Love in the time of terrorism

by Shehrbano Taseer

The two suicide bombers who struck at Data Darbar on the night of July 1, 2010, painted a contrast in blood and fire of contending visions for Pakistan. The usual Thursday crowd that gathered at the revered shrine for langar — distribution of food to the poor — represented the charity, compassion and caring that is rooted in our faith. The extremists, responsible for killing more than 40 people and gravely injuring hundreds others, typify the murder, mayhem and menace associated with their beliefs.

Data Darbar is the tomb of Data Ganj Bakhsh, the famous Persian sufi and patron saint of Lahore who spread Islam around the subcontinent. Almost a thousand years old, it is the Koh-e-Noor of Lahore. Lahore, in fact, is often referred to as Data ki Nagri, meaning under the protection of Data.

The importance of Data Darbar can hardly be overestimated. Many sufis were inspired by Syed Ali Hajvery’s book Kashful Mehjoob — Revelation of God’s Mysteries — and called him Data Ganj Bakhsh — the giver of many treasures. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the most revered saint of the subcontinent, prayed at the shrine in Lahore before establishing his centre at Ajmer.

Thousands visit the shrine daily to pray and to pay respect to the saint in a religious devotion devoid of sectarian consideration. Data Darbar is also one of the few hubs of cultural activity left in Lahore. It hosts discussions much like the Parisian salons of the 19th century, and organises frequent qawwali and poetry sessions.

The shrine also functions as a centre for redistribution of food and money to the poor. Forty cash boxes are positioned inside the Darbar, the money that benefits the Department of Auqaf and Religious Affairs and goes to social welfare programmes. Additionally, 60 percent of the annual income from the shrine helps run the Data Darbar Hospital situated west of the complex. Around the Darbar, an economy of its own has been established. Several hundred small shops sell food, souvenirs, cloth, and flowers. The shrine, thus, gives jobs to hundreds of state employees and twice the number of shopkeepers as well.

It breaks my heart to see blood and limbs staining the white marble of Data Darbar. I have prayed at the mosque many times and often shopped and eaten in the area. Whenever I return to Lahore, one of the first things I do is buy sugar balls from a favourite vendor of mine on the old Mela Ram Street.

The attack on the Data Darbar has targeted those who hold a different version of Islam than the extremists. The Shias, the Sunnis, and the Ahmedis have been victims of cruelty for years. Attacks against sufis, however, are a more recent phenomenon. Last year, the shrine of Rehman Baba, a 17th-century sufi saint and Pashto poet and the shrine of Bahadur Baba in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were targeted and now, Lahore’s precious Data Darbar.

It sickens me to see ancient religious traditions being terrorised by a harsher form of religion that is barely even a generation old. Terrorism has the capacity to self-destruct; it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. Sufism, however, since the first millennium C E has had a timeless and universal appeal. It has the power to defuse terrorism; it is an internal liberation that jihadism simply cannot offer.

Sufism’s egalitarian message of love and tolerance emphasises a spiritualism that centres on a mystical connection between the individual and the divine. Its ethos has gained much traction in recent years, and has travelled from shrines into the homes and hearts of many Pakistanis who feel increasingly disillusioned by religious fundamentalism.

People have not heard of al Ghazali, the greatest Islamic conservative, but everyone knows of Bulleh Shah, Hafiz, Rumi, Madho Lal Hussain, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, Omar Khayyam and Rabia al Basri. The best selling poet of the US in 2006 was not Whitman, Shelley, Dickinson, Frost or Emerson but a sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi.

A great sufi once said, “It is in times of greatest social upheaval that the biggest strides in spirituality are made.” In the aftermath of this tragic and violent event, perhaps there is a moment, then, to call for calm. To say, enough.

Now is not the time to argue over versions of events, or variations in belief. Let us be more constructive than that. What is the solution? Counter-insurgency schemes? An eye-for-an-eye tactic? More bombs and violence?

We have seen the success that military operations have brought in the world. The solution lies in tackling the problem at the grassroots level. It is that difficult, and that simple. Investing in education for the Pakistani youth is what will eradicate the cancer of terrorism. It is the one cause proven to have the highest return in transforming a war-weary region, and to peace and economic opportunity in Pakistan. Think of the direction Pakistan will move in if there are books and pencils in the hands of little children, rather than guns. Imagine the values of humanity and the pursuit of knowledge in their hearts and minds rather than ignorance and hatred.

Those who think al Qaeda is a group are sadly mistaken. It is an idea. Why, then, spend billions of dollars on weapons, when we can battle an idea with an idea; a movement with a movement? The formula is simple: one educated child is one less Taliban recruit. There is a reason the extremists attacked Data Darbar. In Data Ganj Bakhsh’s message of peaceful devotion and spiritual yearning lies the death of the extremist idea.

The writer is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington DC. This article was originally published in The Daily Times on 8 July 2010.

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