Islamists exploit sectarian shrine rift in Pakistan

Attacks aid strategy of unrest

A Pakistani police officer watches over a Sufi shrine that was attacked by suicide bombers July 1. The attack may have strengthened the anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda sentiment in Pakistan, but is also prompting new fears of sectarian clashes. (Associated Press)A Pakistani police officer watches over a Sufi shrine that was attacked by suicide bombers July 1. The attack may have strengthened the anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda sentiment in Pakistan, but is also prompting new fears of sectarian clashes. (Associated Press)
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ISLAMABAD | In Sunni Islam, there are two schools of thought about shrines: One is to venerate them; the other is to blow them up.

Multiple suicide bomb attacks on Pakistan’s most sacred Muslim shrine in Lahore, the country’s cultural capital, have exposed this rift between the nation’s two largest Islamic sects.

Members of the Barelvi sect, which esteems shrines, have condemned adherents of Wahhabi, which regards historic sites as idols that should be destroyed and whose followers include elements of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups.

Government officials and analysts say exploiting the differences between the sects is part of a strategy by al Qaeda and its local affiliates to foment unrest and find new sanctuaries in cities, as well as recruit militants.

The July 1 attack on the centuries-old Data Darbar complex, which houses the tomb of Muslim sage Hazrat Ali Hajveri, left 45 people dead and triggered large-scale protests against the provincial government of Punjab for harboring and abetting terrorists.

The attack on the mosque appears to have strengthened anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda sentiment in Pakistan, but it also is prompting new fears of large-scale sectarian clashes in Pakistan’s provinces.

Officials in the Pakistani Interior Ministry said the attacks appeared to be tied to an al Qaeda strategy of triggering sectarian clashes. Sectarian strife would destabilize society to the benefit of the terrorists, who would seek to set up bases and sanctuaries in cities.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that repeated attacks from U.S.-operated Predator drones in the country’s remote tribal areas have put al Qaeda and its offshoots under severe pressure to move from the countryside into the cities.

“Obviously, the purpose of the [mosque] bombing was to create chaos, uncertainty, to challenge the state authority and weaken people’s confidence in the state,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst, told The Washington Times.

“Yes, al Qaeda has a strategy to destabilize Pakistan, but these groups also have their own agenda. These sectarian groups have been fighting with each other before even some of them came close to al Qaeda,” he said.

“Seemingly, here the agendas of al Qaeda and Pakistani militant groups coincide, and the incident may be the outcome of this. It is unfortunate that the Barelvis are looking at the incident only in sectarian terms.”

Mr. Rizvi said the attack on Data Darbar is expected to worsen sectarian polarization of Pakistani society. Yet there is also a greater realization in the country that these groups must be challenged, he said.

The divide between Barelvi and Wahabi is more than canonical. The Barelvi sect originated in the Indian subcontinent to defend traditional Islamic practices against reform efforts. Wahabi, which has its origins in Saudi Arabia, aims to reform Islam by codifying and enforcing a strict, conservative interpretation of the Koran.

In response to the attack, leaders of Barelvi sect, including 20 political and religious groups called the Sunni Unity Council, launched a nationwide movement this month against what they call the “Talibanization” of the country. They also vowed to take up arms for the battle.

Barelvi leaders blamed Punjab Taliban groups and their al Qaeda allies for the attack on the Lahore shrine, adding that the attack is part of the terrorists’ strategy to control Pakistan.

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