As the Saudi-financed Wahhabi Islam supplants the tolerant indigenous Sufi Islam, its violent creed is inspiring terrorism
Despite the recent offensive by the Pakistani army in the Swat Valley and by Nato in Helmand province, the "Talibanisation" of both Afghanistan and Pakistan proceeds apace. Vast parts of the Afghan south and a large region in western Pakistan are still under de facto control of Taliban militants who enforce a violent form of sharia law.
Western responses oscillate between calls for a secular alternative to the religious fundamentalism of the Taliban and attempts to engage the moderate elements among them. Neither will solve the underlying religious clash between indigenous Sufi Islam and the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi extremism. The UK and US must change strategy and adopt a policy that supports the peaceful indigenous Muslim tradition of Sufism while thwarting Saudi Arabia's promotion of the dangerous Wahhabi creed that fuels violence and sectarian tension.
As Afghanistan goes to the polls this week, western political and military leaders now recognise that stability and peace in the country cannot be created by military force alone. Like the "surge" strategy in Iraq which reduced suicide bombings by driving a wedge between indigenous Sunnis and foreign jihadists, the US and its European allies will try to separate the Taliban from al-Qaida fighters who infiltrate Afghanistan from across the border in Pakistan. By combining "surgical" strikes against terrorists in the Afghan-Pakistani border region with a political strategy aimed at "moderate" Taliban, President Obama hopes to save the US mission from disaster.
The problem is that those Taliban who would be prepared to talk have little leverage and those who have influence feel that they have little incentive to compromise, as they have gained the upper hand. Unlike many Sunnis in Iraq, most Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have embraced the puritanical and fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs from Saudi Arabia who wage a ruthless war not just against western "infidels" but also against fellow Muslims they consider to be apostates, in particular the Sufis.
Sufi Islam is not limited to the southern Pakistani province of Sindh on the border with India. It also exists elsewhere in Pakistan and has been present in Afghanistan for centuries, as exemplified by the 18th-century poet and mystic Rahman Baba whose shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass (linking Afghanistan and Pakistan) still attracts many Sufi faithful from both sides of the border.
All this changed in the 1980s when during the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion, elements in Saudi Arabia poured in money, arms and extremist ideology. Through a network of madrasas, Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi Islam indoctrinated young Muslims with fundamentalist Puritanism, denouncing Sufi music and poetry as decadent and immoral. At Attock, not far from Rahman Baba's shrine on the Khyber Pass, stands the Haqqania madrassa, one of the most radical schools where the Taliban leader Mullah Omar was trained. Across the Pakistani border, the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of indigenous Islam has also been supplanted by the hardline Wahhabi creed.
This madrassa-inspired and Saudi-financed Wahhabi Islam is destroying indigenous Islam in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Crucially, it is imposing a radical creed that represents a distortion and perversion of true Islam. Wahhabi followers beheaded a Polish geologist in February (as revenge for Polish troops in Afghanistan) and blew up a century-old shrine dedicated to Rahman Baba in the Pakistani town of Peshawar in March.
The actions of the west and its Afghan and Pakistani allies are making matters worse. By causing civilian deaths through aerial bombings, the US is driving ordinary Afghans and Pakistani into the arms of the jihadi terrorists. By declaring sharia law in Pakistan's northwestern Swat region to appease the local Taliban and by using Islamism in the ongoing conflict with India over Kashmir, Pakistan's government is emboldening the extremists and undermining Sufi Islam.
What is required, first of all, is to prevent Saudi Arabia from playing a duplicitous game whereby the authorities in Riyadh help the Afghan President Karzai in his attempts to woo moderate Taliban while promoting the violent creed of Wahhabism across this volatile region. The west should call Saudi Arabia's bluff and not surrender to Riyadh's threats of ending security co-operation and information exchange on international terrorism which thrives on Saudi-exported Wahhabi ideology.
The west and Muslim countries such as Jordan should also put pressure on the Pakistani authorities to confront Wahhabism by expelling Saudi hate preachers, closing the Wahhabi madrassas and establishing schools that teach the peaceful Islam of Sufism.
By itself this strategy will of course not be sufficient to eradicate violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But without an alternative policy based on religion, this religious conflict will further escalate.
Posted August 20, 2009, Guardian