked through a rainstorm onto the ruins of the once ornate, whitewashed tomb on the outskirts of Peshawar, a main northwestern town coming under the influence of the extremists. "And to think they do this in the name of Islam."

The attack was a sign of the extreme intolerance of the militants and the threat posed by the insurgency to the religious and cultural heart of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million people that the U.S. sees as critical in the global fight against Islamic extremism.

As in other countries where Islam replaced earlier religions, the faith widely practiced in Pakistan is different to that in its birthplace, the Arabian peninsula. While still devout and socially conservative, most Pakistanis follow or are influenced by Islam's mystical path of Sufism and incorporate local trappings such as visiting the shrines of saints, devotional songs and dancing. Some estimates say up to 75 percent of the country belongs to this group.

However, the extremists take their cue instead from Islam as practiced in the deserts of 7th century Arabia and are opposed to Sufism and indigenous forms of the faith — particularly the veneration of saints — which they consider dangerous deviations. The extremists gained strength in Pakistan in the 1980s, partly on the back of funding by the United States, which used hardline groups as proxies to fight Soviet rule in Afghanistan.

The fissure between the two forms of Islam has left some wondering whether the government or its Western allies could harness the moderation of the Sufis, and any anger they feel toward the militants, against the Taliban's spreading grip over the nuclear-armed nation. In a study in 2007, the U.S.-based RAND cooperation recommended the United States reach out to Sufis to strengthen moderate networks in Muslim countries, citing as an example Indonesia, another Muslim country where foreign groups have been discreetly helping the moderates.

'Tolerance of Islam'
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the descendant of a famous mystic and the keeper of his shrine, speaks often of the need to promote Sufism over extremism. But there has been little sign yet of a sustained effort by the government to reach out to the Sufis as allies or highlight how far out of step the extremists are with the country's religious mainstream.

"If you want to understand the inclusiveness and tolerance of Islam, you have to visit the shrines of Sufis," Qureshi said. "I believe that if you want to counter terrorism in long term, the strongest weapon is not the Kalashnikov, it is education, it is a changing of hearts and minds."

But even with their shrines under attack, Sufis are not rising against the militants or even loudly criticizing them.

Some of this silence is due to fear. The Taliban are known to terrorize and kill opponents. Many people also complain that the security forces would not support them if they put their necks on the line.

Another reason is that for many ordinary Pakistanis, anger at the Taliban is offset by anger at the United States for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that many here view as directed against Muslims. Experts also note the Taliban are primarily a political movement, not a religious one, despite how they may present their struggle.

"If most of Pakistan believed what the Taliban believe, the story would be over," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the U.S Council on Foreign Relations. "So there is something there, but a lot of it has to do with political control. They use the rhetoric of Islam and claim to follow a pure version of it, but this is not a religious issue."

Red flags
The shrines to the saints, which range from simple tombs tucked away in tiny villages to large complexes in cities that rake in thousands of dollars a day in donations, are found across the country.

They are traditionally visited by men and women — another red flag to the extremists, who believe in the strict segregation of the sexes. Such is the pull of the saints, members of the country's tiny Hindu and Christian minorities pray at some shrines — and meet no objection from other worshippers.

Many are havens for hashish smokers and dealers. Beggars, fortune tellers, food hawkers, drummers, devotional singers and wealthy folk handing out plates of lentil curry mingle at the most popular tombs, which pulsate with life late into the night.

In Karachi, the country's biggest city, hundreds remove their shoes each day to climb the steps to the seaside shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, an 8th century saint credited with bringing Islam to the area. Incense fills the air, as families, the young and the old, file past the tomb, pressing their heads against the stone, kissing it and throwing rose petals. Before leaving they take a pinch of supposedly holy salt from a pot on the tomb.

Mohammed Ahmed, a devout Muslim who teaches computer studies, started visiting the shrine after his wife had trouble conceiving. Now with a grinning 1-year-old girl on his hip, he comes each Saturday to say "thank you" to the saint for granting his wish.

For orthodox Muslims, asking any power but God for help is a grave sin that represents a watering down of the fierce monotheism that is at the heart of Islam. But Ahmed sees no sin, jokingly saying that asking for help by way of Ghazi ensures that his prayers get "priority" with God.

'Like a paradise'
Militants have attacked or seized shrines before, but in targeting the resting place of Rahman Baba, they chose one of the most famous tombs in the region.

Scholars say it is hard to overestimate the affection felt by the Pashtun ethnic group of northwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan for Baba, who lived 300 years ago. In many houses in the region, his verses of love, peace and devotion to God sit alongside the Quran, Islam's holiest book, as the only books on the shelf.

"His grave is the center of Pashtun culture," said Dr. Raj Wali Khattak, from the Peshawar University's Pashtun literature department. "While there is some dispute over who the greatest Pashtun poet is, no one disagrees that he is the most popular."

The attackers, who have not been caught, crept into the complex before dawn as the watchman was praying at the adjoining mosque. They detonated explosives left on the pillars of the tomb and on his tomb before fleeing.

The blasts irreparably damaged the building, which has since been demolished to allow for a new one to be built.

The complex is a frequent meeting place for Peshawar's literati and houses a small library that is visited by around 60 people each day. The library, which was undamaged, is home to a collection of around 100 books in English, including biology text books and general knowledge tomes.

"This place is like a paradise for us," said Khurshed Afridi, who is studying for a masters degree in sociology. "It enhances our mind."