Pakistan, an important South Asia regional ally of the US, is home to approximately 175 million Muslims, the vast majority of which practice moderate traditional Islam and reject the Al-Qaeda/Taliban’s brand of religion.
To effectively counter the rise of religious extremism or “Talibanism” as it is often referred to, the US needs to establish relationships with moderate traditional and cultural leaders in Pakistan. The network of traditional Muslims known as the ASJ [an acronym for Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaat] are amongst the most respected community leaders, clerics and activists who wield considerable influence in the troubled frontier which is otherwise inaccessible to outsiders. For decades, they have been primary providers of social services and education throughout the country and are therefore a critical resource for mobilizing the population at the grassroots level.
The challenge is recognizing which religious leaders to work with, and how their institutions can help in countering Talibanization. US policy makers must be able to distinguish jihadi fighters from traditional Muslim leaders who are our natural allies because confusing the two will invariably alienate the local population.
Our program was designed to help policymakers understand the ideological divide in Pakistan to facilitate the US government’s military strategy as well as their economic development programs.
WORDE hosted a high level Pakistani delegation, which included a current Federal Minister, and convened a weeklong series of meetings with US policymakers in Washington DC. Due to the security situation in Pakistan, the delegates asked that their names not be publicized in connection with the project.
The delegates met with officials at the US Departments of State, Defense, and USAID, as well as with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, think tanks, community groups and NGO’s to provide practical insights into the culture, history and hierarchy of sociopolitical groups in Pakistan. The delegates explained how vast regions of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province (formally the NWFP) and FATA are now overrun with extremists and how their growing influence runs contrary to centuries of traditional culture in the area. These experts described the process by which whole communities have been uprooted, leaving behind a safe haven for the radical Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In their remarks, the delegates provided concrete solutions to the problem and gave predictions on future success if those recommendations were implemented.
The program was an opportunity to learn how radical groups operate, how anti-Jihadist forces in Pakistan view the current political climate, and how they believe the ultimate battle for Pakistani hearts and minds will be won. As a result of those meetings, the following policy recommendations were put forward.
Based on comments and discussion that occurred during these meetings, WORDE has outlined four broad policy recommendations that developed as a result of the recent visit:
- Though it is expedient in the short term to negotiate a cessation of violence with the most extreme leaders, the US needs to have a long term strategy of empowering moderate Muslim networks who share our common goals of preserving the Pakistan state and encouraging the common values of human liberty, freedom of expression and personal choice. In this regard, the US must recognize the important role of traditional ASJ religious leaders, and create partnerships with their institutions and networks which impact millions of people in Pakistan. This will serve to strengthen the moderate voice and broaden their legitimacy, both at the local and international levels.
- The US should help bolster the position of moderate religious leaders vis-à-vis extremist ideologues by providing monetary assistance to strengthen the institutional capacity of their social welfare, educational, and political organizations, providing leadership training for their progressive political parties, providing media support, communications and public relations training to strengthen the moderate voice, and organizational support for conferences that promote unity and peace, as well as other educational programs that condemn terrorism and religious radicalism.
- The US should demonstrate American goodwill by working within established networks of the moderate religious leadership to administer aid, carry out development projects, and provide rapid-response humanitarian assistance. By establishing partnerships to provide social services and educational institutions to improve the lives of the Pakistani people, the US can help strengthen moderate institutions, and delegitimize jihadi networks who build their support base by providing social services to those most in need.
- In furtherance of the counterinsurgency [COIN] objectives in Pakistan and the need for “reintegration and reconciliation” of extremists who are not ideologically driven, these traditional ASJ leaders and clerics have the local legitimacy to peel away the terrorist recruits who enlist with the Taliban due to dire circumstances -unemployment, abject poverty, or political grievances. In order to achieve their COIN objectives, the traditional ASJ institutions must be strengthened to provide modern education and job training to represent an overall hope for the future. COIN tools should not be limited only to engage with the central government, which can be slow to provide social services in conflict-affected areas, and often lacks credibility at the local level because of historical political and social grievances. The COIN strategy should include utilizing the existing ASJ civil society infrastructure as part of the “hold and build” mechanism particularly in post-conflict zones, which would guarantee long term sustainability and buy-in of the local populations.
“Traditional Muslim Networks:
Pakistan’s Untapped Resource
in the Fight Against Terrorism”
WORDE President Hedieh Mirahmadi
Specialists Mehreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad
“The Global Village of Terrorism”
WORDE President Hedieh Mirahmadi
The Huffington Post
I. Long March to Support Peace and Stability in Pakistan
II. Mainstream Networks Provide Assistance to Flood Victims
III. Educator Describes Grassroots Deradicalization Efforts
IV. Allama Kaukab Okarvi Speaks Out Against Terrorism
V. Sufi Artists at the Coke Studio: Promoting Peace and Love
VI. Government Support of Sufism: the National Sufi Council
VII. Public Debates led by ASJ Scholars Discredit Radical Groups
Long March to Support Peace and Stability in Pakistan
November 2010 from Islamabad to Lahore, Pakistan
The Sunni Ittehad Council, an Ahle-Sunnah wa al-Jammah [ASJ] based coalition of over twenty parties united against the growing Talibanisation of the country, have planned a peaceful “long march” on November 27, 2010 from Islamabad to Lahore to in support of peace and stability in the country. The march would start from the shrine of Hazrat Bari Imam (RA) and culminate at the shrine of Hazrat Data Ali Hajveri (RA) in Lahore. The announcement was made at the Ulema and Mashaikh Convention which regularly draws hundreds of religious scholars, students and community leaders. The ASJ represent Pakistan’s moderate, mainstream Sunni majority who reject terrorism. It includes the Brelvi and Sufi communities and should be distinguished from the militant groups who may use the same term.
September 2010, from Multan, Pakistan
Pakistan’s recent flooding caused lasting damage to roads and other infrastructure, livestock and agriculture. Over 21 million people were forced to leave their homes; about 7 million remain without adequate shelter. Below are some examples of the work lead by Pakistan’s moderate, mainstream religious groups:
• Educational and cultural centers and landmark shrines are serving as places of refuge for flood victims. For example, in Multan, the Jamia Anwar ul-Uloom housed approximately 350 people, providing them food, clothing, medical attention and shelter.
• Sufi groups such as the Hazarat Sultan Bahu Trust a foundation which administers educational, cultural, religious, social welfare and human rights programs across Pakistan have set up camps throughout Pakistan.
• Development organizations led by the ASJ e.g. Al- Mustafa Welfare Trust Society has set up relief camps with free food and shelter in Punjab and throughout the Frontier. Their two main camps served over 6,500 displaced persons.
• Throughout Pakistan moderate religious clerics have instructed their disciples to volunteer and give donations for flood relief, e.g. the organization of Sufi Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Tahirul-Qadri, the Minhaj Welfare Foundation, has sent relief goods of worth 300 million rupees dispatched to the flood affected areas so far through seventy trucks; providing for 20,000 families. Over 570 Minhaj Model Schools have been asked to transform as relief camps.
• Internationally – in New York City, Montreal, and Karachi- Sufi groups are raising funds through large Sufi cultural celebrations and music concerts.
September 2010, from Multan, Pakistan
WORDE recently interviewed a renowned Ahle-Sunnah wa al-Jammah (ASJ) educator from Multan, Pakistan, about the grass-roots efforts to counter radicalization in Pakistan. We found that for decades, ASJ scholars and educators have been the principle providers of mainstream religious education for Pakistan’s youth – particularly for low income families.
We were told, “Protecting the madrassas is a frontline defense against radicalization.” The grass-roots capacity of ASJ madrassas to conduct de-radicalization programs is vast. Their curriculum teaches students to preserve social cohesion by supporting pluralism. In one example, we were told that community members were concerned about four young men in the city of Rahem Yaar Khan in southern Punjab who had radicalized. The parents of the young men approached the local ASJ madrassa and appealed for help. One of the community’s most respected ASJ scholars visited the young men and taught them that the radical ideologies concerning jihad and terrorism that they were attracted to had no place in Islam. The young men eventually disassociated themselves with the radical ideology.
July 2010, Pakistan
When the shrine of the 11th century beloved Sufi saint DaataGanjBaksh, “DaataDarbar” was bombed by radical groups in Pakistan, moderate religious leaders were some of the first figures to speak out against the attack which killed dozens of innocent civilians, peaceful worshippers and destitute beggars. Shrines such as DaataDarbar act as community centers, places of worship and spirituality, and are a place for cultural celebrations. Annual festivals at shrines draw hundreds of thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Alongside the shrines, large soup kitchens serve the community’s poor.
In the aftermath of the bombing at DaataDarbar, a revered Sufi scholar, AllamaKaukabOkarvi spoke out against terrorism and urged Pakistanis to do the same. He called the attack a wake-up call for the government to do more to protect its people against social injustices, radicalism, and terrorism.
Click here to watch the video of Allama Kaukab Okarvi (in urdu).
June 2010, Coke Studio, Pakistan
Artists trained in singing classical Sufi songs that promote peace and love for mankind regularly perform on the popular television series, Coke Studio. This show is commended for bringing together different artists to collaborate and create new music on themes such as harmony, unity, and equality. On the first episode of this year’s season three, artists Arif Lohar (featuring Meesha Shafi) sung the traditional Sufi poem, “Alif Allah.” Towards the end of the song, there are references to the joyful celebrations that take place at Sufi shrines like that of Data Darbar in Lahore. Just weeks after their performance, the Sufi shrine was bombed. Frustrated by the number of recent attacks by radical militant groups on Sufi shrines, Arif Lohar stated, “I do not understand how anyone could do this!”
Click here to view the lyrics and watch the performance.
May 2010, Islamabad, Pakistan
In the recent US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, Prime Minister Gilani expressed his support for Sufi leaders and their teachings as part of the government’s response to the extremists’ narrative. Some recent steps to promote Sufism in Pakistan include sponsoring conferences such as the 2009 International Sufism & Peace Conference which hosted more than a 100 delegates from 70 different countries.
The Government has also taken steps to revive the National Sufi Council to support of Pakistan’s rich tradition of Sufi poets, musicians and philosophers. In the past, the National Sufi Council organized music festivals and released a number of Sufi music albums such as Apna Maqam PaidaKar which featured poetry of the national poet of Pakistan, Allama Iqbal.
In 2010, the government of Pakistan reconstituted the National Sufi Council, to include leading Sufi scholars as well as secretaries of religious affairs from each province. According to the Terms of Reference, the Council’s mandate extends:
I. To bring forth the soft image of Islam through spreading the Sufi message of love, tolerance and universal brotherhood across the world and amongst the masses of the area by holding meetings, seminars, workshops and conferences of Ulama, researchers, teachers students and intellectuals of Pakistan, Afghanistan and other neighboring countries.
II. To propose steps to free religious thought from the rigidity imposed by some Ulama.
III. To emphasize in the Islamic teachings the element of God’s love and mercy for His creation rather than His wrath and retribution.
IV. To determine the ways of practice what one professes and not merely indulges in slogans and soliloquist stress the essence of faith rather than mere observance of formalities.
V. To establish Sufi Centers of excellence and patronize research activities on various facets of Sufism, to confer national and international scholarships for research work on Sufism, recommend annual awards for promotion of Sufiism and achievements in the related fields.
VI. To glorify the revered Sufi Saints and their mausoleums not just as Centers of holiness but also as centers of learning and teaching.
VII. To demolish the edifice of false values based on pelf [sic] and power and restore morality to its proper place in the niche of Muslim society.
VIII. To combat the fissiparous tendencies and centrifugal forces which were spreading their tentacles in the Muslim world.
IX. To discourage parochial feelings and eliminate racial pride which had assumed primary importance in Muslim thinking relegating the ideal of brotherhood to a secondary place.
September 2010, from Multan, Pakistan
The old tradition of public debates in Pakistan carries on today, where Ahle-Sunnah wa al-Jammah (ASJ) and Sufi scholars debating Deobandi and Wahhabi clerics about religious issues. ASJ scholars use these well-attended public venues to bring the population back towards moderate, mainstream Islam. These skilled orators deftly use verses from the Quran, stories of the Prophets and historical examples to deconstruct radical interpretations of Islam. They know which arguments appeal to society and which arguments in particular make a strong impression on the youth.
Click here to view a video of the Federal Minister of Religious Affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi address a question about spirituality (in Urdu).