As a foreign refuge closes in Kabul, local mosques are at risk, too

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

When I read in the paper last week that the United Nations guesthouse in Kabul would soon be closing its doors forever, I felt a twinge of regret and nostalgia for a time and place that would never come again, where a foreign do-gooder or a journalist like me could find refuge from a conflicted, alien environment in a familiar oasis of hot showers, cold beer and the reassuring drone of a BBC newscast.

I also felt anger, because I knew why the old lodge was closing. Kabul, a dusty but intriguing capital where aid workers and others had survived periods of communist rule and Taliban repression, was now a de facto war zone. Any foreign facility was now vulnerable to bombings or commando attacks, and most U.N. workers were confined to fortified compounds.

Then I turned the page and read that the Data Shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, the country's most popular gathering place for followers of a Sufi saint known as Data Ganj Bakhsh, had been struck by suicide bombers, leaving scores of people dead and maimed. The victims were all Pakistani Muslims, and the religious setting seemed light-years from a Western watering hole. But my reaction was virtually identical, and I realized after a moment that the guesthouse and the shrine had a great deal in common.

There are virtually no public bars in Muslim countries; few places for people to let off steam, relax and unwind; and fewer where women are allowed to mingle with men. Mosques, especially of the increasingly influential Wahhabi or Deobandi strains imported to Pakistan by foreign wars and Middle Eastern clerics, can be as stern and silent as tombs. Their calls to prayer are shrill rather than inviting; their messages are exclusive, bellicose and misogynistic. Young men in their 20s, who might pour out of a sports bar flush with victory from a World Cup match, could just as easily rush out of radical prayer services looking for infidels to attack.

For millions of Muslims, the alternative to this militant ideology -- and the welcoming refuge from daily cares and burdens -- is the Sufi shrine. If a Deobandi mosque is a place of priestly order and genuflection and whispers, a Sufi shrine is the opposite: a messy free-for-all, a place where everyone is welcome to pray or sing or take a nap or hold a picnic; a pageant of humanity where beggars and addicts mingle with pilgrims and penitents, where families bring newborns in swaddling clothes and the newly dead in coffins to be blessed.

During the past decade, I have been to Sufi shrines all over Pakistan, and I always have felt totally welcome and at ease. The atmosphere is heady with spiritual ecstasy. Volunteers sit behind huge kettles, doling out free rice and bread to endless lines of poor men, women and children. Pickpockets lurk and exotic creatures -- transvestite dancers or shrunken-headed children -- startle. But no one is harassed or lectured or ejected, and everyone's shoes are carefully guarded and returned at the door.

The Sufi saints -- long-dead Persian mystics buried inside these shrines -- inspire fervent but languid devotion. They are believed to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad and to have special powers of healing and intervention. At various shrines, I have met women praying to become pregnant, polio victims hoping for a cure, farmers blessing a new tractor, and families giving away sweets in gratitude because a relative, falsely accused of murder, was released from prison. If this is superstition, so are Catholicism, Hinduism and many other faiths.

Many Sufi saints were famous poets in their lifetimes, and their couplets or sayings were usually paeans to love, explorations of the soul, or wise maxims for life with a Socratic twist that answered questions with riddles. The most famous of all is Jalalladin Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, whose search for spiritual enlightenment and a direct, passionate relationship with God -- free from material needs or clerical oppression -- inspired him to write thousands of essays and verses, including this one:

God's purpose for man is to acquire a seeing eye and an understanding heart.

Some of these saints' current-day descendants in Pakistan, known as pirs, have become powerful or corrupt politicians who use their religious stature for selfish ends. But the nonviolent, mystical message of Sufism also represents a strong challenge to the morally rigid vision of the Taliban and other extremist Islamic groups. Today, some of Pakistan's most successful pop groups offer music and lyrics with a Sufi theme, and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad is pointedly helping to refurbish some of the older and more run-down shrines.

Extremist groups have responded by attacking and threatening numerous shrines. The tomb of Rahman Baba, a leafy sanctuary in Peshawar whose walls are covered with paintings of flowers and candles, was bombed last year. A shrine near the Swat Valley was commandeered by Taliban fighters for weeks, and many other shrines were put under special alert after receiving threats. The last time I visited the Data Shrine in May, police commandos guarded its cool stone pavilions and visitors were shunted through a maze of metal security chutes. Last week, despite such precautions, bombers killed at least 42 worshipers and left another 150 injured.

Today life in Lahore, a city rich in history and vibrant with activity, has been violently disrupted and perhaps changed forever. In the past two years alone, extremists have attacked crowded markets, police academies, cricket teams, college campuses, moderate clerics and mosques of minority sects. Their message is clear: The real clash of civilizations is between moderate and radical Muslim beliefs. No place is sacred, no person is safe and no form of governance acceptable except the most simplistic, punitive brand of Islam.

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