CHISHTIAN SHARIF, PAKISTAN // Along the highway from Lahore to the southern districts of central Punjab, the phrase "Respect the holy man but bow only to God" is repeatedly painted across walls. The graffiti appears again and again in Okara, Sahiwal, Arifwala, Bahawalnagar, Chishtian Sharif and Hasilpur, all market towns in Pakistan's agricultural hinterland.
Although the slogan may appear to be an innocuous religious sentiment, its background is more ominous: the phrase is the rallying cry of the Ahl-i-Hadith Islamist movement, whose ideology forms the backbone of militant groups that have come to be called the Punjabi Taliban. That suggestion is confirmed at the Chishtian shop of Sultan Ahmad and Co, the area's oldest arms and ammunition sellers. About 20 years earlier, it had been an open-fronted establishment anybody could walk into and buy a 12-bore shotgun for hunting wild boar - notorious as the consumers of the sugar cane grown in nearby villages.
Now, the premises have been moved to a cavernous apartment on the first floor, with access limited by a heavy steel door and a torturously steep staircase. "This is the red zone," said Farooq Sultan, one of two brothers who run the business. "Usually, you would have had to identify yourself to the police guard permanently posted outside, but he's been recalled to help maintain order on Ashura," he said, referring to the 10th day of the Islamic calendar month of Muharram, often a time of sectarian tensions.
Chishtian Sharif is, indeed, in a "red zone" of militant organisations. The Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP), a dreaded Sunni sectarian group with links to al Qa'eda, is headquartered at Bahawalnagar, 55km to the north, where it runs an enormous seminary. A second such facility is located at Faqirwali, a similar distance to the east of Chishtian. However, the graffiti is more likely the work of the Lashkar-i-Taiba, the militant group alleged to have carried out the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.
Sure enough, inquiries in villages along the Murad Canal, which feeds the fields of villages surrounded by the blonde sand dunes of the Roohi Desert, revealed that the Lashkar, or rather the Jama'at-ud-Dawah, its charitable front, has representative offices in every town, and even in some villages. Through local hosts, interview requests were made to recruiters and fund-raisers throughout the area. All of them declined. Then a more discreet inquiry - one in which the term "journalist" was supplanted by "a cousin of such-and-such" - earned a polite invitation for tea in Chak No 206 (rather than names, the villages bear numbers according to their serial location along the canal).
The conversation with Jamal Din "Afghani" was dominated by standard claims that the Jama'at was nothing more than a religious charity and had no links with the Lashkar. "You might be thinking the lounge is lavish for a man in my position. But it's not my house; it belongs to my father and brother. The courtyard of my house is still earthen." The remark brought to mind the false humility of corrupt civil servants across Pakistan, but seemed oddly out of context until Chaudhry Iqbal, the village's lambardar, or headman, clarified.
He said Mr Afghani had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s and had been one of several militant group recruiters active in the area's villages until the government had reined them in 2002. When recruitment was banned, the militant groups switched focus to fund-raising. "Afghani would come to me and other landowning farmers at every harvest to donate grain for the poor and victims of natural disasters, and we would, because it seemed an honest cause. Then we noticed his family home was being rapidly upgraded and got suspicious," Mr Iqbal said.
Subsequent inquiries revealed that much of the donated grain had been diverted to another house, being used as a makeshift store, that had been rented by the Jama'at representative. Mr Iqbal, along with other angry and armed farmers, turned up outside Mr Afghani's house for a showdown. "We got the grain back all right," said Mr Iqbal, a former militant who was recruited by the Jaish-i-Mohammed group and sent to Afghanistan in March 2000 for combat training, but returned home after deciding against a career in jihad.
The Jaish is notorious for launching an abortive attack on the Indian parliament in New Delhi in December 2001 that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war. Mr Iqbal said the incident had been an eye-opener for the people of the area who, with the inquisitiveness characteristic of Punjabi farmers, decided to take a deeper look at the militant groups. They were dismayed, if not shocked, to find that the "pleading, weeping" recruiters and fund-raisers of the Lashkar and the Jaish, which is based 110km south in Bahawalpur, were salaried persons employed for their marketing skills.
The message spread quickly throughout the tightly knit communities of the area, and sympathy and material support for the groups evaporated. "We've got the mullahs' game now," Mr Iqbal said. "No Punjabi in this area will ever be tricked by their theatrics again - unless they're complete morons." firstname.lastname@example.org