Discussing Sufism and Peace in a War Zone

addressing conference

This piece was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on 8 February, 2015.  If you would like to listen to the podcast, go to the RTE site:   http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

At the centre of the top table is Salman Taseer who was assassinated a few months later by his own bodyguard – he took umbrage at Taseer’s criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws. On his way to court he was showered with rose petals by approving supporters.

I was close to Osama bin Laden when he was still alive. Of course I didn’t realise that as the bus conveying us from our well fortified hotel to the National Library of Pakistan meandered through the endless series of concrete roadblocks that punctuated the main thoroughfares of Islamabad. The steel helmets of soldiers peeping out from sand-bag bunkers, and the armoured cars before and after the bus, were further evidence that the country was in the grip of what we in Ireland might have described as an Emergency.

This was March 2010, and Bin Laden was living in the suburbs of the city with his family and friends around him. I was in Islamabad to participate in a Conference on the topic of ‘Sufism and Peace’. The motley collection of international writers and scholars included many who were deeply versed in Sufism. I myself was no more than somewhat informed on the subject. I had visited the shrines of Sufi saints in India. I had spent some time in a Dervish monastery in Turkey. And of course I had read some work of the Persian poet, Rumi.

It was a curious conference to be organised in Islamabad, with the full support of the existing Government, at a time when fundamentalists, particularly the Taliban, were perpetrating vicious attacks on Sufi shrines. The image in the West was that Pakistani officialdom was sympathetic to Muslim fundamentalists, and was conniving to assist them at every turn. But Sufism was anathema to the fundamentalists; they regarded it as a heresy that had no right to exist inside or outside Islam.

Sufism, like Islam itself, is a vast and varied religious tradition. In a nutshell it can be defined as the mystical brand of Islam. But nutshells and definitions are of little help in understanding something so complex. The central belief of the Sufis is that the experience of God is personal – and achievable, even in this life, by meditation and ascetic practice. They saw religious ecstasy as close to the aesthetic experience, so music, dance, poetry, could all be pathways to the experience of the divine. The practice and propagation of Sufism is based on the relationship of teacher and acolyte. Many of these teachers have been venerated as holy men, just as saints have in the Christian tradition.

Not surprising therefore that artists found much that was congenial in Sufism. Not surprising either that it raised the hackles of the Taliban who had carried out atrocities against Sufi worshippers at sites around Pakistan over the previous years. To them the veneration of saints was a form of idolatry.

But to judge by the absolute and unequivocal support of the government, Sufism had a very strong following in Pakistan. Presiding at each session of the Conference was a member of the Government, including the Minister for Education, and President Zardari himself, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated four years earlier. The session at which I spoke was presided over by Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard a few months later because he criticised the country’s Blasphemy Laws.

Most of the delegates were from within Pakistan, and of course all of the audience. It was fascinating to talk with them and to get even a small glimpse into their lives. If I had closed my eyes, I might have been listening to the aspirations of the people of Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. All they wanted was a peaceful world in which to rear their children and grandchildren. But they saw that world being torn from them by the militarists and the religious hard-liners. They talked of the manoeuvring of these self-appointed arbiters of theological correctness to control the minds of the ordinary people of Pakistan.

So, if I was not an expert in Sufism, what did I contribute to the Conference? I chose to talk about Peace. I started by reciting Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This little poem embodied a concept of Peace for many generations throughout the literary and literate world. A sentimental concept. Peace implied withdrawal from life with its tensions and its responsibilities. I described the landscape of the Northwest, where the poem was set, the perfect place to escape to, to escape in. Then I brought them to two small rural towns not more than an hour’s drive from the said Lake Isle. Enniskillen and Omagh. I described what happened there. And they knew exactly what I meant. They had been there, except the names were different, Peshawar, Rawalpindi. And I put it to them that Peace could never be established by withdrawal from the world. And if peace was viewed merely as the absence of violence, or as an intermission between wars, there was no hope. Only a philosophy of engagement with the world had any chance, a philosophy that had to be more powerful than any creed that had heretofore sent people out to kill one another. That philosophy could not be based in any one religion. It had to transcend all religions. Or else it had to operate on a level that joined all human beings at the most basic level, beneath that benchmark line, where humanity unites us, but  religion or race has not yet defined nor divided us.



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Encountering John McGahern in the Censors’ Basement

26 Upper Pembroke St

The house in Pembroke Street, Dublin, that housed the Censorship of Publications Board, with their stock of banned books in the basement.

This is the text of a piece I wrote for Sunday Miscellany, broadcast on 25 January, 2015. If you wish to listen to the podcast, you can do so by going to the RTE Radio site:


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I first encountered, and fell in love with, John McGahern in a Georgian basement in Dublin in the mid-Sixties. It would probably have qualified as the seediest basement in Dublin at the time. But let me assure you that my infatuation with McGahern was purely literary.


When I signed up for a job in the Civil Service as an 18-year-old, I was allocated to the Department of Justice, and posted to an office upstairs in a house in Pembroke Street. On the Ground Floor of that building was the office of the Censorship Board, and in the Basement, behind locked doors and barred windows, was the store of books that had been banned.


By the 1960’s the banning of books in Ireland had reached its zenith. Thousands of books were banned as ‘indecent or obscene’. Many classics of world literature were unavailable in bookshop or public library. The list included, for example, ‘Brave New World’, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ – which has been studied in our schools for many years now.


This Basement fascinated me, this vault into which the obscenity and iniquity and blasphemy of Ireland was collected, and kept under lock and key, like a silo of chemical weapons, for fear they might escape and contaminate the public. The catalogue of banned books was itself a formidable volume, hundreds of pages in tiny print.


I took an occasional ramble down to the Basement, but always found the door securely locked. My fascination had to be satisfied, however, and so I befriended the man who held the key to this underworld, a jovial old Dubliner called Charlie. When trust and brotherhood were established, I was soon able to express a casual interest in seeing the Censors’ Basement. No problem. Charlie agreed to give me a guided tour on our lunch break the following day.


It was a climactic moment for me as the heavy door creaked open and, obeying a furtive nod from Charlie, I entered Satan’s den. But, after that, it was all anti-climax. The rooms were crammed with books, mostly stacked on the floor, although there were some steel shelves with titles displayed library style. It was as if an original intent towards order had been abandoned to chaos, overwhelmed by the scale of the operation.


Charlie was the only source of order here. He seemed to know what books were in each bundle. He picked some up fondly and passed them to me for inspection. He seemed to have an intimate relationship with each volume, probably a result of having followed it from its original indictment, to its trial by the Board, to its eventual conviction and incarceration. I asked him if he had read many of the books. He shook his head. Reading dirty books was not for him. But he had no problem letting me borrow some.


The first book I borrowed was John McGahern’s ‘The Dark’. Its banning had been a major news story because the author had also been sacked from his job as a teacher. The modern reader would find it hard to see what could prove offensive in this lyrical coming-of-age novel. But I could see exactly, because the copy I was reading was the same copy that had passed around the Censors, and they marked all offending material in heavy blue pencil. A reference to a girl’s breast, for example, was strafed on sight.


Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ proved difficult to decipher, because of the continuous line of blue from beginning to end. But I managed. And progressed to an early novel by Brian Moore, ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’, then to Frank O’Connor, Sean Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty, Benedict Kiely, Samuel Beckett.


What an introduction for an 18-year-old to the great literature that was barred to everyone else. Charlie eventually tired of coming down to let me browse, and just handed me the key whenever I wanted it. So I regularly spent my lunchtime down there in the bowels of iniquity, blissfully browsing through my private library.


By 1967 the inanity of censorship was being highlighted and criticised. The then Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, Senior, amended the legislation to limit a ban to 12 years. Suddenly all the great works of literature that had been banned over decades were released from captivity and were available in the bookshops.


Because so many great writers had been banned, there was a perception that it was a badge of honour to have been numbered among them. Twenty years later I met McGahern in person and became friends. And I put that point to him. From his reaction, I knew I had touched a sore spot. He told me that being banned hurt at the time, hurt deeply. Obviously the wound was still raw, even after twenty years of literary success.


After five years in the Department of Justice, I was moving on too. But it was with a heavy heart that I bade farewell to that wonderful archive of forbidden literature that formed my mind. I often wondered afterwards what happened to those sad volumes marked out for ignominy in unforgiving blue. Did they end up in a furnace somewhere in a final incineration of all our national sin?