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Islamists exploit sectarian shrine rift in Pakistan

Attacks aid strategy of unrest

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

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.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban, has denied involvement in the attack. The group's spokesman, Azam Tariq, said the attack was masterminded and executed by the U.S. through private defense contractors to create schisms among the local population.

"This is shrewd on the part of TTP, which has been serving as the action arm and mouthpiece of al Qaeda in Pakistan, to cover up for the strategy, as well as to avoid the public anger. Otherwise, the attack has a signature of al Qaeda and TTP on it," said Imran Khan, a local researcher on Taliban and al Qaeda.

While holding the Punjab Taliban responsible for the shrine attack, Barelvi clerics have accused the government of Punjab, the largest province in Pakistan, of supporting Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists, particularly adherents of Jama'at-ud-Da'wah, who organize attacks on shrines.

Jama'at-ud-Da'wah is the alias of the banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan's federal government recently blamed Punjab's government for doling out public money to Jama'at-ud-Da'wah.

India has blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed more than 160 people.

After the shrine attack in Lahore, the chairman of the Sunni Unity Council, Sahibzada Fazal Karim, said Sunnis would continue their protest until the Punjab government cuts off its "links with terrorists" and ousts officials who are "sympathizers of Taliban."

Fauzia Wahab, a spokeswoman for the ruling Pakistan People's Party, accused the Punjab government of supporting Taliban terrorists. Speaking in Lahore, she said Punjab "will have to shun the policy of patronizing militants to curb the menace of terrorism."

Ms. Wahab also chided the Punjab government for providing about $1 million to Jama'at-ud-Da'wah.

Punjab's government is ruled by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which is headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Ousted in a military coup in 1999, Mr. Sharif spent much of his exile in Saudi Arabia and has been accused of receiving financial support from Osama bin Laden. He returned to Pakistan in 2007.

Punjab's governor, Salman Taseer, also has accused his province's elected government of abetting Taliban terrorists.

In an interview with a local TV station, Mr. Taseer said that although several terrorists had been brought to trial, including those who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team last year in Lahore, the government's weak prosecution of their cases allowed the terrorists to be acquitted because of a lack of evidence.

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