Profile: Maulana Sufi Muhammad
Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – As Pakistani security forces battle the Taliban in the strategic northwestern valley of Buner, Asharq Al-Awsat takes a look at the one of the country’s most important religious figures embroiled in this battle; Maulana Sufi Muhammad.
On April 19, 2009, an ageing and frail Maulana Sufi Muhammad invited the frightened people of Swat Valley to participate in a peace rally at the Grassy Ground in Mingora city. Thousands took part in the rally, ignoring the fear that had penetrated deep into the hearts of the citizens as a result of year-long conflict between security forces and Taliban militants, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of Swat residents and has caused widespread damage to private property.
Maulana Sufi Muhammad spoke for 45 minutes and relieved people in Swat Valley of their fears. Having signed a peace agreement with the government, Sufi Muhammad felt that he was now justified in demanding a Shariah-based system. This has been his goal for almost three decades and he is convinced that there is no better opportunity to push for his agenda than now.
Paradoxically, throughout his 30-year career as a public figure, Maulana Sufi Muhammad has always been surrounded by violent people yet his contemporaries do not hesitate to describe him as a man of peace.
Sufi Muhammad launched a movement to demand the enforcement of Sharia in his native area of Malakand for the first time in 1994. He wanted to run a peaceful movement but at a certain stage he lost control over it and violent clashes erupted between Pakistani security forces and the followers of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM). Thousands were killed as the clashes continued for weeks.
Today, history seems to be repeating itself. In 2009, Maulana Sufi Muhammad wants the struggle for the enforcement of Sharia to remain a peaceful movement, but the militant groups that surround him have other ideas.
Last week a delegation of Pakistani government officials met Maulana Sufi Muhammad in his temporary residence in Swat and informed him of the involvement of Swat Taliban in a suicide bombing on April 15 in Charsada, a small town situated 40 kilometres from Peshawar city.
In addition, Interior Minister Rehman Malik recently accused the Swat Taliban of masterminding the toy bomb attack in Lower Dir (100 kilometres from Peshawar), in which 12 children were killed. The Interior Minister said that the government had conclusive evidence linking the toy bomb operation to the Taliban.
The government of Pakistan seems to be relying heavily on the influence of Maulana Sufi Muhammad to limit the transgressions of the Taliban.
“Maulana Sufi Muhammad loses control over his movement and the violent elements of his movement prevail over him,” said Haroon Rashid, a BBC correspondent in Islamabad who is considered an expert on militant organizations in Pakistan. “In 1994 Sufi Muhammad lost control over his movement and it turned violent and the same seems to be happening now,” he added.
But this has not stopped his political contemporaries from describing Maulana Sufi Muhammad as a peaceful man with the power to restore peace to the stricken Swat Valley region.
“Sufi Muhammad is a peaceful man and we know he can help us restore peace to Swat Valley,” says Zahid Khan, the Information Secretary of Awam National Party (ANP), which rules the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
It would be incorrect, however, to regard Maulana Sufi Muhammad as a completely non-violent preacher. In 2001, Sufi Muhammad led the young followers of Tehrik-e-Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi into ‘Jihad’ in Afghanistan against the American invasion.
According to one senior government official, Maulana Sufi Muhammad succeeded in assembling a group of around 10,000 young men from his native area of Malakand and convinced them to join the Taliban ranks in Afghanistan through his fiery speeches.
His adventure in Afghanistan was a fiasco as young Pakistani militants equipped with weapons dating back to World War II proved to be no match to the modern American military equipped with state of the art weapons. Hundreds of Pakistani militants were killed in Afghanistan and many more were taken prisoners by the US and Northern Alliance forces.
On his return to Pakistan in November 2001, Maulana Sufi Muhammad faced a backlash from the semi-tribal society of Malakand, which only a few months ago served as a recruitment centre for his militia.
His critics say Maulana Sufi Muhammad was taken into protective custody by Pakistani security forces in November 2001 out of fear that he might be assassinated by the people who lost their loved-ones in Afghanistan because of Sufi’s ventures.
Throughout his political career, there have been other instances in which Maulana Sufi Muhammad was accused by his critics of secretly collaborating with Pakistani intelligence services.
As a youth, Maulana Sufi Muhammad was an activist of Jamat-e-Islami [JI] in Malakand in the 1960s when the Malakand region (consisting of Swat, Buner and Dir) was a JI stronghold. The people of Malakand used to elect JI candidates to parliament.
Jamat-e-Islami’s influence in the Malakand region began to decline in the early 1990s after Maulana Sufi Muhammad established his own extremist group, Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) and began a campaign for the enforcement of Sharia law.
Many political analysts and critics state that the rise of Sufi Muhammad could be attributed to the support he received from Pakistani intelligence services, which sought to counter the influence of national political parties such as Jamat-e-Islami.
“In order to counter the influence of Jamat-e-Islami, the establishment – a term often used for army and intelligence services in Pakistan’s political jargon – created Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi,” said Haroon Rashid.
Sufi Muhammad embarked on a much more extremist path after he left Jamat-e-Islami. His party assumed a more militant character, which brought them, at times, in conflict with Pakistani state.
Matters turned violent in 1994 as Sufi Muhammad launched a campaign for the enforcement of Sharia law in Malakand. Hundreds of people were killed in the clashes between Pakistani security forces and Sufi Muhammad’s followers in Malakand and the armed uprising is often described as the first of its kind in the history of the country whereby by people stood up against the Pakistani state in the name of religion.
Since his release from prison in early 2008, Maulana Sufi Muhammad has overshadowed the traditional religious scholars and religious-political leaders of Pakistan.
Sufi Muhammad has a modest background, yet he became one of the most influential religious scholars in the country. “Sufi Muhammad’s family carried out manual labour before his family acquired wealth in this decade after engaging in campaigns for Jihad and for the enforcement of Sharia law,” said Sohail Abdul Nasir, a security correspondent for a Pakistani daily newspaper.
Sufi Muhammad is an outspoken figure and never dilutes his statements out of fear of backlash from the Pakistani government and state machinery.
In his recent statements he dubbed the entire political structure of Pakistan, including parliament, courts and the government machinery as un-Islamic. “If you don’t negate the ungodly political system, Allah will not even accept any of your prayers,” he said in response to a question as to whether the people of Pakistan were living un-Islamic lifestyles.
Sufi Muhammad’s assertion that “democracy” goes against the spirit of Islam earned him many enemies among Pakistan’s political classes. He dubbed democracy the system of infidels introduced to the Subcontinent by British imperialists.
The most interesting opposition to Sufi Muhammad’s assertions did not come from the secular political leaders of Pakistan but from a fellow religious scholar who once supervised over Sufi Muhammad in Jamat-e-Islami.
The current head of Jamat-e-Islami Syed Munawar Hassan told a group of media figures in Karachi that Sufi Muhammad had contended in the election of a municipal body in Malakand as a Jamat-e-Islami candidate “so in this way Sufi Muhammad had partially been an infidel himself,” Munawar Hassan said.
Soon after parting ways with Jamat-e-Islami in 1992, Sufi Muhammad established a Madrassah in Swat at a time when the Taliban movement was gaining strength in neighbouring Afghanistan. His extremist view brought him in contact with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“His Madrassah used to serve as a recruitment centre for sending Pakistani youth to fight along side the Taliban in Afghanistan,” said Sohail Abdul Nasir.
During the 1990s, on a number of occasions, Maulana Sufi Muhammad led armed groups of Pakistani youth to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban movement, which was in the process of consolidating its hold on Afghanistan.
“During one of these trips to Afghanistan Sufi Muhammad met the young Maulana Fazlullah, his future son-in-law and today’s leader of Swat Taliban,” explained Sohail Abdul Nasir.
The link between the Taliban and Sufi Muhammad’s Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi is too deep rooted to be overlooked. “At the leadership level the distinction between Taliban and TNSM is clear, but at the lower level you cannot draw a line between the activists of Taliban movement and those of the TNSM,” explained Haroon Rashid.
Surpassing all the leading political figures and eminent religious scholars, Maulana Sufi Muhammad has become the most debated personality in Pakistani media. Despite this media focus, Sufi Muhammad has remained a reclusive person who does not allow the media to photograph him.