The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's shifting religious battles

It has come as a shock to many to see the incredibly positive reaction from nearly 500 Barelvi clerics in Pakistan, regarded as moderate Muslims in an increasingly radicalized environment, to the assassination Tuesday of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by a member of his security detail.

Many writers have previously thought of Pakistan's Barelvi community as a kind of moderate antidote to radical groups operating in the country; Barelvi leaders have until now opposed many of the operational tactics of terrorist organizations more commonly associated with the country's Deobandi and Salafi groups, such as suicide bombings and attacks against state institutions. One of the leading Barelvi scholars issued a comprehensive, 600-page fatwa last year condemning global terrorism. And a Barelvi cleric who had spoken up against the Taliban was brutally targeted in a suicide attack inside his mosque in June of last year, shortly after leading the Friday congregation in prayer.

But the Barelvi community's favorable stance toward the country's notorious blasphemy laws and its decision to support Governor Taseer's murderer demonstrate the fluidity of belief and group ideologies in Pakistan, rather than a strict dichotomy between Barelvis and others. This increasingly unclear line between hardliners and so-called moderates is all the more interesting when compared to developments taking place among Pakistan's more literalist Deobandi clerics, including a fascinating debate that recently took place within its religious circles about the war in Afghanistan.

The debate - one largely overlooked by media organizations across the world - began last year when a young but well-esteemed Deobandi religious scholar, Muhammad Ammar Khan Nasir (who also edits his own newsletter, Al Sharia) declared that it was not permissible on religious grounds for non-Afghan Muslims to fight against international forces in Afghanistan. His statement signaled the rise of a conservative religious opposition to the Taliban, an opposition that could have a positive impact on the struggle against religious militancy in the region.

In his statement, Ammar Nasir refused to describe the Afghan conflict as jihad, or holy war, pointing to the fact that the conflict and Western intervention was triggered by the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of unarmed American civilians.

Responding to a query, he said that the attacks in New York and Washington were against the spirit of Islamic war ethics, which forbid Muslims from killing non-combatants. He also added that a war could only acquire the status of jihad if it was not launched by Muslims through "an immoral and un-Islamic act."

While claiming that the Afghan Taliban reserved the right to resist the foreign occupation of their land, Ammar Nasir insisted that Pakistan's citizens should not jump into the fray since that would put them on a collision course with the Pakistani state. He argued that the people of Pakistan could criticize their country's foreign policy and amend it through non-violent means. Yet he also emphasized that they were bound to follow their government's decisions and remain loyal to the state, per Sunni Muslim tradition of obeying the government.

Ammar Nasir maintained that Pakistan's government had taken a conscious decision to work with the international community in Afghanistan, adding that the government would then be guilty of going against the principles of Islam if it was still supporting the Taliban.

Religious conservatives in Pakistan found it difficult to ignore his opinion on the issue, due to Ammar Nasir's strong Islamic credentials and the fact that he belongs to a respected family of Deobandi clerics.

His grandfather, Maulana Muhammad Sarfaraz Khan Safdar, fought for the implementation of shariah in Pakistan throughout his life and even travelled to Afghanistan when the Taliban gained political ascendency in that country to meet with the group's spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar.

Ammar Nasir's father, Maulana Zahid-ul Rashidi, was also affiliated with a leading Islamist political faction, Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan. His family espoused Deobandi Islam, also practiced by the Taliban.

Maulana Nasir's detractors quickly challenged the basic premise of his argument, however. According to one of them, al Qaeda was just the "figment of American imagination." Another one questioned the group's involvement in the 9/11 attacks, claiming that Washington had failed to provide any evidence of that to the international community.

Some people even contended that the U.S. remained in "a permanent state of war," with the world, adding that it had killed more innocent people in history than any other state and it was right to bring the United States' "oppression" to an end.

However, a few participants in the debate were more concerned about the situation in Pakistan rather than the conduct of American foreign policy.

Ammar Nasir, who frequently referred to al Qaeda's self-incriminating statements in the wake of the 9/11 attacks throughout the debate, pointed out that Islamists in Pakistan took their inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. This was despite the fact that the militia had "limited understanding of world politics" and "required intellectual guidance itself."

He urged Pakistan's religious community to abandon its state of denial and recognize, not justify, the Taliban's weaknesses.

The debate, which was recently published in Al Shariah, may not bring about an overnight change in Pakistan. But it clearly implies that some Islamic scholars in that country, even those associated with its most conservative strains of religious thought, have started criticizing extremist movements in the region.

The discussion also reflects the fact that Islamic circles are not intellectually stagnant in Pakistan. In fact, some of its members have finally recognized that it is not sufficient to live a life of piety in a bubble; instead, they have chosen to confront tough questions about religion and modernity and how the two can be reconciled.

Ammar Nasir is currently writing a critique of Ayman al Zawahiri's The Morning and the Lamp, a treatise in which al Qaeda's second-in-command has ruthlessly criticized Pakistan's constitution, claiming "that apostasy is rooted in the state's foundational document."

In a conversation with the author, Ammar Nasir claimed that many religious clerics in Pakistan were critically examining the extremist ideology of militant groups. But he also added that the fear of retribution kept them from openly criticizing many of these Islamist factions.

But religious scholars like Ammar Nasir will not be able to reclaim Islam from radical groups as long as their views are not projected by media organizations across the world. The fact that this debate was not even covered by mainstream news outlets, even in Pakistan, reflects where that country stands in its struggle against religious militancy, and how far it has yet to go.

Wajahat Ali is The Asia Foundation's William P. Fuller Fellow. Currently, he is working with the New America Foundation as their South Asia Research Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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