An ambiguous attitude One place where refusal to acknowledge Saudi Arabia as the gold standard of an Islamic State is counter balanced by the belief of the quietist trend in Saudi-backed Islamic ultra-conservatism is a two storey, walled building built around a courtyard in an upscale neighbourhood of Islamabad. The building houses the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), Pakistan’s top Islamic advisory body designed to guide parliament on whether proposed bills comply with the Sharia’a. The Council’s offices hark back a quarter of century to a time when computers with small monitors were far and few between; fax machines dominated; and desks were piled with papers, folders and press clippings and dotted with a battery of telephones. Two of the council‘s members, in a rare public brawl in a government agency over religion, got into a fist fight in 2015 as the council debated further discrimination against Ahmadis. The council was considering categorizing Ahmadis as apostates, a crime punishable by death under strict Islamic law. “I am stronger than him… He wants to make the law on Ahmadis controversial, and push the country towards violence,” Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, a controversial, pot-bellied, alcohol-consuming scholar and head of the Pakistan Ulema Council charged after 78-year-old Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, the CII chairman and a member of parliament for the Deobandi-affiliated Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal) party who adheres to Saudi-backed quietist Salafi principle of unquestioned obedience to a ruler, grabbed his collar and ripped out the buttons.
Sporting a square white beard and clad in a black turban and vest and white salwar kameez, Sherani cuts a stern figure with his Central Asian features and narrow eyes. He embodies Saudi Arabia’s dilemma: those that it has nurtured and that are closest to the kingdom’s ideology increasingly view it as a country that has betrayed its funding beliefs. “Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are Islamic states that do not follow what Islam teaches… Allah did not ordain monarchies,” Sherani asserted in an interview.
In remarks that deliberately included Saudi Arabia by implication, Sherani described Pakistan as “a security state” in which “those that are in power do what is in their interests… Religious leaders participate in elections to bring rulers closer to the truth. It’s their prerogative not to follow. Those in power play games and have many puppets. The ulema’s responsibility is to keep informing the public and government,” Sherani said.
In a twist of irony, Sherani spoke sitting in his spacious office under a picture of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the lawyer and politician who founded Pakistan as a secular republic. The irony and difficulty quietist ultra-conservatives have in justifying their support for governments they essentially view as illegitimate was evident in Sherani’s effort to explain his support of the Pakistani government and endorsement of the Al Sauds’ rule. “You obey the rules and do not risk fitna in the community,” he said.
Sherani tied himself into knots as he sought to justify his position. Comparing the government to a blind man standing at the edge of a well, Sherani argued that it was his responsibility to warn the man but not stop him. “It is his responsibility if he does not listen,” Sherani said. When asked if his refusal to stop the man would not make him an accomplice if he fell into the well and hurt or killed himself, Sherani quickly changed tack. In the only time that he smiled during a three-hour interview, he said a better example was a man on a street who asked for directions but then opted not to follow them. That is not my responsibility,” he said.
In a magazine interview after his brawl with Sherani, Ashrafi, referring to the CIIl’s Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism asserted that “there is a dictatorship within the body. The environment is such that no scope for dissent is left.” Shortly after the brawl, the council suggested in apparent support of the fact that wife beating in Pakistan is the norm rather than the exception that a draft bill in parliament legalize the right of husbands to ‘lightly’ beat wives who refuse to obey their orders or have sex with them. The council had earlier urged parliament to declare nine year-old girls eligible for marriage and replace the Pakistani rupee with gold and silver. The council further denounced a women’s protection bill passed by the Punjab provincial assembly as a violation of the tenants of the Sharia.
Members of parliament blamed the CII days after its ruling on wife beating for the brutal killing of 18-year old Zeenat Rafiq. Rafiq, one of an increasing number of women killed for asserting their independence, was burnt alive by her mother after she married a man of her own choice. “I have killed my daughter. I have saved my honour. She will never shame me again,” neighbours heard Rafiq’s mother, who had complained for months that her two elder daughters had married men of their choice, shout from the roof her house when she was done.
Rafiq was but one of an average of 1,000 of mostly female victims of honour killings in Pakistan. A Jirga or council of local elders in the city of Abbottabad where Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces ordered the killing of a teenage girl that had helped a friend elope. The Jirga dictated the manner of her death. The girl was tortured, injected with poison and then strapped to the seat of a vehicle that was parked at a bus stop as a message to others, doused with gasoline and set on fire.
In parliament, deputies charged that the council had legitimized violence against women and questioned whether it should be allowed to continue to exist. Opposition deputies Aitzaz Ahsan and Farhatullah Babar asserted that “the anti-women bias of the CII as expressed in its recommendations and pronouncements” had “contributed to crimes against women with impunity.” So does the breeding of ultra-conservatism among women in the exponential growth of all-female madrassahs. Columnist I. A. Rehman picked up on that when he suggested that a section of society, including women, has been influenced by ultra-conservative opposition to women’s rights to the extent of justifying violence against all those who rebel against unjust constraints.”
The council has also condemned co-education, demanded that state-owned Pakistan International Airlines hostesses be fully covered, and called for the dismissal of civil servants who failed to say their daily prayers. It declared in 2014 that a man did not need his wife’s consent to marry a second, third or fourth wife and that DNA of a rape victim did not constitute conclusive evidence.
To be fair, parliament has in recent years not acted on any of the council’s positions. Nonetheless, the council forced Marvi Memon, a law maker for the ruling Muslim League, in early 2016 to withdraw a proposal to ban child marriages, declaring the draft bill un-Islamic and blasphemous.
The history of the council, ironically housed on Islamabad’s leafy Ataturk Avenue, named after the visionary who created modern Turkey as a secular state, charts the increasing influence of Saudi conservatism in Pakistan. Founded in 1962, the council was originally headed by Fazlur Rahman Malik, a liberal scholar, who in the words of Pakistani journalist Farahnaz Ispahani put forward “bold and ingenious interpretation of Islamic themes, including suggesting that drinking of alcohol was permissible, provided it did not result in intoxication.”
Rahman, who returned to Pakistan from Canada at the invitation of President Ayub Khan to head the council’s predecessor, the Central Institute of Islamic Research, resigned in 1968 frustrated with the success of conservative opposition to his ideas. The council’s conservative instinct was boosted in the late 1970s and the 1980s by Zia ul Haq who needed it to legitimize his effort to Islamicize Pakistani society. It was under Ul Haq that Pakistan enacted hudood, Islamic law’s concept of punishment that involves amputations, whipping and death sentences for crimes such as theft, pre-marital sex, and rape, and that ultra-conservatives interpret as a license to put rape victims at risk of prosecution if he or she cannot produce four upright male eye-witnesses.
In an unprecedented parliamentary debate in 2015 about the council’s role, opposition deputy Pakistan People’s Party’s Farhatullah Babar called for its dissolution because it was “dangerously conservative” and irrelevant. “I am pained that some of the council’s pronouncements have prompted the critics to describe it as something of medieval nonsense at public expense,” said Babar. He cited a long list of “long and frustrating” council proposals that included inscribing the words Allah-o-Akbar (God is Great) on Pakistan’s national flag and charged that the council inspired martyrdom and jihad. Islamist deputies denounced Babar and demanded that he recite verses of the Quran to prove his religiosity.
The positions adopted by the council were with the exception of the transgenders in line with Saudi policy. Saudi influence was also evident in Pakistan’s feeble attempts to gain some measure of control of the madrassahs that mostly involve boarding schools. Registration with the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board (PMEB), the government’s overall board, established in 2003 to oversee boards that represent the country’s five Muslim schools of thought, and encourage madrassahs to use government syllabi and offer vocational training is voluntary rather than mandatory. Oversight of the five sectarian boards by the education and religious affairs ministries, bulwarks of ultra-conservatism, has proven to be spotty at best.
As a result, the PMEB’s efforts have been largely rejected by the more conservative and militant institutions, many of which have had Saudi financial backing. PMEB chairman Amir Tauseen, estimated 13 years after the board’s establishment that up to 10,000 religious seminaries were not registered. A renewed effort in in 2015 to get madrassas to register, involving newspaper advertisements, failed to convey sincerity by aiming to get a mere 500 institutions to register.
Traditional culture on the defensive
Gunmen on a motorbike shot dead one of Pakistan's best known Sufi musicians and scion of a musical dynasty, Amjad Sabri, in June 2016 as he drove his car in the port city of Karachi. Fakhre Alam, the Chairman of the Sindh Board of Film Censors, claimed on Twitter that security authorities had earlier rejected a request by Sabri for protection. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) in 2014 demanded an explanation in a blasphemy case from Sabri and two TV channels who were accused of playing and broadcasting a qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music, that was deemed offensive because it referred to the Prophet Mohammed.
The killing claimed by the Pakistani Taliban was the latest in a campaign waged by jihadists as well as non-violent Saudi-backed ultra-conservative interpreters of Islam that has in recent decades stifled popular culture; silenced music; led to the bombing of theatres and video and music shops; and provoked the death of scores of musicians and other artists. Sabri was a target both as a musician and a Sufi, whose shrines have repeatedly been attacked in recent years. His assassination served as a warning to those determined to celebrate and preserve indigenous cultural traditions. Human rights activist Ali Dayan Hasan warned that each killing brought Pakistan closer to being what he termed a Wahhabi-Salafist wasteland.
It is a wasteland that Saadat Hasan Manto, a Muslim journalist, Indian film screenwriter and South Asia’s foremost short story writer envisioned as early as 1954 in an essay, ‘By the Grace of Allah.’
Manto described a Pakistan in which everything – music and art, literature and poetry – was censored. “There were clubs where people gambled and drank. There were dance houses, cinema houses, art galleries and God knows what other places full of sin ... But now by the grace of God, gentlemen, one neither sees a poet or a musician… Thank God we are now rid of these satanic people. The people had been led astray. They were demanding their undue rights. Under the aegis of an atheist flag they wanted to topple the government. By the grace of God, not a single one of those people is amongst us today. Thank goodness a million times that we are ruled by mullahs and we present sweets to them every Thursday…. By the grace of God, our world is now cleansed of this chaos. People eat, pray and sleep,” Manto wrote.
Maulana Amir Siddiqui, the leading imam at Islamabad’s notorious Red Mosque, one of the Pakistani capital’s oldest mosques named after its red walls and interior, is just the sort of mullah Manto had in mind. “Music is a great weapon of Satan used to spread obscenity in society. As music spreads, people will get only further away from the Qur’an,” Siddiqui argued in a sermon in 2015. In an interview, he added that “if there is something that draws a person closer to sin like music does, it is forbidden. All music these days is based on temptation, emotions, and illicit relations between men and women, which can lead to sex and sin.”
Seven years prior to Siddique’s sermon, students at the mosque’s madrassah launched an anti-vice campaign and marched through Islamabad. They attacked and beat those they accused of running brothels and torched video and music shops. More than a 100 people were killed in fighting between the students and security forces. Authorities found stockpiles of weapons in the Red Mosque’s compound.
Karachi’s Metropol Hotel, once Pakistan’s prime music venue that hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Quincey Jones, stands today and shuttered and in decay. “The biggest names in the industry, people we grew up listening to, have just completely given up. It’s very disheartening, people walking away, people you think are so successful, gods, the stars and the icons. It’s like Freddy Mercury just decided to open up a restaurant instead of being on stage.” said Sara Haider, a 24-year old rising star who records in her own studio because Pakistani music labels refuse to sign new artists.
Sabeen Mahmud, a prominent Pakistani social and human rights activist who operated The Second Floor, one of Karachi’s few remaining retreats for artists, gave Sara her first break. The 40-year old was gunned down in April 2015.
Gulzur Alam, one of Pakistan’s most popular folk singers with a fan base that stretches into Afghanistan and across the Pashtu Diaspora, hasn’t performed for years.
“Pashtun Youth, raise the red flags of revolution high in your hands, come!
Pashtun Youth, raise the red flags of revolution,
The land cries for revolution,
The revolution that can ensure freedom for all,” reads one of his most popular songs composed in 1987.
Sitting on the floor of a dilapidated music hall in Peshawar in front of empty chairs that have not been occupied for years, Alam recalls how men would sit on one side and women on the other as he enamoured them with his music. People would shower flowers as he came on stage. His voice brought audiences to tears. Yet, under the influence of ultra-conservatives, authorities harassed him and his family and ultimately shut down the concert hall, saying they could no longer ensure public security in the face of violent opposition to expressions of traditional and non-religious culture.
“Now the hall is filled with silence. One feels scared… If you remove culture from a nation, that nation dies. We have a centuries old tradition of music. The traditions have been attacked, murdered. It’s left us all deeply depressed,” Alam says.
Threatening phone calls persuaded him to no longer perform in the Northwest Frontier Province. He tried to find gigs in the port city of Karachi, but there, he faced a different problem: ethnic violence against Pashtuns. The situation was no different in Baluchistan. In total, he moved and his family moved 18 times to evade the threats.
In Karachi, he landed in the firing lines of ethnic violence against Pashtuns and returned with his family and without income to Peshawar where his older brother refused to take him because it would put his family in danger. Alam, his wife and five children, now cram into three dank, dark rooms with no running water. "It's like falling from the sky to earth," says Rukhsana Muqaddas, Alam's wife. "Before this we had a very modern, wonderful life. We used to send our kids to good schools. Now, we can't afford to educate them at all."
Alam recalls performing at a wedding with a group of musicians in the Swat Valley in 2008. They were ambushed by armed men emerging from the bushes on a mountain road as they were returning home from their performance. “All of sudden men jumped out. They opened fire. Many people were hit, including my friend, Anwar Gul,” a renowned composer and harmonium player. “He died later in the hospital,” Alam said, his voice trailing. Months later he was hit by a car and walks with the aid of a stick ever since. “We humans are social beings, we need friends but so many of them have died and I am now alone. I take sleeping pills to calm my nerves but I believe my death will soon come as well,” he adds.
In one of the few music shops still open in Peshawar, Alam points to CDs by a host of well-known musicians. “Shah Wali, he’s in Canada; Naghma, she’s in America; and Sardar Ali Takkar, he’s also in America; he’s also in America,” Alam says, pointing a finger at yet another CD. “I’ve had chances to leave and have been offered asylum but I never thought it would get this bad. Now it’s too late, other countries won’t accept us. I gave 35 years to music and I’m 55 years old, I no longer know what to do. I can’t support my family,” Alam says, explaining why he didn’t follow his friends and colleagues into exile.
Alam’s native Peshawar and Swat Valley nestled in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, illustrates the corroding impact of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism as well as government policies that were supported the kingdom and served its foreign and soft power policies. The region once boasted a vibrant cultural life punctured by concerts, theatre performances, art exhibitions, festivals and poetry recitals. All of that has been replaced by countless madrassahs and ultra-conservative religious and jihadist literature and education curricula. A cultural hub was transformed into a hotbed of inward-looking, intolerant worldviews initially populated by the mujahedeen confronting the Soviets in nearby Afghanistan and their successors, the Taliban.
A study conducted by the Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation, a Peshawar-based group that aims to confront the erosion of culture, concluded that “the Wahabi school of thought gained influence in the society due to political developments and state patronage, and particularly in the wake of the war in Afghanistan. Ideologues of the Wahabi school consider artistic expression against Islam. Groups such as Tablighi preachers sprang up during the period and rendered great damage declaring songs, films and anything artistic to be obscene… The sharp decline in socio-cultural life has created a vacuum that is being filled by religious missionaries… The lack of action of the Pakistani government to support the development of cultural industries, together with the lack of a strategy on the part of the incumbent provincial government to redress the situation, has washed away any other hope for the revival of music and cultural life in Swat,” the study said.
It documented the end of public concerts, the demise of scores of families of artists, the closure of almost 200 CD shops and dozens of cinemas and the professional death of actors and performers.
Clerics set fire in cinemas and exhibition centres. They smashed billboards that displayed females' images. Police harassed cultural institutions across the Swat valley. Missionaries targeted dancing and music at weddings and other events. They argued convincingly in mosques and in street encounters that performances were sinful and that those involved would not only be condemned to hell in life after death. People’s suffering, they reasoned, was God’s punishment for their immoral practices.
Their campaigns were part of Pakistani President General Zia ul-Haq’s Saudi-backed effort to Islamicize Pakistani society and erode secular or more liberal religious expressions of culture. “The school curriculum was designed on the basis of Islamic values and morality. Free expression and creative thinking were discouraged. Music was considered immoral. ‘The State TV channel removed music videos. Instead, Islamic shows held sway. Artistic expressions in all forms were discouraged by various means such as new taxation, ‘forcefully imposed on the film industry’… This new phase introduced the culture of the madrassa and Jihadi literature in Swat, with an education curriculum that glorified Jihad and promoted extremism,” the study said. Swat Valley counted by 2005 225 madrassahs with thousands of students educated with no marketable skills but those qualifying them to become imams or religious teachers. “Madrassa graduates’ mind-sets have little to appreciate or even tolerate art and secular values in society,” the study added.
Notions of government inertia if not complicity in branches in which Saudi-backed worldviews have made significant inroads are fuelled by the fact that security forces seldom capture the killers of artists and cultural workers or bombers of shops and cinemas. On the contrary, those branches of government frequently adopt policies that contribute to an environment of increased intolerance. Victims and their families are left to their own devices and often reduced to abject poverty. Islamic scholars who cross ultra-conservative red lines are disciplined by the religious affairs ministry.
Religious affairs minister Sardar Yousuf suspended Deobandi Mufti Abdul Qavi, a representative of the ulema in former cricket player Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, in June 2016 after a picture of him and Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani Kim Kardashian who achieved stardom as a drama queen with videos of her daily life that often tackled controversial issues, went viral on social media. The picture, in which Baloch donned the mufti’s cap, was taken during an iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, in a hotel room during which the two discussed Islam. Yousuf suspended Qavi’s membership in the committee that sights the new moon to announce the beginning of Muslim holy days as well as a committee populated by representatives of madrassahs as the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party that issues fatwas.
Qavi was no stranger to controversy. The scholar claims to be a major spiritual influence in the life of controversial Pakistani actress, TV host and model Veena Malik whom he first met when the two clashed on live television. Malik caused a stir when she appeared nude on the cover of FHM magazine’s India edition with the initials ISI of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency written on her forearm. Malik and her businessman husband Asad Bashir Khan fled in 2014 to Dubai after they were sentenced together with a TV host to 26 years in prison by an anti-terrorism court on charges of blasphemy for re-enacting their wedding in a scene that against the backdrop of religious music seemed to be loosely based on the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.
Returning to Pakistan two years later, Malik and her husband announced during a visit to Karachi’s Jamia Binoria al Aalmia, a major Deobandi mosque and seminary that propagates Saudi-backed ultra-conservative that she intended to enrol in the institution to get an Islamic education.
It took the Al Qaeda bombings of residential complexes in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004 as well as a year-long running battle between security forces and the jihadists rather than the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. to persuade the Saudis to really take control of funding of soft power assets worldwide by banning charity donations in mosques, putting the various charities under a central organisation, controlling the transfer of funds abroad, and working with the United States and others to clean out some of the charities - or like in the case of Al Haramain - close them down.
The problem was that by that time it was too late; the genie was already out of the bottle. At the same time, the soft power /proselytization campaign still served and serves the purpose of countering Iran as Saudi Arabia battles the Islamic republic r for regional hegemony.
The question is how long Saudi Arabia can afford the cost of its support of ultra-conservatism. The domestic, foreign policy and reputational cost of the Al Saud’s marriage to Wahhabism is changing the cost benefit analysis. Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalise the kingdom’s economy. Reform that enables the kingdom to become a competitive, 21st century knowledge economy is however difficult, if not impossible, as long as it is held back by the strictures of a religious doctrine that looks backwards rather than forwards, and whose ideal is the emulation of life as it was at the time of the Prophet and His Companions.
Moreover, the rise of IS has sparked unprecedented international scrutiny of Saudi-backed ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism and Salafism, that is causing Saudi Arabia significant reputational damage. Increasingly Saudi Arabia’s roots are being seen as similar to those of IS, and the kingdom is viewed as what IS will look like if it survives US-led and Russian military efforts to destroy it.
In sum, the complex relationship between the Al Sauds and Wahhabism creates policy dilemmas for the Saudi government on multiple levels, complicates its relationship with the United States, as well as its approach towards the multiple crises in the Middle East and North Africa. The Al Sauds’ problems are multiplied by the fact that Saudi Arabia’s clergy is tying itself into knots as a result of its sell-out to the regime and its close ideological affinity to more militant strands of Islam.
Ultimately, Wahhabism is not what’s going to win Saudi Arabia lasting regional hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, the Al Sauds may not have a secure way of restructuring their relationship to Wahhabism. As a result, the Al Saud’s future is clouded in uncertainty, no more so than if they lose Wahhabism as the basis for the legitimacy of their absolute rule.
The at times devastating fallout of Saudi Arabia’s soft power efforts is visible in Muslim communities across the globe, nowhere more so than in Pakistan. Similarly, the fallout of the inevitable restructuring of relations between the Al Sauds and the kingdom’s ultra-conservative ulema is likely to reverberate beyond the Middle East and North Africa in the Muslim world at large, including in South and Southeast Asia.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title
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