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Collaboration, not Sufism, answer to Pakistan’s violence


by Farahnaz Zahidi

01 October 2013

Karachi – The notion that one faith, philosophy or idea alone is the answer to stopping violent episodes like the tragic suicide attack at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan last week is hard to swallow. Still, recent decades have seen an interesting surge in the view that Sufism is a solution to violent extremism in Pakistan.

Sufism is most simply described as Islamic mysticism or spirituality, but like most things it is too vast and deep a concept to be described by simplistic definitions. Without a doubt though, messages of love, peace and acceptance are at its core.

But is Sufism actually a feasible solution to violent extremism in Pakistan? Can it be the missing link in the internal peace process we need? In these troubling times, many Pakistanis find sanity in the ideology of our Sufi saints who believed that serving humanity is the surest way of getting close to God. Belief in the core messages of our saints reeks of much-needed hope. However, thinking that Sufism is the antidote to extremism in Pakistan may be too simplistic, especially when juxtaposed in opposition to stricter interpretations of Islam, as many who are inspired by it do today.

In Pakistan, which is complicated and far from monolithic, we have those who practice faith through the hard-line dos and don’ts of religion, and those who are more inclined toward spirituality than jurisprudence. With growing polarisation, centrists who respect both schools of thought are becoming a minority and feel pushed to the margins.

The problem lies in the fact that those who tilt more towards Sufism and those who focus more on the do’s and dont’s in Islam are considered adversaries by Pakistani society today.

There is an irony in all of this – while Sufism is about acceptance at its core, some of its unseasoned proponents seem to be increasing the already wide gulf between those who follow strict or hard-line interpretations of Islam and those who feel Sufism is the answer.

It feels contradictory to Sufism’s core messages.

Thus, we risk losing out on the central point in Sufism— to bring everything in its fold and accept all kinds of people, irrespective of ethnicity, language, caste and even creed.

Part of the solution could be for liberal proponents inspired by Sufism to recognise the efforts of some middle-ground Islamic scholars and give credit where it’s due. The recent show of flexibility by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the constitutional body responsible for giving Islamic legal opinions to the Government of Pakistan, is a case in point. Scholars on CCI, such as Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, are clearly trying to build bridges between segments of society when it comes to blasphemy laws, by strongly opposing false accusations.

Imam Ghazali, the 11th century Persian jurist, theologian and mystic, seems to have gotten it right. He became the bridge between more orthodox Islam and adherents of Sufism. Followers of both schools of thought, via Ghazali, developed a mutual understanding by utilising established Islamic theology to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy, and Sufism to enrich theology.

Rather than one philosophy being the solution to violence, which has the propensity to make others wrong and put them on the defensive, perhaps reconciliation and collaboration is a better method. If not the solution, this may at least be a step in the direction toward peace.


* Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor. Her areas of focus include human rights, gender, peace-building and Islam. She currently works as Features Editor for The Express Tribune. She blogs at Chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen here. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 October 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

“Every second person from the tribal areas has lost someone to militancy”

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Abrar Husain, 13, a victim of the Parachinar bomb blast


“Two killed, 19 injured in Peshawar attack,” read the headlines on a busy Monday morning in Pakistan. The attack, in the terror-hit province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, came three days after a bomb ripped through a busy market, killing 11 people.

A few months ago – when I was visiting the province – I met with the staff at the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), which remains at the forefront of catering to victims of terror attacks that have been plaguing the region for the last six years.

The list of victims is ever-growing, as is the endless task of their medical healers.

“The situation had improved for a while, but it is back to being the same again,” said Yasar Yousafzai, who works as coordinator of the Vesicovaginal Fistula unit at LRH.

Over 200 acts of violence, including bomb attacks, targeted shootings and improvised-explosive-device (IED) attacks, have been reported in the province and its adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) up until August this year. Last year, 1,206 people died (511 civilians, 364 militants and 331 security personnel) in 242 incidents of violence, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), whosetimelines for both years present a gruesome picture.

“Every second person from the tribal areas has lost a family member to militancy,” said Dr Nasreen Ruby Faiz, Head of the Department of Gynecology at the hospital.

According to Dr Rahim Jan Afridi, a forthright man who was until recently serving as the Medical Superintendent at LRH, one bomb blast can result in hundreds of casualties, of which, most arrive here.

“We treat almost 90 per cent of bomb-blast victims of the province. It is a very busy place – and not in a good way. What is most painful is to see is when children and women are also among the casualties. One blast can result in hundreds of casualties.”

Afridi himself hails from Khyber Agency in Fata.

“Sadly, we are able to do very little for the injured in those areas, as we have our limitations as medical practitioners. Most hospitals in the tribal areas have been shut down due to drone attacks and bomb blasts. We are unable to help them. Government servants in the tribal regions don’t venture due to threats of terrorism. Even I cannot even go to my hometown, even for a wedding or a funeral. I joke that I am an IDP (Internally Displaced Person),” said Afridi, frustrated at his helplessness.

Dealing with thousands of casualties in a month or hundreds in a day can be traumatic.

“It’s not just the medical staff. I believe the whole community of this area is psychologically affected. Over time, the medical staff has to develop psychological resilience. Our feelings are very real, but fear takes over the sadness. The fear of getting abducted. Every morning, at every signal, I fear for my safety,” confessed Afridi.

When terror victims are brought to public hospitals, they not the only affect the people working on them, but also those who have spent hours and days awaiting the medical staff’s attention.

“Obviously, the terrorism-victim patients are VIP patients for us. All their treatment is free of cost and they get our utmost attention,” said Afridi. Consequently, other patients slide down on the priority list.

Investigating the plight of bomb-blast victims and hospital staff who treat them, I met with victims of the Parachinar suicide blast on February 17, 2012. The powerful explosion after Friday prayers ripped through Kurrmi bazaar and subsequent open-fire on protestors by security forces resulted in 43 deaths. Some of the injured were still being treated when I met them.

Thirteen-year-old Abrar Hussain was lying helplessly on the bed, partially conscious under the effect of the pain killers he had been given, with blood being transfused. I couldn’t help stare at this innocent, handsome young man, who was unlucky enough to be in Kurrmi bazaar to buy a pair of chappals for his mother.

A few beds down the huge hall that houses several bomb-blast victims who are lucky enough to have survived, was Qaiser Hussain, 14. A student of seventh grade with the sole aim of recovering in order to “go back to school.” His mother, Fatima Bibi, could not answer my questions despite the presence of a translator, simply because she could not stop crying. The family had lost two relatives in the same blast. The doctors told me that Qaiser was still serious, with severe abdominal and limb injuries. Many a night, I have wondered how Qaiser is. Has he gone back to school? Is he okay? How many Qaisers have been added to the list of casualties since my trip?

Qaiser Husain, 14 year old victim of a bomb blast in Parachinar, KP.

The people of KP are stuck in an abyss. Will they ever come out of it?

The author is a freelance writer, activist and blogger.