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."
After an outburst of emotional protests by Naeemi's followers over the weekend, officials at his seminary called for calm and restraint. On Monday, hundreds of students in tunics and skullcaps were back in class, rocking and murmuring as they memorized the Koran in open-air pavilions.
In one corner, next to the fresh tomb covered with roses, Naeemi's son Raghib, 37, received a steady stream of mourners, from men in business suits to women in black veils. In an interview, he described his father as a humble, generous soul who loved to ride his motorbike and watch wrestling on television.
"My father was a religious man, but he believed in the writ of the state, he believed in the army, he believed in a stable Pakistan," the younger Naeemi said. "The Taliban only want to bring anarchy and disturbance. My father was against that, and he gave his life for his beliefs. Now it is my duty to carry on his mission."
A moment later, however, he veered into a diatribe against the American, Israeli and Indian intelligence services, accusing them of supporting the Taliban in order to destabilize Pakistan and seize control of its nuclear arsenal. It was an argument his father, who was once jailed for opposing Pakistani cooperation with the U.S. military, made as often as he condemned the Taliban.
In other interviews this week, a cross section of the city's residents expressed remarkably similar opinions, as if reading from a script that portrayed the United States as conspiring against Pakistani Muslims, despite the huge quantities of U.S. economic aid being sent here and the thousands of U.S. troops fighting the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan.
"The problem is that for years, the Pakistani state has promoted Islamic religious orthodoxy and the idea that the West is out to destroy us. This mind-set has been inculcated in an entire generation," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst. "Taliban thinking, more than physical presence, is the greater danger to Pakistan."
Between breaks in their memorization, a cluster of students at the Naeemia seminary spoke of their wish to become clerics and spread Islam. Asked how they felt about other boys being trained to commit suicide bombings, they shook their heads in disapproval, saying it was un-Islamic. But then several spoke up, saying they also hoped to die for Islam.
"We have no fear of martyrdom. It is an honor," said one slender boy of 18.
"Both the Taliban and the Americans want to destroy our country," he added firmly. "Whether we live or die defending our faith, we will be blessed."