Friday, July 09, 2010

A Place Where Everyone Is Welcome To Pray Or Sing.

There are virtually no public bars in Muslim countries; few places for people to let off steam, relax and unwind; and fewer where women are allowed to mingle with men. Mosques, especially of the increasingly influential Wahhabi or Deobandi strains imported to Pakistan by foreign wars and Middle Eastern clerics, can be as stern and silent as tombs. Their calls to prayer are shrill rather than inviting; their messages are exclusive, bellicose and misogynistic. Young men in their 20s, who might pour out of a sports bar flush with victory from a World Cup match, could just as easily rush out of radical prayer services looking for infidels to attack.

For millions of Muslims, the alternative to this militant ideology -- and the welcoming refuge from daily cares and burdens -- is the Sufi shrine. If a Deobandi mosque is a place of priestly order and genuflection and whispers, a Sufi shrine is the opposite: a messy free-for-all, a place where everyone is welcome to pray or sing or take a nap or hold a picnic; a pageant of humanity where beggars and addicts mingle with pilgrims and penitents, where families bring newborns in swaddling clothes and the newly dead in coffins to be blessed.

The reporter who wrote that essay is Pamela Constable, one of the best, but it struck me that Constable is letting the UN off rather easily. The culture of cowardice in the UN's upper echelons is at least partly a factor in the recent UN guesthouse closure, and there is nothing new in the circumstances that prevail in Kabul that should cause anyone to regard the closure as a sign that the city is suddenly a "de facto war zone." If it is a war zone, de facto or otherwise, it has been so for some while. Say, 30 years.

But she is dead right about the increasingly belligerent character of "official" Islam in the region, owing to the spreading toxins of Deobandism and Wahhabism. The popular and delightful old Islamic devotions of Afghanistan, not least the folk traditions of the Sufis, are being encircled and "cleansed" from Afghan culture.

I encountered this creeping chauvinism last month in Mazar-e-Sharif, at the city's splendid and sublime blue-domed Shrine of Hazrat Ali, a place most sacred (or grossly profane, if you are an Islamist) to Muslims for nine centuries, and sacred to Zoroastrians for longer still - they say Zarathustra himself is buried under the Shrine mosque. The shrine guardian took me accurately to be some sort of kaffir and refused me entry to the mosque proper, with obvious embarassment to himself and my hosts. The new rules say kaffirs can't come in. I wandered around and mingled with the pilgrims happily enough, and the guardian noticed me later and called me over to have tea with him, as a gesture of cordiality. He told me he was sorry. But the insult had been given, he knew it, and he clearly felt diminished by the indignity of it all.

The Sufis still have a place for themselves in the mosque in a chamber accessed by a back entrance, where they persist in their euphoric and hypnotic ritual chantings. My friends in Mazar told me the Sufis' days were numbered there, too. This was the scene:


video

UPDATE: Officials in northwestern Pakistan say two bombings have killed more than 65 people and wounded more than 112 others in a tribal area near the Afghan border. Police say the blasts involved a suicide bomber on a motorbike, followed by a suspected car bomb. The explosions took place at the site of Rasool Khan's office. Khan is a senior government administrator who says he was meeting with members of the local peace committee when the blasts took place.

Bloody hell. At least it's Friday quitting time. I'm off for a pint. Or a few.