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San Bernardino shooting highlights tensions within Islam

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San Bernardino shooting highlights tensions within Islam


The involvement of a Pakistani woman in the San Bernadino shooting throws light on deep religious differences between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, says Pakistani columnist Nadeem F. Paracha.
The recent mass shooting in California, involving as it did a young Pakistani woman who had spent time in Saudi Arabia, has finally revealed to Western media a phenomenon that has become a common fixture in Pakistan.

The woman, Tafsheen Malik, was born in Pakistan in 1986 into a middle-class family based in the southern part of Pakistan’s large Punjab province. Her father, an engineer, after having a falling-out with his immediate relatives, moved his family to Saudi Arabia.

He is said to have cut all ties with his parents and siblings in his home town, especially after he began to cast off the last vestiges of the indigenous strand of Islam that a majority of Pakistanis follow.

This strand is a centuries-old hybrid between Sufism and the faiths that were already established in the region, including various strains of Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.

Growing sectarian tensions

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam that was first introduced in South Asia by Muslim invaders and their empires between the 11th and 18th centuries.

The area Tafsheen’s father came from, South Punjab, is dotted with hundreds of shrines of ancient Sufi saints. Nevertheless, over the decades, sectarian tensions between Muslim communities in South Punjab have been rising.

Most non-Pakistani onlookers usually understand sectarian tensions in Pakistan in the context of the historical conflict between the majority Sunni and the minority Shiite Muslims.

However, although this conflict has indeed intensified ever since the 1980s, what many Western analysts fail to take into account is that an equal level of animosity now also exists between various sub-sects within Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority.

For example, when Tafsheen’s father severed his links with his family in Pakistan after settling in Saudi Arabia, he also rejected the strand of faith he was brought up with in Pakistan.

‘Elitist Islam’

His was not a unique example. Thousands of Pakistanis who began to travel to oil-rich Gulf States, normally for work purposes, from the mid-1970s onwards, came across a strand of Islam that was once largely alien to the dynamics of the culture that they had grown up in as Muslims.

The Saudi strand is usually scoffed at by a majority of Pakistanis for being elitist, rigid and incompatible with the social, economic and political realities of Pakistan.

However, by the early 1980s, since many Pakistanis working in conservative Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, had begun to make a lot more money than they would ever have been able to in Pakistan, they began to adopt the faith practiced and propagated by Saudi and Gulf monarchies.

In a way, the adoption of this strand became a badge exhibiting an enhanced economic status. This helped when many such Pakistanis returned to their homeland and began to denounce their own compatriots, including members of their own families, for following a “flawed” version of Islam.

They denigrated the indigenous forms of the faith, calling them too permissive and deviant.

Finger-wagging attitude

According to some students of the Pakistani university where Tafsheen studied after returning from Saudi Arabia, she was uncomfortable with the way her classmates and her family in Pakistan conducted themselves as Muslims.

Newspaper reports quoted some of her relatives as saying that she would often approach the women in the area where she was staying in Pakistan and ask them to follow “correct and proper tenets of Islam.”

A recent New York Times report claims that her classmates did not see her as just another Pakistani university student, but an Arab.

Again, all this is not so unique. Pakistanis who have returned from Saudi Arabit who being wagging their fingers at their fellow countrymen and countrywomen for being “flawed Muslims” has been a frequent occurrence in all parts of Pakistan ever since the 1980s.

Though such behavior has caused much domestic friction, and sometimes even triggered some intra-sectarian violence within the Sunni community in Pakistan, Tafsheen’s act in California is a first: the daughter of a man who rejected the strand of faith he was brought up with has notched up this finger-wagging to a whole new level.

Over the years, a number of Sufi shrines in Pakistan have been attacked, but mostly by organized militant outfits. The kind of men and women under discussion here are expected to denounce the ritual of visiting shrines, but not at all to indulge in the kind of violence Tafsheen chose.

Efforts to combat radicalization

Faisal Shahzad, the American-Pakistani who tried to blow up New York’s Times Square in 2010, had also spent some time in Saudi Arabia. Like Tafsheen, he, too, belonged to a middle-class family.

The authorities in Pakistan still have no clue how to address the phenomenon of educated and relatively well-to-do young people becoming overtly radicalized to the point of committing grave violence.

The country’s military establishment, along with the government headed by the moderate center-right party, the PML-N, has unleashed a widespread operation against hardened and organized militants.

Part of the operation also includes an elaborate plan to neutralize the harder and more puritan stands of the faith that have seeped into various sections of the Pakistani society ever since the 1980.

This aspect of the operation has been tougher to implement because one major section of PMLN’s vote-bank in the Punjab is made up of men and women whose economic status has been enhanced by the money they made in the Gulf States.

But, again, till now, though such Pakistanis have often been known to denounce the faith followed by most of their compatriots and to fund a number of apolitical Islamic evangelical outfits that preach their kind of Islam, they are never expected to cross the line that separates them from militancy.

Readymade narratives

However, as one Pakistani psychologist suggested two years ago at a seminar, young people in Pakistan with serious emotional problems and unresolved psychological issues are now being handed readymade religious and political narratives by populist electronic and social media outlets. These narratives, he said, encourage them to give violent expression to their angst, confusion and failures while believing that they are doing so for a grander, more divine cause.

This seems to have been the case with Tafsheen. Hailing from a small town family steeped in indigenous forms of the faith; flown away to Saudi Arabia by a stubborn father who believed his country’s people were ‘flawed Muslims’ and that only in Saudi Arabia ‘true Islam’ was practiced;’ returning to Pakistan as a young woman and perhaps realizing that her father was correct; linking up with an equally disgruntled soul in the US; marrying him and then finally discovering her true calling: Mass murder.

Hers was a psychotic break emerging from unresolved emotional issues but wrapped with a warped politico-religious narrative that simply promised her a catharsis. But it was a catharsis that left 14 innocent people dead; a 6-month-child scarred for life; and a Muslim community (in the US), scratching their heads, and wondering where they went wrong in simply trying to lead ‘pious lives’.

Topics: Islamophobia USA

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