x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Moderates targeted in ideological crossfire

Despite killings, scholars and forces within the government stand against militant minority in the country who would 'break it into pieces'.

Raghib Naeemi took over his father's madrasa after the scholar and antiterrorism advocate was killed by a suicide bomber in his office.
Raghib Naeemi took over his father's madrasa after the scholar and antiterrorism advocate was killed by a suicide bomber in his office.

LAHORE // Pakistani militants have developed a potent method for protecting their ideology: killing off moderate religious rivals. On June 12, a young man entered the sparse office of the Jamia Naeemia madrasa in Lahore. He stood in the doorway and, after verifying that it was Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi, a renowned religious scholar and principal of the madrasa, seated six feet away at a desk, he detonated explosives concealed beneath his salwar kameez.

Naeemi was killed in the blast. His son, Raghib Naeemi, pointed to the spot where his father had sat before the attack. "I heard about the attack in a phone call while I was driving. I realised that I would have to be very calm. So I ordered all of my father's students not to harm anyone, not to start fires, not to kill anyone," he said. Less than two months after the murder, the office has been redecorated and Mr Naeemi has taken over his father's job as head of the madrasa founded by his grandfather.

The only remaining signs of the attack were a police guard at the main door and the blue paint of the office's wooden shutters, which are adorned with ornate images of the Prophet Mohammed's shoe, showing signs of having been peppered by shrapnel. "It is a saying of the Prophet that a love for one's country is part of Islam. My father was a real picture of that saying," said Mr Naeemi, seated in the office. "In his words and his writings he spoke against the evil acts of terrorists and called upon people to morally support the government and army against them."

His father had been part of small religious wave that has surged against militants after being encouraged by unprecedented popular support for military action against the Taliban in Swat valley three months ago. Emboldened by a rare unanimity among the military and the two main political parties, he joined a band of Islamic scholars who convened several meetings and rallies at which he criticised suicide attacks and the beheading of innocent Muslims as un-Islamic.

The loosely knit alliance, belonging to Pakistan's majority Barelvi school, was encouraged to stand up to the militants and to expound an alternative, moderate religious view. The foreign minister, Mahmoud Shah Qureshi, who comes from a family with strong religious ties to the Barelvis and is part of the hierarchy of Sufism in Pakistan, was the most senior official to articulate a common desire to see the country's majority view of Islam standing up to its minority militant rival.

The fundamentalist Deobandi groups, some of which are associated with the Taliban, originally opposed the creation of Pakistan in 1947, which they saw as a roadblock to the creation of a global ummah. Mr Naeemi said that once again the Barelvis are fighting for Pakistan and it is the militants who want to "break it into pieces". Mr Naeemi said the peaceful group of clerics to which his father belonged had not been deterred by his slaying. "They thought by assassinating my father that the movement would cease, but this week a meeting was held in Haripur [near the capital, Islamabad] and the same message against terrorists was given."

The Barelvis are almost totally unarmed in comparison to their militant counterparts who have supported ideologies and political causes which won them guns and funds since the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And yet the militants have crisscrossed the divide and killed on both sides whenever they have felt threatened by a religious figure who has opposed their views.

Maulana Hassan Jan, a highly regarded Deobandi cleric, was assassinated in 2007 after he had condemned suicide attacks. The elder Naeemi was not pro-West. He worked for the cause of Sharia enforcement and was known for taking a bold stance on global issues like victimisation and suppression of Muslim movements and the invasion of Muslim countries. He spoke out against the former military ruler, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and his decision to provide "logistical support" to the US-led coalition in the "war on terror".

For this he was first removed from his job as an official in a government department that oversees religious property and was briefly detained. He was again arrested for protesting against "blasphemous" cartoons published in Denmark. "Since the assassination, people are realising which is the right path. People's eyes have been opened. We don't want confrontation, as we made sure by calming people after the murder, but we must contain this hatred and terrorism," he said.

Mr Naeemi is well aware of Pakistan's swelling population, its poverty, its high levels of illiteracy and the poor prospects that most of its 100 million young people face. Such frustration, he admitted, could drive young men to take desperate actions, but he said that whatever the causes of terrorism, the culprits should be tracked down. "I heard through the media that the Taliban accepted responsibility for the assassination. But the police has so far not told us who is responsible. What are the links between the bomber and the mastermind? We want to know," said Mr Naeemi.

In the madrasa's large courtyard, pupils had hung banners. "Dr Sarfraz was like a solid rock and a light", read one. Another demanded: "The terrorist network should be brought to justice." iwilkinson@thenational.ae