Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported June 7 that the government is establishing a Sufi Advisory Council, with an aim of combating extremism by promoting Sufism and its pacifistic vision of Islam. Noting this development June 26, Reuters’ FaithWorld blog adds that such stateside establishmentarian voices as the RAND and the Heritage Foundation have recently advocated such a strategy.
The RAND report, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, Strategies (actually issued back in 2003), includes the following policy recommendation: “Encourage the popularity and acceptance of Sufism.” The Heritage Foundation report, Reviving Pakistan’s Pluralist Traditions to Fight Extremism (May 4, 2009) notes the growing schms between the Barelvi and Deobandi schools within Pakistan’s Sunni community, and includes this blurb on the traditionally more widespread Barelvis:
Barelvi. The Barelvis were founded by Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareilli (1856–1921). Most Pakistanis adhere to this school of thought, which also draws from Sufi traditions. Barelvis appeal through saints and venerate graves and share a special respect and connection with shrines of Sufi saints. Sufism has strong links to South Asia dating back to the eighth and ninth century and preaches religious tolerance, encourages spiritual over ritualistic practicing of Islam, and encourages diversity. Sufi shrines attract the majority of Pakistanis, but are also under constant attack from the Deobandi, Wahabi, Salafi, and Ahl-e-Hadith sects (and more recently by Taliban militants). President Asif Ali Zardari has noted the importance of Sufi shrines to Pakistani traditions of Islam and has made efforts to restore and repair them and to empower their leadership.
The FaithWorld blog notes:
As the Swat Valley crisis came to a military showdown, Barelvi leaders who had stood quietly on the sidelines for years began to organise anti-Taliban rallies to stand up for their peaceful view of Islam and support the government’s military drive against the Taliban. “What these militants were doing was un-Islamic. Beheading innocent people and kidnapping are in no way condoned in Islam,” Sahibzada Fazal Karim, a leader of the moderate Islamist party Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Pakistan who organised some rallies, told Reuters in early May.
It also features quotes from the anti-Taliban cleric Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi, who was killed by a suicide bomber at his Lahore mosque earlier this month. In May 13 Reuters interview, he said of the Taliban: “They want people to fight one another, that’s why we have kept silent and endured their oppression. We don’t want civil war… But God forbid, if the government fails to stop them, then we will confront them ourselves.”
FaithWorld notes that Naeemi was ultra-conservative by any standard short of the Taliban’s:
Apart from his anti-Taliban campaigning, Naeemi was very much a traditional Barelvi mufti. He was a leading figure in Sunni groups advocating sharia enforcement, ran a madrassa in Lahore and sat on boards govering Barelvi madrassas, according to his obituary in the Pakistani daily The News. He lost a government post and was briefly arrested after protesting against Pakistani logistical support for the U.S. “war on terror” and was arrested again for protesting against the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. These views might not be called moderate positions in world Islam, but they were quite traditional and middle-of-the-road on the Pakistani religious spectrum.
He was killed five days after the government announced creation of the Sufi council.