Friday, 21 August 2009

Pakistan must confront Wahhabism

As the Saudi-financed Wahhabi Islam supplants the tolerant indigenous Sufi Islam, its violent creed is inspiring terrorism

Adrian Pabst, Thursday 20 August 2009 12.30 BST

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.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Abusing Women and Islam

By MONA ELTAHAWY in The New York Times
Published: August 14, 2009

July, hot and usually slow for many of us, was a month of humiliation and pain for 164 Muslim women sentenced to a public flogging for “crimes” as varied and absurd as wearing trousers in public to having sex outside of marriage in countries as far afield as the Maldives, Sudan and Malaysia,

The most famous of those 164 is Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese journalist who was among 13 women arrested by police at a Khartoum cafĂ© on July 3 and charged with violating the country’s “decency laws” by wearing trousers.

Ten of those women accepted a fine and flogging but Ms. Hussein and two others contested the charges, which they’re now fighting in court. The Sudanese regime barred her from traveling to Lebanon earlier this week to give a television interview on her trial, which resumes on Sept. 7.

It’s bizarre to use the word “lucky” to describe a woman facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers, but by virtue of her position and clout, that’s exactly what Ms. Hussein is. She is also brave and defiant: Ms. Hussein resigned her position as press officer for the United Nations, which could have earned her immunity from the charges, to stand trial.

And most importantly she is a Muslim woman who knows that a flogging for wearing trousers is sheer and utter nonsense; she has said she was ready to “receive (even) 40,000 lashes” if that’s what it takes to abolish the law.

Not so lucky have been the thousands of other Sudanese women — Muslim and non-Muslim southern Sudanese women. They have served as the whipping girls for the Sudanese regime’s cheap game of flogging women to show off its “Islamic principles.”

The International Criminal Court has indicted President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. His janjaweed allies in Darfur have been accused of rape. Trousers are “indecent” but rape is just another reminder of how useful women’s bodies are in conveying the message.

Mr. Bashir is an unabashed dictator. How then to explain the silence of the Maldives’ liberally-inclined President Mohamed Nasheed at the flogging sentences handed out to 150 of his countrywomen in July for extramarital sex?

It’s depressingly simple. To appease Islamists he needs for his ruling coalition, he offers up the easiest chips to bargain with — women. Ruling according to “Islamic law,” courts in the Maldives sentenced about 50 men along with those 150 women to flogging.

Why is the ratio of women-to-men to be flogged 3-to-1? Men can escape a flogging for extramarital sex just by denying the charges. Women who become pregnant after the sex find their babies used as evidence against them. According to official statistics from the Department of Judicial Administration, the Maldives sentenced a total of 184 people to flogging in 2006 — 146 were women.

Claims that courts in the Maldives rule according to “Islamic law” are hollow at best and at worst a moral offense to the justice and compassion that we are taught are central pillars of Islam. The Maldives no longer cuts off the hands of thieves. Instead, it pours its zeal for “Islamic law” into flogging, a punishment that seems to be designed to torment mostly women.

If you want to know what a public flogging is like, search online for a video showing the Talban flogging a screaming woman in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

For the faint of heart, there is Amnesty International’s description from the Maldives of the public flogging of an 18-year-old woman on July 5. She received 100 lashes after being accused of having sex with two men outside of marriage. Local journalists reported the woman fainted after receiving the lashes. The court ruled the woman’s pregnancy was proof of her guilt; the men involved in the case were acquitted, Amnesty said.

Also on July 5, an “Islamic court” in Malaysia sentenced a Muslim woman to be flogged with a rattan cane for having a beer with her husband in a nightclub.

As Zainah Anwar, a Muslim Malaysian feminist who is project director of Musawah, the global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family, reminded her country’s authorities, “Neither the Koran nor the Hadith [sayings of Prophet Muhammad] prescribes any form of punishment for drinking alcohol ... Islamic teachings emphasize forgiveness, compassion and positive personal transformation. So why punish in the first instance?”

Flogging is a cruel and inhuman punishment that is banned by international law and conventions like the one against torture, to which the majority of countries in the world are signatories.

It is time for the international community to take away the pass to the international club from countries that duck out of their international obligations under the pretext of “cultural or religious” reservations. One hundred and sixty-four women were sentenced to flogging in July alone. Where is the outrage?

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born commentator on Arab and Muslim issues.