ISLAMABAD // Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi had organised a gathering of prominent religious scholars last week in Lahore. Speakers at the Save Pakistan Convention lambasted the Taliban, calling them "anti-Pakistan" and "anti-Islam". Amid boisterous sloganeering, attendees, belonging to several religious parties, called for the elimination of the Taliban. Two days later, Naeemi, a prominent cleric who was at the forefront of a forceful campaign by religious scholars against militancy and suicide bombings, was assassinated.
A young boy detonated explosives after walking into Naeemi's office, located at his religious school, Darul Uloom Jamia Naeemia, in Lahore. Five people, including Naeemi, were killed in the attack and five others were wounded. While the assassination underscored the Taliban's drive to eliminate their opponents, it also signified that their war has moved on to ideological fronts: the assassination of Naeemi is being seen as an attempt to exacerbate the divides that exist within different schools of Sunni Islam.
Naeemi belonged to the Barelvi school of thought while the Taliban are followers of the Deobandi school, a radical, revivalist version of Islam that approves of militancy and which is popular in south Asia. The foot soldiers of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were mostly students of Deobandi madrassas. Though no accurate statistics are available, it is estimated that more than 75 per cent of Pakistan's population adheres to the Barelvi school of thought. Punjab, the country's most prosperous and populated province, has a Barelvi majority.
Barelvis believe in mysticism, revere saints and shrines and are considered to be tolerant and accommodating of other faiths. But of late, religious and political Barelvi leaders have become more outspoken and thrown their moral weight behind the government campaign against the Taliban. They have arranged dozens of meetings, seminars and rallies around Pakistan shunning militancy and have spoken out against suicide bombings and attacks on shrines and tombs.
"No religious institution of the Barelvi school of thought condones militancy. Barelvi adhere to mysticism," said Sahibzada Fazal Kareem, a member of parliament and head of the Sunni Ittihad Council, an alliance of eight religious parties opposed to the Taliban. Mr Kareem was the chief guest at Naeemi's Save Pakistan Convention last week. Last month in Islamabad, Mr Kareem himself organised a convention, which was attended by 5,000 Barelvi religious scholars and which adopted a unanimous resolution stating that suicide attacks and beheadings were un-Islamic. It also supported the military offensive against the Taliban in the restive northern valley of Swat.
"Some armed people in the name of Taliban have challenged the writ of Pakistan, challenged the constitution and challenged the judiciary," Mr Kareem said. "It seems their links are with such groups who want Pakistan to be destabilised. "We don't want to see a weakened Pakistan. We don't want Pakistan in the hands of those who are maligning Islam. Slitting of throats, destroying schools, targeting westerners, keeping girls away from getting education, targeting police stations and security forces is openly challenging the writ of the government," he said.
Barelvi leaders accuse the Taliban of getting funds from India, Israel and even the United States. They claim the Taliban want to destabilise Pakistan in a grand international conspiracy that is aimed at taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons. "People have witnessed the Taliban's brand of Islam. They came in Swat in the name of Islam but started extortions and abductions." Mr Kareem said his party is not against Deobandis in general but only those using violence and extremism for political purposes.
Still, several potentially inflammable differences between Barelvi and Deobandi do exist and clashes between the two have occurred in the past. Pakistani media reported that in April, Deobandi activists tried to take over Barelvi mosques and religious schools in the southern part of Punjab province, and the Taliban have already targeted shrines and tombs of saints in the north-west of the country.
Mr Kareem said the unequivocal opposition of Barelvi religious leaders to the Taliban made it inevitable they would be targeted, adding that he had received several threats. "But I am not afraid," he said. This month, the government announced the formation of a seven-member Sufi Advisory Council, which was given a mandate to promote the tolerant Sufi version of Islam in order to stop the "Talibanisation" of the country.
Some analysts have warned the government against supporting one group over the other. Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust, a book about Islam in Pakistan that will be published in October, said doing so would further politicise Islam in the country. "Naeemi's tragic killing is yet another attempt by the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan [the Pakistani Taliban] to try and turn their criminal enterprise into a religious war - a temptation Pakistanis must resist," Eteraz said.
"Pakistan must not be reduced to Barelvi versus other religious denominations because when the criminals are put away, all of these groups will have to find a way to live together as citizens of the same state". email@example.com