The following article by Ishaan Tharoor was sent in the February 22, 2017, Washington Post’s Today’s WorldView email:
Before he entered the White House, President Trump leaped to comment on any apparent Islamist terror attack in the West, declaring that only he could fix the problem. And since coming to power, Trump has grandstanded on the putative threat posed by Muslims in America. He pushed a controversial immigration ban that disrupted thousands of lives and demonized whole populations in his zeal to appear tough on radical Islam.
But there has always been a huge blind spot in Trump’s worldview. When groups like the Islamic State launch attacks outside the West, slaughtering scores of Muslims, Trump remains curiously silent. On Thursday, for example, an Islamic State-linked suicide bomber killed at least 73 people at a famous Sufi shrine in the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan.
Did this hideous massacre — and other deadly bombings in Baghdad and Mogadishu around the same time — get any real acknowledgement from the White House? No. Instead, the American news conversation was dominated by Trump’s conjuring of a phantom Islamist attack in Sweden over the weekend. Fake news overshadowed real suffering.
What happened in Sehwan was deeply important, and its absence from the White House’s talking points is telling.
“The Sehwan shrine is dedicated to one of Sufism’s most revered saints, Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, better known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar,” explained my colleague Max Bearak. “He mostly lived in the 11th century and roamed far and wide, seeking guidance in the spiritual capitals of Medina and Karbala before settling in Sehwan, along the banks of the Indus River. The shrine honoring the preacher is at least 650 years old.”
The shrine was attacked while a huge throng of devotees gathered there in revelry. Sufism is a strain of Islam particularly common in South Asia — home to a population of Muslims larger than that of the Middle East — that is intertwined with older pre-Islamic traditions and suffused with mysticism, poetry and appeals to cosmic love. Sufism was the religion of wandering seers and storytellers, renegade mystics and barefoot sages.
In other words, it’s the sort of thing fundamentalist jihadists hate. Sufi shrines in Pakistan have long been targets of the Taliban and other militant outfits. The Sehwan shrine drew not only Muslim devotees, both Sunni and Shiite, but Hindus, too. It was testament to a deeply embedded pluralism in the land that’s now Pakistan.
A devotee of Muslim Sufi Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar poses for a photograph in Lahore, Pakistan. (Omer Saleem/EPA)
William Dalrymple, a veteran chronicler of South Asia’s many faiths, worries that the violence aimed at these sites is part of a larger phenomenon stoked by hardline Saudi-backed fundamentalism.
“A radical anti-Sufi movement is growing throughout the Islamic world. Until the 20th century, ultra-orthodox strains of Islam tended to be regarded as heretical by most Muslims,” wrote Dalrymple in the Guardian this week. “But since the 1970s, Saudi oil wealth has been used to spread such intolerant beliefs across the globe. As a result, many contemporary Muslims have been taught a story of Islamic religious tradition from which the tolerance of Sufism is excluded.”
The result in Pakistan is a growing religious dogmatism that has polarized its society and encouraged extremist violence.
“Sehwan is everything that a lot of contemporary Pakistan is not. It is inclusive and it does not impose religion,” wrote Suleman Akhtar in the Pakistani daily Dawn. And though it may seem far away from the United States, the Trump administration ought to pay attention.
“What happens at the Sehwan Sharif shrine matters, as it is an indication as to which of the two ways global Islam will go,” advised Dalrymple. “Can it continue to follow the path of moderate pluralistic Islam, or — under the pressure of Saudi funding — will it opt for the more puritanical, reformed Islam of the Wahhabis and Salafis, with their innate suspicion (or even overt hostility) towards Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism?”
But even this somewhat simplified framing of the divisions within Islam seems too complicated for a White House hell-bent on engaging in a clash of civilizations. As we’ve discussed earlier, Trump’s inner circle of advisers include a coterie of ultra-nationalists who genuinely see the West locked in a holy war.
On Tuesday, my colleague Greg Jaffe published a terrific profile of one of them: Sebastian Gorka, a Hungarian-British acolyte of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon who made his way into the administration via the fever swamp of far-right website Breitbart. Gorka traces the problem of “radical Islam” directly to the Koran and rejects the utterances of previous presidents who asserted Islam was a “religion of peace.”
“This is the famous approach that says it is all so nuanced and complicated,” said Gorka to the Post. “This is what I completely jettison.”
“For him, the terrorism problem has nothing to do with repression, alienation, torture, tribalism, poverty, or America’s foreign policy blunders and a messy and complex Middle East,” wrote Jaffe. Nor, clearly, do the victims of an Islamic State attack in Pakistan — Muslims practicing their faith — play any role in his analysis.
“Anybody who downplays the role of religious ideology . . . they are deleting reality to fit their own world,” said Gorka. In the light of what happened at Sehwan, you could say he was describing his own worldview.