By Mira Sethi for The Wall Street Journal
The two suicide bombers chose midnight on July 1, when the throng of worshipers in the ancient Data Darbar shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, was at its peak, to blow themselves up. Forty-five people were killed and 175 were injured. The attack on the 1,000-year-old center of Sufi Islam—the religion’s mystical, unorthodox face—was the first Taliban attack of its kind in Punjab province, the heartland of the country’s moderate, majority Barelvi sect.
The day after the attack on the shrine, Lahore’s students, politicians, traders and housewives took to the streets in loud, visceral protest. Major commercial centers were shut down, and in a rare show of sympathy, students from religious seminaries blocked roads and burned a few tires.
Pakistanis are now asking themselves: Is this America’s war or is it ours too? How can we fight it? Why did our military nurture these warriors for three decades and why has it turned against them now? How and when are we going to be at peace with our neighbors, especially India with which the military is obsessed and for whom these non-state actors were originally spawned?
To understand why this attack is so shocking, one must first look at Pakistan’s religious history. The majority of Pakistanis are Barelvis, who respect the inclusive traditions of the Sufis who brought Islam to the Indian Subcontinent. This is completely unlike the harsh version of Islam imported from Wahabi Saudi Arabia after the petro-dollar boom in the Middle East in the 1970s.
So the bombing of the Sufi shrine has symbolic resonance: Sufism has always thrived as a reaction to the politics of the state. In modern Turkey Sufism grew as a response to Ataturk’s secularism; in the Soviet Union, it grew as resistance to the state’s official policy of promoting atheism; in Algeria, it was a reaction to French colonialism. In Pakistan, Sufism has thrived as an alternative to the state-sponsored Wahabi Islam of the Deobandi jihadi sect.
If there’s one thing that Pakistanis are proud of, it’s their Sufi heritage. The shrine attacked in Lahore housed the tomb of one of the most famous Sufis to have ever lived, Ali Hajwiri, affectionately known by Lahoris as Data—one who facilitates the fulfillment of aspirations. Hajwiri wrote a seminal text in Sufi thought, the Kashf-al-Mahjub or “Unveiling of the Hidden.” An early example of Sufi doctrine, the book’s importance has grown over the centuries.
Although not a native of Lahore, Hajwiri decided to settle in the city for the last 34 years of his life at the end of the 11th century. Even then, Lahore’s fame as a center of culture was widespread. It was known for its old fortified city, a nourishing river, and a collection of free-spirited artists, artisans, and musicians. During his 34 years of residence, Hajwiri became a revered dervish, offering an inclusive mystical path to Lahore’s non-Muslim population, many of whom were subject to a punishing caste hierarchy.
Hajwiri’s shrine remained protected through centuries of rising and falling empires in the Punjab. Even the Sikh marauder Maharaja Ranjit Singh left the shrine untouched as he plundered many of Lahore’s riches.
In attacking Hajwiri’s shrine, the Taliban have grossly miscalculated. They had hoped to provoke anger at the Pakistani government for fighting America’s war. Instead they have managed to convince more and more Pakistanis that this is now their war, not just America’s.