karachi killings continue
On May 13, the Pakistani clerical figure Mawlana Muhammad Aslam Sheikhupuri was gunned down on a busy street in Karachi. His murder is only the most recent instance of what has become a commonplace in Pakistan, namely the street killing of religious figures.
Struck by polio at age 3, Sheikhupuri was handicapped for the rest of his life, using a wheelchair to get from one place to another. His parents put him in a Qur’an memorization school, where he committed the Qur’an to memory at a young age. Sheikhupuri then studied under some notable Pakistani Deobandi theologians (‘ulama’) in Gujranwala and Karachi. After graduating, he soon established himself as a leading preacher in Karachi, and became famous for his weekly lectures on the Qur’an. The people Sheikhupuri inspired expressed extreme shock over his assassination. Numerous Muslim theologians, such as Mufti Taqi Usmani, expressed remorse at the tragedy. A Youtube video has appeared depicting ’ulama‘ from Madrassa Dar al-‘Ulum Haqqaniyyah in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province holding a press conference to condemn such violent attacks. The press conference concluded with a senior theologian leading the crowd to tears while engaging in a collective act of supplication (dua’). Mufti Taqi Usmani’s mournful speech condemning the killing has also appeared on Youtube.
What happened to Sheikhupuri is certainly tragic and needs to be situated within larger socio-economic, political, ideological, and historical frameworks. Deobandi ‘ulama’ express their grief over such killings, yet no one seems to identify their own institution’s structural place within the overlapping frames in which such violent acts occur. The interpretations of such shootings put forth by Deobandi ‘ulama’ overdetermine the role of theological dissent and difference. Sheikhupuri’s assassination is more tragic because he openly spoke against religious sectarian differences and the violence that ensues in the name of religion in Pakistan.
Yet the institutions of Deobandi ‘ulama’ perpetuate a type of thinking that eludes addressing the social and economic contexts in which physical violence has become an everyday reality in Pakistan. Seeing the world in sin or virtue–through the lens of their version of theological correctness–conceals the material realities in which human life itself becomes disposable. They will also blame it on foreign powers such as India or the West, adding in bits from Islamic apocalyptic narratives about signs of the end of times. Sheikhupuri’s murder is then seen as a sign of the approaching Day of Judgment.
What is needed, however, is to move beyond mourning qua mourning and to hold oneself accountable as both an active and a passive constructor of the world in which one suffers such loss. This requires thinking beyond theological disputes as points of entering and exiting the world; thinking beyond the subjective world.
Such violence unfolds within social vectors, including:
- ethnicity clashes–differences between various linguistic groups are made into essentialist differences. Issues of electoral power, control over the city’s markets, Islamization, and labour force divide the city’s many different linguistic groups: the Sindhis (those who claim indigeneity), the muhajirs (“refugees,” i.e. those who migrated from India), and the settlers from the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
- theological battles–conflicts have escalated not only between Shi’i and Sunni organizations, but also between groups within the Sunnis (Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-i Hadith, and so on). There is widespread physical violence that unfolds over this vector, including the hateful crimes against the Ahmadiyyah.
- class struggles–senses of class consciousness inflected by the haunting remnants of the caste system inform divisions of neighborhoods, markets, mosques, political representation, and the sexual division of labour (Orangi Town is the largest slum of South Asia).
- failures of the state’s institutions of civic resources and law enforcement–the police overacts at some places, yet it mostly underacts. There are wide-ranging forms of corruption that preclude the working class from benefiting from the state’s institutions.
- gender and sexuality norms–these are reinforced by religious-moral and cultural ideologies; social class certainly plays a role in easing or rigidifying these norms.
- moralization of the public sphere–here the institutions of the Deobandi ‘ulama’ along with others have become very instrumental. Specific types of selves become laudable and other personality types are vilified. The standard of judgment is often related to “Islamic” norms.
We do not know the motivations behind the heinous crimes of which Sheikhupuri’s murder is only a recent example. But what can be said is that Karachi, and perhaps Pakistan in general, witnesses how society can be punctured by the perils of identity politics and the dangers of an identification-based system of intersubjective relations and communication. Here, Deobandism is more the culprit and less the victim. Deobandism, among other religious and cultural identity groups, gives symbolic capital and institutional space to a sociality in which sameness is embraced and difference is disavowed. In this respect, Deobandism is no different than the aristocratic and upper-middle class hyper-secular, liberal-minded Pakistanis who build mansions in gated neighborhoods, embodying 24/7 the signs of their class identity. In a similar fashion, Deobandism inspires those who come within its folds to embody the visible markers of their identity. This regime of visibility affects the bodies of men and women differently. By participating in Deobandi study circles, forging social networks, and imagining a particular sanitized Islamic future for Pakistan, individuals find it compelling to “act,” “show & tell,” and “wear” their signs of affiliation with Deobandism. But then every social group in Karachi, cut through by vectors of class, religious affiliation, ethnicity, and so on, cultivates its identification markers in very specific ways. What we have in the end is a tumultuous urban space in which people wear their identities and ideologies on their sleeves.
If anything is to be condemned in order to mourn the killing of Sheikhupuri, it is the identification-based practice of everyday life that has become so prevalent in post-coloniality.