“They’ve shot dead Amjad Sabri” — the first words I heard on Wednesday morning marked news of yet another assassination in my beloved Karachi, still “home” despite living in the Boston area since 2011.
Sabri was one of the world’s most famous exponents of the devotional music known as Qawwali. On Wednesday, two gunmen intercepted his car and shot him dead at close range in the crowded locality near his house.
At a television studio nearby, another devotional singer, young Farhan Ali Waris, was waiting for Sabri to join him for a recording when he heard the news. As he headed home, his armed guards fired at assailants targeting their car. Waris escaped unhurt.
Sabri’s murder appears to be a continuation of the trend of killing Shia and Ahmadi doctors for their faith. But the list of those targeted in Pakistan is a long one, not restricted to Ahmadis, a sect that Pakistan’s parliament declared as non-Muslim in a Constitutional amendment in 1974, or Shias, considered as apostates by the extremist militants who have been on a killing spree in the country particularly over the last few years.
Actually it’s anyone they consider deviant or a threat to their extremist ideology in some way. Militants have also targeted Christians, Hindus, civilians at bazaars, hospital emergency rooms, universities, schools, mosques, funerals and of course "liberals," as my old friend Quatrina Hosein, a former newspaper editor based in Islamabad commented in a Facebook post.
Daniel Zafir/YouTube screengrab
I asked if I could quote her and her response was chilling: “It doesn’t matter. I know I will be killed in this war.”
In her post, Quatrina asked when Pakistan will “face the reality that extremism is woven into the fabric of our existence? Are you as shocked when an Ahmedi doctor is killed, as you were when 150 children were massacred in school? Do you grieve by numbers or by identities? Why do you buy into crap like Malala was a foreign agent? Wake up! The killers are extremist Sunnis.
"They want their brand of Islam at gunpoint, bombpoint, acidpoint. Stop absorbing the shocks. Each death is a virus that enters the body. It mutates. Its indigenous. Ours. It's killing us from within while we run around moaning ‘this is not Islam.’ Each and every person who doesn’t buy their brand is a target. Each and every one. We have let it reach this point because we have been digesting the poison a little bit every day.
"‘Won’t happen to me’ mentality got us here. News alert: Your body is now toxic. The only difference is level of immunity.”
I totally agree with her. In fact, the title of a report I wrote a couple of years ago on the target killing of Ahmedis was: Poison in the body politic, published in The News on Sunday (the weekly paper I started that I consider my first baby).
It is not surprising that musicians are being targeted. There have been other such killings in the past also, of folk and women singers in cities in northwest Pakistan closer to the Afghanistan border, a conflict area.
But Amjad Sabri was not just a "musician" and he was killed not in a small town in the war zone but in bustling Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, its business center and major seaport.
Another angle to this murder is the lack of rule of law and what happens when law enforcement agencies’ “energies are focused on political victimization instead of going after hard core criminals,” as another journalist friend Afia Salam in Karachi says.
Sabri was one of the most famous of Pakistan’s qawwals, exponent of a genre the extremist Saudi-inspired Wahabi mentality terms Qawwali as “haram” or forbidden by Islam. The mentality is typified by “fasadis,” creators of discord, to use a more accurate term for the criminals who call themselves “jihadis” or Islamic holy warriors.
It was a journalist friend in Delhi, an observing Muslim indignant at the hijacking of Islam, who suggested this term — let’s use fasadi instead of jihadi when referring to these groups that murder innocents and engage in violence in the name of Islam.
Not surprisingly, the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for Sabri’s murder.
Sabri was one of the most visible and popular symbols of the Qawwali — part of the uniquely South Asian syncretic Sufi culture through which Islam spread in the region. This form of devotional music transcends religion and touches hearts belonging to all faiths — see this video of a Hebrew Qawwali in praise of Ali, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, at an Israel Sufi festival.
At its best, Qawwali in any language is uplifting, inspiring, transformative.
“Tragic days for the world … a woman murdered here for her humanitarian causes and a man murdered there for his cultural traditions,” comments an old school friend from Karachi, a former classical dancer now working as a psychological counselor in London. “Nothing is sacred and no one is safe.”
“Outraged!!! Artists and creativity are under attack!!! And creativity is as important as literacy! So it’s an attack on education and our culture. Civil society really has to come out against this by celebrating him and our art and culture! In their face! This can’t be taken lying down … media needs to be galvanized and messaging for social inclusion and tolerance needs to be cranked up!” messaged another friend from Karachi who works with a non-profit and is himself an amateur singer devoted particularly to Qawwali.
I can’t help thinking at this time also of another dear friend, Sabeen Mahmud — she loved Qawwali passionately. In April 2015, a young man shot her dead, for her "liberal values," he said later.
At such times, it is all the more critical to keep hopelessness at bay. Despair is not an option.
Amjad Sabri and Sabeen Mahmud are only two of Pakistan’s over 50,000 civilian casualties of this war. The casualties include another 10,000 members of the armed forces. The love, inclusion and tolerance they personified rises above the hatred and violence of the fasadis.
It's an ongoing battle.
We just have to, as my friend the anti-nuclear activist Joseph Gerson in Boston says, "keep on keepin’ on.”