An Assault on the Subcontinent’s Religion of Peace

The Sufi faith in the subcontinent has uniquely stood above the fray of politics and human conflict, but members of this faith once more seemed to be dragged down back into it last week. The Sajjada Nashin – or head priest – of the famous Nazimuddin Dargah went missing six days ago after coming to Pakistan with his nephew to visit his sister and the eminent Data Darbaar shrine in Lahore. This was just the latest in a series of events in which the paranoia of the Pakistani security state had trumped the religious pacifism that was the central tenet of the Sufi faith.

Sufi clerics have largely avoided taking up political stances, their brand of mystical Islam in stark contrast to the fiercely political brand of Islamism in Pakistan. However, media outlets in Pakistan contended that the pair were affiliates of the Muttehda Qoumi Movement (MQM) headed by Altaf Hussain, and were in Pakistan for this purpose. Then, official sources revealed that the two clerics had been detained by Pakistan's intelligence agency over their links to the political party, and were released in Karachi after intervention from Sartaj Aziz, the PM’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs.

This entire debacle is interesting considering these two individuals were granted visas by the country’s own embassy in Delhi, implying confusion and ignorance in the Pakistani bureaucracy about the clerics and other individuals traveling to the country. It is also especially disappointing considering both states have indulged in “Dargarh Diplomacy” consistently, with state visits at shrines across borders by prominent leaders from both India and Pakistan.

The event is likely to only fuel a conflict between India and Pakistan that has raged since both gained independence from British rule. More specifically, it could possibly impact already abysmal tourism flows between the two neighboring countries. According to a report by the Indian Ministry of Tourism, Pakistan made up just 1.56% of the total number of arrivals in India in 2015. Pakistan meanwhile, ranked 122 out 140 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Tourism Competitiveness Index in 2013, and is in even greater need to attract tourism flows from a country which is almost uniquely linked to it in culture, language and proximity.

Most importantly, this incident has threatened to politicize and radicalize a brand of Islam that has gained universal acclaim for its message of peace. A similar transition into violence occurred with the Pakistani Barelvi sect over the past two decades.

Last November, a terrorist attack on Balochistan’s famous sufi shrine, the Shah Noorani, claimed the lives of dozens of people. The Sufi response was to continue the dhamal, their mystical dance a testament to how their spiritual ways rise above the conflict and carnage in the physical realm. In a region torn apart by war, perhaps Sufism is the subcontinent’s chance at peace, and deserves the best of our protections.