Pakistan: Sufis make NYT op-ed page

A guardedly optimistic op-ed, “In Pakistan, Islam Needs Democracy,” appears in the Feb. 16 New York Times by one Waleed Ziad of the Truman National Security Project, a think-tank that “unites Americans who believe equally in strong liberal values, and the need for strong national security.” It is a source of both interest and frustration that this exponent of pro-military, pro-globalist wonkdom favorably cites the Sufis:

WHILE it’s good news that secular moderates are expected to dominate Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on Monday, nobody here thinks the voting will spell the end of militant extremism. Democratic leaders have a poor track record in battling militants and offer no convincing remedies. Pakistan’s military will continue to manage the war against the Taliban and its Qaeda allies, while President Pervez Musharraf will remain America’s primary partner. The only long-term solution may lie in the hands of an overlooked natural ally in the war on terrorism: the Pakistani people.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, but the Wahhabist religion professed by the militants is more foreign to most Pakistanis than Karachi’s 21 KFCs. This is true even of the tribal North-West Frontier Province — after all, a 23-foot-tall Buddha that was severely damaged last fall by the Taliban there had stood serenely for a thousand years amid an orthodox Muslim population.

Last month I was in the village of Pakpattan observing the commemoration of the death of a Muslim Sufi saint from the Punjab — a feast of dance, poetry, music and prayer attended by more than a million people. Religious life in Pakistan has traditionally been synonymous with the gentle spirituality of Sufi mysticism, the traditional pluralistic core of Islam. Even in remote rural areas, spiritual life centers not on doctrinaire seminaries but Sufi shrines; recreation revolves around ostentatious wedding parties and Hollywood, Bollywood and the latter’s Urdu counterpart, Lollywood.

So when the Taliban bomb shrines and hair salons, or ban videos and music, it doesn’t go down well. A resident of the Swat region, the site of many recent Taliban incursions, proudly told me last month that scores of citizens in his village had banded together to drive out encroaching militants. Similarly, in the tribal areas, many local village councils, called jirgas, have summoned the Pakistani Army or conducted independent operations against extremists. Virtually all effective negotiations between the army and militants have involved local councils; in 2006, a jirga in the town of Bara expelled two rival clerics who used their town as a battleground.

Well, good. But apologias for Musharraf and US imperialism will not serve the cause of decoupling the jirgas from the Taliban/al-Qaeda. And this, alas, is exactly what Ziad engages in:

Naturally, Washington must continue working with Mr. Musharraf’s government against extremism. But we also need a new long-term policy like the one outlined by Senator Joe Biden last fall that would strengthen our natural allies and rebuild faith in the United States at the public level.

This isn’t just wishful thinking. Interestingly, the Musharraf era has heralded a freer press in Pakistan than ever before. Dozens of independent TV channels invariably denounce the Taliban, while educational institutions are challenging the Wahhabist ethos. My conversations with Pakistanis, from people on the street to intellectuals, artists and religious leaders, only confirmed that after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, anti-militant sentiments are at a peak.

This is where the lasting solution lies. As Donya Aziz, a doctor, former member of Parliament and prominent voice in the new generation of female leaders, told me: “Even now, as the public begins to voice its anti-militancy concerns, politicians across the board are seizing the opportunity to incorporate these stands into their political platforms.”

What can America do? Beyond using our influence to push the government to expand democracy and civil society, we need to develop close ties with the jirgas in the violent areas. The locals can inform us of the best ways to infuse civilian aid… We should also expand the United States Agency for International Development’s $750 million aid and development package for the federally administered tribal areas.

No thanks, Mr. Ziad. Nothing will discredit the jirgas and Sufis faster than making them collaborators with the US and Musharraf’s brutal military—legitimizing the Wahhabi types as the “resistance.” We noted this same phenomenon two years ago when the Times reported that Russian authorities were encouraging Sufism in Chechnya as an alternative to radical Wahhabism.

Anyway, let’s not get too optimistic. On Feb. 16, a suicide bomber killed 37 and injured some 90 at a campaign rally for the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party at Parachinar, a town in Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. (NYT, Reuters, Feb. 17

See our last posts on Pakistan, the Sufis and the struggle within Islam.