Slaying of Cleric Sarfraz Naeemi Shows Taliban Widening Its Targets in Pakistan

A charity worker hands out bread at the famous Data Shrine in Lahore, where authorities fear the Taliban may launch suicide bombings.
A charity worker hands out bread at the famous Data Shrine in Lahore, where authorities fear the Taliban may launch suicide bombings. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan, June 16 -- The modest office where Sarfraz Naeemi kept his library and received visitors seeking spiritual guidance is now a charred hole. The floor is strewn with burned pages, glass shards and ball bearings from a young suicide bomber's lethal vest.

Even though this cultured provincial capital is fast becoming used to bombings, the assassination of Naeemi, a scholarly cleric who promoted religious harmony and spoke out against Taliban extremism, has resonated far beyond the blackened walls and shattered windows of the quiet seminary he headed here.

Naeemi's death Friday has provoked a universal outpouring of grief and condemnation across Pakistan's political and social spectrum. It has marked a turning point in the consolidation of public opinion against the Taliban, a violent Islamist movement that was once fostered by the state and nurtured in similar seminaries.

But the killing of Naeemi, 61, who used the religious title mufti, has also broadened the Taliban insurgents' war against the "infidel" state to include fellow Sunni clerics who defy them. It has raised fears that sectarian violence will erupt in a tolerant, lively metropolis that draws millions of pilgrims to its historic religious shrines.

"Since the death of Mufti Sahib, everyone is frightened of suicide bombings," said Mohammed Shakil, who sells trinkets in the maze of alleys around a 13th-century Shiite shrine. "We are a peaceful community where all faiths respect each other. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Now people are afraid even to come and worship."

Last week, the Taliban issued a public letter against Shiites in a Lahore newspaper, declaring them non-Muslim and ordering them to leave Pakistan, convert or face violent consequences. This week, police have barricaded Lahore's Shiite shrines amid rumors that they will be infiltrated by female suicide bombers. Police now search all worshipers, hustle them through narrow openings and urge them to leave after a few moments.

The famous Data Shrine, where a Sufi saint is buried, has also been barricaded and put under heavy guard. Normally teeming with beggars, pilgrims, addicts, mystics and pickpockets, the vast stone shrine is now almost empty. Police are also camped outside public buildings, and armed commandos await flights at the Lahore airport amid families throwing rose petals at those coming home.

Naeemi's assassination is the latest in a string of audacious, strategically aimed attacks in the Punjab province's capital since March. The attacks included an assault on a police academy, the bombing of an intelligence agency building and a shooting rampage targeting a cricket team from Sri Lanka.

The slaying also came as the army was moving aggressively to confront Taliban forces on their rugged home turf in northwestern Pakistan. By killing Naeemi and asserting responsibility for his death, analysts said, Taliban leaders sought to prove that they could easily retaliate at a distance and had no qualms about eliminating anyone who opposed them.

Naeemi was an obvious target. He came from the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, a moderate sect that has long competed for influence with the harder-line Deobandi sect that spawned the original Taliban in Afghanistan. Naeemi was a leading Barelvi voice against the Taliban, and he had issued a decree against suicide bombings in 2005.

Some observers expressed concern that the growing divisions between the two Sunni sects -- and the strengthening alliance between the Taliban and certain Deobandi groups from Punjab -- could lead to violent clashes, bringing more chaos to a nation on the brink of religious war and economic collapse.

"The state must protect the unarmed clergy against the armed clergy, but without empowering the Barelvis as a counterforce against the Taliban," Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper here, warned in Sunday's lead editorial. The proposal to "fight mullahs with mullahs," he said, will only encourage the world to view Pakistan as a "rogue state which also kills its own people."

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