Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Mainstream Muslim religious leaders in Pakistan have formed an alliance to openly oppose the Taliban, a development that promises to give authorities broad-based support to fight militants who have imposed a reign of terror on much of the northwest.

In the past, military operations against the Taliban have evoked widespread accusations that the government was fighting Washington’s war, a view reinforced by a belief that dialogue and diplomacy could rein in the Taliban’s more barbarous practices.

The alliance, named the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) was formed Friday in Lahore, Pakistan’s most populous city. It initiated what it called a “Save Pakistan Movement” with the goal of stopping the growing “Talibanization” of the country.

The anti-Taliban alliance consists of eight Pakistani subsects of Barelvi Islam, a tolerant branch of Sunni Islam that is prominent throughout the Indian subcontinent, especially in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

The group says it will “unveil the real face of the Taliban before the public,” such as public executions, beheadings, amputations and floggings.

Fazal Karim, head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, one faction of the anti-Taliban alliance, said: “Those who called themselves Taliban in Swat are terrorists and not humans. There is no room for suicide attacks in Islam.” Mr. Karim is also a member of the Pakistan’s National Assembly,

Word of the alliance comes as Pakistan’s army continued its offensive to push the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, pounding the former resort area with jets and helicopter gunships. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Swat to escape the fighting.

Elsewhere in the North West Frontier Province, a suicide bomber killed at least eight people at a security checkpoint.

The anti-Taliban alliance plans to make its case by delivering sermons at Friday prayers, holding conferences, rallies and lobbying officials in the government and the army.

Participants in the alliance also said they were organizing a convention in Islamabad on Sunday to highlight their concerns, including reports of Taliban sympathizers within the nation’s military and intelligence services.

Mazhar Saeed Kazmi, who heads the Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan, a leading member of the alliance, said the government should differentiate between rebels and patriots and keep the military and intelligence agencies free from sympathizers of the Taliban.

The two main groups of Sunni Muslims on the subcontinent are the Barelvis and Deobandis.

Taliban doctrine represents a violent diversion from Deobandi Islam, not unlike al Qaeda’s doctrine, a violent diversion from the Wahhabi or Salafi fundamentalist strain promoted by Saudi Arabia.

Most of the Afghan Taliban leaders studied at Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan and later came under the influence of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

While there is no census data regarding the different sects, it is thought that Deobandis and Barelvis have equal numbers of adherents in Pakistan. The Deobandis, however, operate about 60 percent of the madrassas, or religious seminaries, the largest form of publicly available education in Pakistan. In recent years, the number of such schools has mushroomed from about 4,000 to 20,000 according to Pakistani authorities.

At the Lahore meeting, Barelvi clerics vowed to support the government and military in rooting out the Taliban from the country and unanimously declared Deobandi leader Sufi Muhammad a “traitor of Islam.”

Mr. Muhammad took up arms in the 1990s to impose militant Islam in Swat, then a tourist haven. He was arrested in early 2002 for leading thousands of Pakistanis to fight the Americans in Afghanistan and freed in 2008 in one of at least three attempts by Pakistani authorities to negotiate a peace deal for Swat.

The Barelvi coalition has also demanded that the state use all resources to bring to justice Mr. Muhammad and Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Mr. Kazmi of the coalition said Barelvi clerics are peaceful and patriotic, and would play their due role in saving the country from the dangers that the Taliban pose.

Fazal Karim, leader of another faction in the alliance, said that the Taliban were the enemies of Islam and Pakistan.

Engineer Sarwat Ejaz, the leader of yet another faction, went further, warning that Barelvi clerics would be compelled to call for an armed movement against the Taliban if the Taliban didn’t stop its advances.

The Barelvi coalition, though supportive of the government, retains the anti-U.S. edge that dominates Islam throughout Pakistan. Mr. Ejaz accused the U.S. of conspiring to cause a war between the Barelvi and Deobandi schools of thought.

Renowned Pakistani analyst, Hassan Askari Rizvi warned that a conflict between Barelvis and Deobandis could have adverse consequences.

“The whole thing may assume a sectarian character and in this case would have negative consequences for Pakistan,” he said. He said government strategy was to use the Barelvi religious groups to protect Muslim shrines.

“If the security forces are able to push back the militants then there would be no problem as there would be no attacks on shrines. But if the government forces do not succeed then naturally there would be more incidents of sectarian violence,” he said. “In the long run it could be problematic. This is double-edged sword.”

Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rahman, a leading Muslim religious scholar in Pakistan and a member of the leading Barelvi group in the coalition, said: “The government got afraid of those who had little nuisance value and militant capacity and under this state started dialogue with them and giving in to their demands and due to this we are facing this menace.”

He added, “We are opposing Taliban on principles. However, we would through peaceful measures persuade the government understand the situation. If a state wants to enter into an agreement with individuals it means the [state] considers the latter a parallel government.”

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