Beyond Pakistan’s 9/11 —Suroosh Irfani
Daily Times, December 31, 2007
Telescoped into Bhutto’s assassination is an ongoing struggle within Islam that globalisation is bringing to a head. In all probability, Bhutto has dealt with this crisis in her forthcoming book that attempts at reconciling Islam and modernity
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination on December 27, 2007 virtually amounts to Pakistan’s 9/11. As the country was rattled by shock, disbelief and outrage, Baitullah Mehsud, Al Qaeda’s chief in Pakistan, and a cleric in Waziristan were congratulating each other on Bhutto’s killing, as indicated by the transcript of a telephonic conversation between the two released by the government on Friday.
The terrorists had every reason to be jubilant: they had silenced the one voice that consistently warned of the grave danger religious extremism posed to Pakistan’s viability as a modern democratic state. Indeed, the struggle for democracy for Bhutto was inseparable from reclaiming the ‘real Pakistan’ from the encroachments of religious extremists. This had become clear from the moment of her return after 8 years of exile on October 18, 2007. Overwhelmed by the rapturous welcome of her People’s Party supporters at Karachi airport, she declared, “This is the real Pakistan...not the militants, nor the military...we are giving voice to the moderates that don’t want to see this country taken over by terrorists”.
However, the festive mood of the welcoming crowd reflected only one face of the ‘real Pakistan’ — the pluralism of devotional Sufism factored into mass politics. Another face was Jinnah’s mausoleum symbolising the founding father’s modernist vision, where her procession was headed but never made it because of the suicide bombing. The disruption of her rally simply mirrored Pakistan’s reality: a rudderless society held hostage by religious extremism. In such a milieu, her assassination was a story foretold.
Even so, blaming President Musharraf or a security lapse for the assassination would miss the larger picture. As noted in a Daily Times news analysis (“Who killed Benazir Bhutto?” December 29, 2007) Bhutto’s assassination also needs to be seen as part of the crisis of globalisation — where the free flow of capital, technology and information is changing the way people think and live and creating tensions between tradition and modernity — of which the bombings of girls’ schools in Swat and Waziristan is one example.
Telescoped into Bhutto’s assassination is an ongoing struggle within Islam that globalisation is bringing to a head. In all probability, Bhutto has dealt with this crisis in her forthcoming book that attempts at reconciling Islam and modernity and where she hopes to present Pakistan as “a positive model for 1 billion Muslims around the world”. A theme that also resonates though her campaign manifesto calling for “a moderate and modern Islam that marginalises religious extremists, treats all citizens and especially women with equal rights, selects its leaders by fair and free elections, and provides for transparent, democratic governance that addresses the social and economic needs of the people as its highest priority”.
Until such time that her book is published, it is useful to draw a leaf from Akbar Ahmed’s new book to help understand the nature of the crisis we are facing today. Entitled “Journey into Islam: Islam and the Crisis of Globalisation” (Penguin, 2007), Ahmed’s is an account and analysis of “how Muslims are constructing their religious identities” under the impact of globalisation and a ‘War on Terror’ that has heightened tensions between Muslims and the West on the one hand, and Muslims themselves on the other.
Ahmed analyses these tensions in terms of three ‘models’ of Islam, giving each model the name of an Indian city — Ajmer, Deoband and Aligarh. The names are broad generic terms for three different (and often conflicting) approaches to Islam worldwide.
The Ajmer model refers to “all those Muslims inspired by the Sufi and the mystical tradition within Islam”. Islamic figures in this model range from Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, founder of the Chishti Sufi order buried in Ajmer, Maulana Rumi, and Fethullah Gulen, a hafiz-e Quran who became “a great Sufi master himself through the inspiration of Maulana Rumi” and has millions of followers involved in educational reform.
Likewise, Aligarh, site of the first modern college founded in India, includes nineteenth century reformers like Syed Ahmed Khan in India and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, the socialist and modernising leaders of the Middle East, and the democratic leaders of Malaysia. Aligarh, then, reflects “a broad but distinct modernist Muslim response to the world”. And whether they are devout or secular Muslims, followers of Aligarh share the desire to engage with modern ideas while preserving what to them is essential Islam.
As for Deoband, drawing its name from India’s leading madrassa founded in the 19th century, it refers to orthodox mainstream Islamic movements — the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas in the Middle East. Besides Ibn Tamiya in the past, these movements are identified with modern religious figures like Syed Qutb and Maulana Maududi. “Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and members of Al Qaeda also identify with the same spiritual lineage and argue that changes in the world are anathema to Islam, which can only be preserved by retreating to its beginnings, in the Prophet’s [pbuh] example and the Quran”.
At the same time, Ahmed’s models also reflect broad Muslim responses to one another. For example, “Ajmer followers think Deobandis are too critical of other faiths and too preoccupied with opposing mysticism, while they find Aligarh followers too concerned with the material world”. As for Aligarh, they view themselves as members of the Muslim vanguard who “perceive Ajmer as backward and dismiss Deoband as a rabble of ignorant clerics”. On their part, while Deoband followers are dismissive of the Ajmer model that they view as bordering on heresy, they are equally critical of Aligarh for being “too secular and too influenced by the West”.
The above models offer a lens for understanding why suicide bombers were targeting rallies of the People’s Party, even before Bhutto returned from exile. Going by Ahmed’s model, the October 18 and December 27 bombings of Bhutto and her supporters signified a ‘Deoband’ backlash against the twin targets of Ajmer and Aligarh: the carnivalesque PPP crowd signifying Ajmer, and Bhutto’s “campaign manifesto” reflecting Aligarh.
The graphic increase in Deobandi militancy reflected in the ongoing ‘jihad’ for enforcing Shariah in the northern areas of Pakistan is consonant with Ahmed’s observation that the Deoband model is gaining strength with the heightening of tensions between ‘Islam’ and America following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The three models, however, are not ‘watertight’ concepts — there is flexibility, overlap, and even creative transformation from one category to another. Ahmed cites Iqbal as an example of a creative synthesis of the three approaches.
As for Pakistan and the next elections, there is every possibility that the sympathy wave for Bhutto will make it possible for the Pakistan People’s Party to once again emerge as the largest party representing the federation. At the same time, a patch up between the two wings of the PPP is necessary to bring together all the Bhuttos on a single platform in the struggle that lies ahead.
Such a patch up seems all the more urgent at a moment when the ‘Trojan horse’ of extremism seems to run through the mindset of leaders and cadres of various other parties and sections of the ‘establishment’ — making one wonder if the nation’s yearning for fair and free elections will ever materialise at all.
Suroosh Irfani teaches Cultural Studies at National College of Arts, Lahore
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