VIEW: Targeting the tombs — Shahab Usto
The decision to reopen the NATO supplies to Afghanistan without achieving any reciprocal benefits debunks Pakistan’s costly image of being a great nuclear/regional power
We have seen terrorists blow up the shrines of mystics and saints — Bari Imam, Data Ganj Baksh, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Sakhi Sarwar — but now even poets and political icons are in the crosshairs of terrorism. Akora Khattak, a small city in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has been twice hit by terrorism; one to destroy the mausoleum of Khushal Khan Khattak, a great Pashtun poet and freedom fighter of the 17th century, and then to destroy the under-construction tomb of Ajmal Khattak, a left-leaning politician and poet.
For years, Pakistan has been an eerie lab of extremism. Ever new arts and artifacts of terrorism are invented here to achieve religio-political objectives. Often the ingenious terror operators leave security and intelligence apparatuses dumbfounded. Bombing of shrines are not new in recent and contemporary history. In fact, shrine, seminary and mosque have respectively played a pivotal role in the Iranian revolution, the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ongoing Arab Spring.
Nevertheless, the sufis, saints and folk poets are much revered in the subcontinent. People feel affinity with their spiritual and emotional lores that transcend scholastic divisions and touch chords of humanism, love, amity and aesthetics. Indeed, the local mystical traditions have been anti-monarchical and anti-dogmatic clergy. No wonder, there are many shrines in Pakistan that are visited by both Muslims and non-Muslims.
And that explains why shrines came under parochial and sectarian eyes, particularly since the times General Ziaul Haq imported from Saudi Arabia a virulent (Salafi) narrative of Islam that, inter alia, berates ‘grave worshiping’ as un-Islamic. Salafism is akin to, or some would say, a branch of Wahabiism that stresses a narrow puritanical version of Islam. The House of Saud adopted it in the early last century. Its tenet — ‘going back to the basic of Islam’-- was used to unite and turn the tribal Saudi peninsula into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Since Wahabiism and Salafiism, with its going back to basics slogan, developed as a reaction both to liberal Islamic and modern western traditions, the Wahhabi and the Salafi political message was to resist both diversity and modernity. The emergence of al Qaeda, and later the Taliban, are a case in point. Luckily, the subcontinental culture is too diverse and too variegated to fit into a narrow scholastic version. History witnessed socio-political conflicts whenever such an effort was made.
Indeed, many historians would agree that the unravelling of the centuries-old Mughal Empire began with Emperor Aurangzeb’s rise to the throne in the wake of a bloody fratricidal war in the 17th century. It was largely his narrow vision of Islam that disturbed the delicate balance between the minority Muslim and the majority non-Muslim populace crafted by that great syncretic king, Akbar, and continued by his successors. Aurangzeb kept the Mughal Empire alive with his sword. But the Indian subcontinent plunged into decay and anarchy soon after his death.
Pathans invaded Delhi from the north and west, the Hindu revivalists from the south, and the English from the east. Except for a brief interlude of the war of independence (1857-58) when a transient quest for redeeming India from the clutches of the English had transcended religious and social boundaries, the Muslims saw a continuous downturn in their social, economic and political fortunes vis-à-vis the Hindus and British.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has undergone the same trajectory since it was turned into a vehicle of promoting a narrow narrative of Islam in emulation, if not the wishes, of our Arab patrons. Like the House of Saud, General Zia used his narrow puritanical ‘Sharia laws’ to upstage liberal democratic forces, to use non-state actors in the region, to transform the professional ethos of the armed forces, his ‘political constituency’, into an army of Islam. And interestingly, like 18th-century Delhi, today’s Islamabad is also faced with existential threats from its northwestern and eastern borders.
But Pakistan is paying a heavy cost of this policy. Drawn into incessant ideological, political and sectarian conflicts, it has torn its social fabric, damaged its polity, surrendered its foreign policy, and suffered economic losses. Indeed, just as the post-Aurangzeb Mughal monarchs had turned helpless before the marauding forces, our central authority has been sapped to being ineffectual. The decision to reopen the NATO supplies to Afghanistan without achieving any reciprocal benefits debunks Pakistan’s costly image of being a great nuclear/regional power, thanks to our emotional and unwise international posturing.
Ironically, if our eastern borders have turned quiet, it is because India has successfully convinced the international community of the Pakistani state’s complicity in the Mumbai attacks. And if our traditional policy — strategic depth — is imperilled on the western borders, it is because the US-led 49 states strong ISAF won’t allow any ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan to be used against them in Afghanistan.
Neither did the long-awaited parliamentary resolutions demanding the stopping of drones operation and an apology from the US, nor the much trumpeted anti-US Difa-e-Pakistan rallies deter the world that is determined to stamp out terrorism from the region. Instead, Pakistan would have stood isolated if it had not reviewed its policies at a crucial time; rather, it would have been omitted as a stakeholder in the future of this region.
Thus, Pakistan stands caught in its own web, threatened by forces it nurtured. It is time the state shredded its ideological and partisan agenda to become a legally neutral, politically democratic, foreign-policy-wise peaceful, and socio-economically welfare-oriented state. It needs a supportive and mutually invested world that should not be accusing it of playing a ‘double game’ of simultaneously fighting and sheltering terrorists.
We must remember, destroying economic and administrative infrastructures is not different from targeting tombs and shrines — one scares off capital and investors, the other alienates the masses from a state that cannot protect their spiritual and emotional mentors. Either way, the state ends up losing its authority, legitimacy and face before its people and the world at large.
The writer is a lawyer and academic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org