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Pakistani Taliban target Sufi shrines

The puritan code of religious conduct is behind a series of attacks that spark an outcry and condemnation from two leaders.

Residents walk in front of the damaged mausoleum after a bomb blast in Peshawar.
Residents walk in front of the damaged mausoleum after a bomb blast in Peshawar.

ISLAMABAD // The Pakistani Taliban have launched a series of attacks on Sufi shrines around the north-west city of Peshawar that have been linked to a campaign to impose a puritan code of religious conduct. In the highest profile attack to date, militants early on Thursday struck at the shrine of Rehman Baba, a 17th-century Sufi saint and revered poet of the Pashto language. Militants planted explosives against the columns of the mausoleum in Peshawar, causing extensive damage to the structure. It was empty at the time. They struck again late on Thursday, firing rockets at the shrine of Bahadar Baba, located in hills near Nowshera, 40km east of Peshawar.

The bombing of the Rehman Baba mausoleum sparked a public outcry in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, drawing statements of condemnation from the presidents of both countries as well as from the media. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but local journalists believe they could be the work of the Lashkar-i-Islam militant organisation, a Taliban affiliate active in the Khyber tribal agency bordering Peshawar. Known for being media savvy, it has not contradicted press reports of its involvement in the shrine attacks.

Lashkar-i-Islam militants launched two similar attacks last year, including the March killing of at least 10 villagers who tried to stop them from destroying the 400-year-old shrine of Abu Saeed Baba, also near Peshawar. Journalists said that, prior to both high-profile attacks, militants had confronted the shrines' caretakers, warning them to put a stop to religious practices that are frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, such as prayers to the deceased saints and devotion to their living heirs, known locally as piri-faqiri.

"All the Taliban groupings loathe piri-faqiri and are prone to attacking any site that is used to practise it," said Shaukat Khattak, the bureau chief of Samaa TV in Peshawar. Human rights activists said the Taliban had warned against visits to the shrines by women, and linked the attacks with the terms of an agreement struck between the North West Frontier Province government and militant clerics in the restive valley of Swat, 130km north of Islamabad.

The deal with the Tehrik Nifaz-i-Sharia-i-Mohammedi, whose intervention persuaded Taliban militants to declare a ceasefire in February, stipulates the introduction of Islamic courts by March 16. It also requires the expulsion of female dancers, bans music and "vulgar" televised entertainment, requires shops to close at prayer times, and introduces compulsory religious instruction for jailed criminals.

Suspected Lashkar-i-Islam militants had on Thursday also set off three explosive devices at a market at Mardan, 50km north-east of Peshawar, destroying 20 shops selling pirate videos. "Barring women from stepping out of their houses is apparently something that no agreement with the government can talk the militants out of. Today it was Rehman Baba's mausoleum. Tomorrow it will be girls' colleges," said the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement.

Journalists said the militants are pursuing an ideological agenda introduced to the area during the 1980s jihad against Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan by the Takfiri, an Egypt-based militant offshoot of the puritan Salafi school of Islam. Takfiri adherents are notorious for condemning Muslims who do not share their beliefs as apostates. Few of the hundreds of Takfiri Egyptians returned home after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, fearing persecution. Most settled down in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, marrying local women and preaching to an emergent, war-scarred generation.

"They have influenced an entire generation of tribal Pashtun, who now dominate the tribal areas. The outcome is lethal," said Sohail Nasir, a journalist for Nawa-i-Waqt, a nationalist Urdu newspaper. The puritan Takfiri ideology adopted by the Pakistani Taliban militants has repeatedly brought them to conflict with gaddi nashin, the descendants of Sufi saints who yield great political power in Pakistan.

Their ranks include Yusaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the foreign minister. To date, the conflict has been limited to gaddi nashin in the Khyber tribal agency, to the east of Peshawar, and Swat. The commander of Lashkar-i-Islami, Mangal Bagh, had last year expelled Pir Saif-ur-Rehman, a gaddi nashin, after their followers fought armed battles. He now lives in exile in central Punjab province.

Lashkar-i-Islami continues to clash with followers of Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, another leader of Sufi followers in the Khyber Agency who has been appointed a junior minister in the federal cabinet. The Swat Taliban faced their stiffest resistance from Pir Samiullah, a gaddi nashin who had formed a militia of followers and killed about 100 militants. He was shot dead in December in a battle with the Taliban, after army units called in for support went to the wrong location.

His corpse was exhumed by militants and put on display at the main square of Mingora, the capital of Swat region, to be buried later at an undisclosed location. "They violated all the traditions of the area because they did not want his followers to build a shrine," said the widow of a Swat politician assassinated by the Taliban, speaking on condition of anonymity. thussain@thenational.ae