Danish media and Pakistani Islam by Uzma Rehman

29. Sep 2010

Which Pakistani Islam do you know about? The answer to this question would most likely depend on the kind of news and information about Pakistan that has reached the majority of people in Denmark through the print and electronic media during the past decade i.e. especially after 11 September 2001. However, this is how it is in most modern societies where information about the world reaches us through the media. Only those few who venture out to distant geographical areas are themselves able to experience the ground reality of these societies.

If we look at the news about Pakistan in the Danish newspapers during the past 9 years, we find that the media in Denmark has been projecting one-sided news about religious politics in Pakistan. Frequent news about terrorist attacks, religious extremism or natural catastrophes have either projected the image of Pakistan as a place where shocking incidents take place at a high rate or a boring land where extremist Muslims or dictatorial governments have control over all public and private life.

Dominant Media Images of Pakistan

A keyword search in the Danish newspaper database Infomedia results in 108 articles on Pakistan-Islam; 342 articles on Pakistan-terrorism; 12 articles on Pakistan-fundamentalism; 564 articles on Pakistan-Taliban; 155 articles on Pakistan-floods, and no articles on Pakistan-Sufism (the inner spiritual dimension of Islam practiced in the form of saint-veneration and master-disciple tradition) or Sufi shrines. Whereas information related to terrorist attacks and violent protests abounds, these newspaper reports may not represent the experiences of millions of Pakistanis who may be totally detached from religious politics due to their struggle through everyday challenges related to earning livelihoods. In the long run this one-sided image projected in the media seems to create a massive impact on the public opinion in Denmark.  

What happens then if you come from a country such as Pakistan to settle in Denmark and meet a public opinion that is purely based on the information that the country’s newspaper and electronic media have generated? As a female Pakistani married to an ethnic Dane, you repeatedly get surprised by the opinions you meet out on the street, from neighbours, work colleagues, friends or your spouse’s family. The first impressions I met in Denmark about Pakistan were of a country that is known for its dictators, coup d’état’s, strict Shariah law injunctions, Taliban style religious extremism, radical Islam, women stripped of their basic rights, and several other strange things.

However, one also comes across sunshine news in the Danish newspapers related to public concern and fundraising for the people hit by the catastrophic events in Pakistan that have taken place twice during the past 5 years: first in October 2005 as a result of the earthquake in Kashmir and other northern areas of Pakistan and later as recently as August 2010 in the form of floods in lower Punjab and Sindh resulting from the monsoon rains. After all, Pakistanis are not totally foreign to Danes. Since 1960s a large number of Pakistanis have migrated to Denmark as ‘guest workers’ and have settled here with their families ever since. Currently, there are reported to be 26,000 inhabitants in Denmark with the Pakistani origin.

During the last few years’ stay in Denmark I have met public impressions about Pakistanis based on stereotypes, negative, positive and neutral, such as ‘Pakistani food is so delicious with spices and taste’, ‘why do Pakistani Muslim women wear headscarves or why do they wear high heal sandals in winter?’ Whenever I am on my way to or return from Pakistan, I frequently meet with concerns and worries. ‘Is it safe to travel to Pakistan at all?’ ‘But there are bomb blasts everywhere in Pakistan’. Some of course show concern and ask whether the family and friends in Pakistan are safe under such conditions. At one point, when my husband and I were in Pakistan, we received a panicked email message from a family member in Denmark who wanted us to immediately contact the Danish embassy in Islamabad because the Danish foreign ministry had issued a warning against travelling to Pakistan. However, we did not comply with this instruction because we already felt safe in the protective fold of our family and friends in Pakistan. Any invitations that we may pass on to friends or families in Denmark to visit us in Pakistan are met with polite or straightaway ‘No’ or basically avoiding the subject. But these impressions are quite harmless. There is a better cause of concern when the print and electronic media bring negative news on a daily basis and bombard the public consciousness until a wholesome image is created about a society. This is a cause of concern for a society such as Denmark where the majority of people have active political consciousness, high literacy rate and where public and private institutions claim progressiveness and tolerance towards racial, ethnic and religious diversity.

It is not certain that stereotypes about a foreign culture or religious community can be avoided by increased interaction between the host society and people belonging to an immigrant community or an ethnic minority. The reason being that communities immigrating to a European country may not represent the diversity of their countries of origin in terms of social, cultural or religious backgrounds. The majority of Pakistanis living in Denmark come from one particular area of central Punjab i.e. Kharian or Wazirabad in Gujrat district. They speak the same Punjabi dialect and though Muslims who follow the basic Shariah injunctions (praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadhan, and so on), their overall idea of being Muslim may differ from each other. This is just a very limited example of the diversity in the ways Islam is practiced in Pakistan.

The overall image created by the Danish media about Muslims in general has a strong impact on how the ethnic Danes perceive the religious sentiments of Muslims living in Denmark. For example, the reactions from the Danish public to the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper can be divided into categories such as those who advocated the freedom of expression and thus did not see anything wrong in the caricatures; those who considered it an unnecessary and rather unwise move especially due to the sensitivity of the situation related to Muslim immigrants in Denmark and; those who were neutral on the issue. If those belonging to the first category were more acquainted with the religious beliefs of the Muslim community living in Denmark, their responses would have been more sensitized.

Even the so-called academics in their discussions on the subject used expressions such as ‘Muhammad crisis’ rather than expressions such as ‘cartoon outrage’ or ‘protests over Muhammad caricatures’ etc. Now, what is wrong with the first term? First of all, it is an incorrect term with no meaning. Muhammad is a Prophet of God who lived in the 6th Century and who, based on Divine revelations, established a code of life and religion called Islam. He has nothing to do with the caricatures or the outrage that followed. Secondly, associating the name of their Prophet with a political issue is an unwise provocation of the religious sentiments of the country’s largest religious minority.

Whereas ordinary Danes are aware of the violent protests over the caricature issue, they remain uninformed about the variety of responses incurred at various levels in Pakistan. I was in Pakistan at the time conducting my Ph.D. fieldwork around two Sufi shrines. Protests against the publication of caricatures were held in a Punjab village where one of the two shrines is located. Inside the shrine I asked a group of devotees of the saint buried in the shrine, who were singing and reciting parts of his poetry, why they did not join the demonstrations in the village. Thei
r response was that they did not consider it an appropriate way to follow Prophet Muhammad. According to them, Prophet Muhammad demonstrated compassion and forgiveness towards those who subjected him to persecution and ridicule for conveying the Divine message based on justice, equality, freedom and love.

Whereas radicalism is projected in the Danish media as a representative feature of Pakistani Islam, the more rampant folk Islam practised by millions of Pakistani people is completely missing from the media scene.

Devotional Muslim Practices in Pakistan

While the issue of defining Muslim identity continues occupying much of the public debate in Pakistan, it is important to keep in mind that there is diversity within and among Muslim traditions practised in Pakistan. The general image of Pakistan harbouring religious extremists and dictators fails to represent a country of over 170 million inhabitants with diversity in all aspects of life, ethnicity, languages, biradaries or tribes, economic classes, and not to forget religion. Islam is professed by 97% of the country’s population and although the Shariah remains a unified code of law as for the universality of faith and basic rituals, the diversity reflects denominational, ethnic and class-based variations. Looking closely, one finds devotional expressions as the most prominent feature of the everyday religiosity of people in the Pakistani society.    

As opposed to a more Shariah-based orthodox Islam, the devotional practices followed by a large number of Pakistani Muslims are embedded in the South Asian devotional culture shared across religious traditions. In Pakistan, Sufis’ Islam is centred around the tombs of deceased saints where ‘Muslims gathered to worship God, praise His Prophet, and ask the saint, living or deceased, for intercession on their behalf’ (Schimmel 1982). Devotional beliefs practised in the shrines of South Asia today have a basis in the history of Islam going back to the veneration of Prophet Muhammad as an intercessor between God and his community and the Prophet according to the Muslim faith has been sent by God as a ‘Mercy for the Worlds’. Today, the tangible form of Sufi tradition is found in thousands of shrines (mazars) visited and venerated by millions of people living in South Asia.

Most Danes do not know that millions of Muslims in Pakistan follow Sufis and visit shrines of Sufi saints and listen to Sufi music called qawwali. Not only do Sufi shrines provide Muslims a chance to express their religious sentiments, these also provide a space to a considerable number of Hindu, Sikh and Christian minorities to express their reverence for the saints and seek redress for their emotional problems and material needs. These shrines also serve as centres of social and cultural exchange. This happens both in villages and in large cities of Pakistan.

Devotees of Sufi shrines with a myriad of social and ethnic identities are less concerned with the institutionalized form of Islam. However, what seems more important to these devotees is that they have direct contact with their spiritual guide (Pir) who intervenes on their behalf in social and spiritual spheres. A Sufi saint who has long departed also continues to play the role of the mediator between God and people through his spiritual discipline and Baraka (spiritual blessing associated with Sufi saints).

Upon visiting Sufi shrines in either India or Pakistan, one may observe non-Muslim pilgrims regularly visiting to pay tribute to the Sufi saints. The Sufi shrine culture not only accommodates diverse religious identities, it also provides an open space that is shared by men and women. Women are known to have most actively participated in popular Sufi traditions of South Asia. Most female devotees visit in order to pay respects to the saints but some also visit in search of livelihoods. An important feature of the life in these shrines is the annual celebrations related to the death anniversary of the Sufi saints buried there. During these annual celebrations, pilgrims and devotees take part in activities related to art and music, rituals, entertainment, economic opportunities, charity, spiritual and moral training, among others. These annual celebrations are attended by a large number of female pilgrims and devotees. Women are empowered through rituals and literary traditions practised in these shrines. Otherwise performing restricted roles in religious affairs, some women find catharsis in the shrine rituals that may allow them to express their emotional, material and spiritual needs and to seek their redresses.

Although rituals performed in majority of these shrines such as devotional prayer, devotional dance, ritual vows and healing, often mediated by a ritual expert, go against the religious consciousness of Muslim clerics (ulama) and reformist Muslims such as those following the Deobandi or Wahabi schools of thought, the above roles of shrines form an important part of the lives of millions of people in their everyday religiosity.

Final Reflections

Islam allows a diversity of interpretations and practices that are in keeping with each social and cultural context. The Holy Quran confirms this on various occasions such as: “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13). Ideally, diversity may be considered a celebrated feature of a Muslim society disregarding possible resistance among certain groups. Pakistan is no exception to this. Interestingly, Muslim groups that promote religious extremism also claim a place among many voices of Muslim identity. Thus, if we highlight one particular group as representative of the entire Muslim community in Pakistan we run the risk of ignoring many other voices. It is easier to notice those who present politicized versions of Islam since their aim is to attract public attention.

It is generally not a good idea to formulate one’s opinions about a society based on what one reads in newspapers or watches on TV. The reason is simple. The print and electronic media tend to focus on the more troubled and sensational issues in any society. Incidents of violence and injustice occur in all societies. Would it be fair to judge the whole society based on these happenings? Sometimes it is just better to admit that we do not know a culture and dig deeper for knowledge that is closer to reality.



Uzma Rehman has a Ph.D. from the Department of History of Religions, Institute for Regional and Crosscultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.





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