Although contemporary discourse around Islam mostly paints the religion as monolothic, this couldn’t be further from the truth – there are many different interpretations of Islam, and much disagreement within the religion about the “right” way to be Muslim. This is exemplified in recent attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan, which were perpetrated by fellow Muslims. In 2010, 64 people died in violence perpetrated at Sufi shrines, a significant increase considering that only 81 people died in similar attacks from 2005-2009. According to the New York Times, the attacks represent a direct effort to kill Sufi practitioners.
Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam that has long been criticized by Islamic fundamentalists for worshiping saints, rejecting some aspects of Islamic law, and centering traditions around music and dance, is in some ways been more accessible for Westerners than other interpretations of Islam. The United States openly supports Sufism, and since 2001 has given more than $1.5 million to the restoration and conservation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan.
The attacks on Sufi shrines are thus understandable; Sufism in Pakistan represents a dual threat to Islamic radicals, who use the violence as a way of retaining their supporters. But the increasing danger to Sufi worshipers doesn’t seem to be deterring them. Thousands of people still visit the shrines, despite the attacks.
It’s important to note that there are many Islamic hard-liners who disapprove of Sufism but would never condone attacking a shrine. Pir Tayyab, a cleric who has been associated with militant organizations, explained to the NYT that he finds the singing and dancing that takes place at shrines to be “disrespectful,” but bombing a shrine was still unacceptable. “It is not correct to disrespect a grave or to remove someone from his grave,” he said.
This story, apart from being a tragic reminder of the dangers that ordinary Pakistani citizens face, is a good example of how complex Islam really is. Islamic fundamentalist militants are as concerned with purifying their own religion as with attacking the West (some, in fact, see the cleansing of Islam as a more important goal), and perpetrating violence against fellow Muslims can be justified in the name of this goal.
Photo from *_* via flickr.