Pakistan's southern Sindh province is famous for its pluralistic culture. For centuries, the area has been a center of religious tolerance and cultural harmony, where not only different Islamic sects have co-existed but people from other religions - particularly Hinduism - have contributed to the enrichment of its social fabric. Mystical Islam, preached and promoted by Sufis, have played a vital role in this social construct.
But on Thursday, February 16, the diminishing Sufi culture in Pakistan received another blow when a suicide bomber belonging to the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) organization blew himself up in a packed shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. At least 70 people died in the attack, and over 100 worshippers were wounded. IS took responsibility for the deadly bombing through their Aamaq news agency.
Lal Shahbaz Qalander, a 13th century saint, is so revered in South Asia, that people from as far as Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh visit his shrine every year. Qalander, like other Sufis, believed in a tolerant interpretation of Islam in which the inner spirituality is considered more important than outwardly rituals. Unlike the Islamic law or Shariah, mystical Islam celebrates life in all its manifestations.
The Thursday attack, hence, has once again targeted the core of South Asian Islam, which has been overtaken by a hardline Saudi-Wahhabi version in recent decades. Most militant Islamic groups, including IS, al Qaeda and the Taliban, have an aversion for mystical Islam, which they consider heresy. In Iraq and Syria too, these militant outfits regularly target Sufi shrines and temples.
It is not the first time that a shrine has been targeted in Pakistan. The militants - most of whom belong to the Wahhabi and Deobandi sects of Islam - have attacked a number of Sufi shrines in many cities in the past, killing scores of devotees, who mostly belonged to either the minority Shiite Islamic group or the majority Sunni Hanafi sect.
In November last year, radical Islamists bombed the famous Shah Noorani shrine in the Lasbela district of the volatile Baluchistan province. It happened as worshippers performed the dhamal - a mystical dance - paying tribute to the famous Sufi preacher Hazrat Baba Shah Noorani. His shrine, where followers of mystical Islam regularly gather, is more than 500-years old.
An attack on pluralism
Historians say that both Shiites and Hanafis believe in a wider cultural interpretation of Islam and seek inspiration from the Persian and Arabic saints, who played a role in spreading Islam throughout the Indian subcontinent. Many Shiites and Hanafis also revere mystics of Indian origin and regularly visit their shrines which are spread throughout India and Pakistan. These Muslim saints are equally loved by Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Jews in South Asia.
The Wahhabis and Deobandis, which are relatively smaller groups among the Sunnis, believe in "puritan Islam" and consider pilgrimages to shrines as incompatible with the Islamic faith and against the teachings of Islam's prophet, Muhammad.
"Wahhabis are against any cultural pluralism, so they attack shrines, music festivals and other cultural centers that are not Islamic in their view," Dr. Mubarak Ali, a renowned Pakistani historian, told DW. The influence of Saudi Arabia has seeped into the psyche of many Pakistanis, causing an "Arabization" of their many traditions, he added.
Many Pakistani analysts, including Ali, say that zealot Wahhabi groups and political parties not only frown upon pilgrimages to non-Islamic shrines, they also endorse the demolition of historical Muslim sites, and emulate Saudi Arabia in this regard.
An ideological battle
Shoaib Ashraf, a lawyer and human rights activist in Karachi, told DW that Islamist militants are bent on destroying the diverse cultural fabric of Pakistani society. "Pakistan cannot afford this kind of extremism. It is facing several crises at the moment but this is going to do an irreparable damage to the country. Pakistan will not survive if a minority forcefully imposes its extremist agenda on the majority," he warned.
Attiya Dawood, a writer and peace activist, is of the view that the love for saints runs deep in hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan. She points out that a big number of Pakistanis go to the shrines and listen to qawwali, or Sufi music. "The Taliban want to create fear among the people by attacking their sacred places in order to restrict their social mobility and freedom," Dawood told DW.
Many Pakistani analysts stress that the reasons behind the attacks on shrines and followers of the saints are more political than religious, since mystical Islam provides a counter-narrative to extremist Islam and is probably the biggest ideological threat to the Wahhabis. Some believe that mystical Islam could be more effective in defeating the Taliban and other Islamist groups than any military operation.
Support for Wahhabi groups
Experts, however, say that the policies of the Pakistani state are not in favor of the proponents of Sufi Islam and are thus emboldening extremists. "As long as the Pakistani state and security agencies continue to use Wahhabism as a dominant state narrative, attacks on shrines and their devotees will not cease," warned Ashraf.
Historian Ali also pointed out that Wahhabi outfits and organizations have enjoyed state patronage and flourished at the expense of other groups, which in the past have been snubbed by the government. "It is a bit strange, because Wahhabism is a minority Sunni sect in Pakistan," Ali said.
The frequent militant attacks in the Islamic Republic have angered the public. Many people now question the military's claim that its ongoing operation against Islamists along the Afghan border has been a success. The army says it has killed thousands of terrorists since the launch of the Zarb-e-Azb military campaign in June 2014.
"The attacks show that the military's much-touted Zarb-e Azb operation and the National Action Plan to eradicate terrorism from Pakistani soil have been failures, despite the Pakistani army's claims of victory," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on security and Islamism, told DW. "The terror infrastructure is intact in the country and the militants intensify their attacks on the Pakistani state whenever they want to," he added.
Peace activists demand the Pakistani government to not only abandon its support for fanatical Wahhabis, but also promote pluralistic Islam. This, they say, would not only be beneficial to Pakistani society in the long run, but also improve Pakistan's image globally.
The Thursday attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalander shirine is the latest in a wave of terror incidents in the South Asian country. On Monday, a suicide bomber belonging to the Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) snuck into a protest rally in Lahore and blew himself up. At least 13 people were killed and some 85 were injured.
Experts say that Pakistan is facing an existential threat but the authorities are not taking it seriously. Apart from the threat posed by the Taliban, IS is expanding in neighboring Afghanistan and also increasing its footprint in Pakistan. Jamat-ul-Ahrar, which claimed responsibility for the Lahore attack, swore allegiance to IS in September 2014. A number of other Taliban splinter groups have also joined the IS ranks.
"We are facing a war-like situation. There is a lack of coordination among government agencies. I also think that the civilian and military leaders are not on the same page regarding counter terrorism approaches," Karachi-based journalist Majid Siddiqui told DW.