Conservative Sunni activism reemerges in heart of Pakistan

By Pamela Constable
Thursday, February 11, 2010

LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- On a narrow lane in a depressed urban neighborhood sits a faded white building, decorated with illustrations of candles, books and a slogan that reads "Love for all, hatred for none."

The school has been shut for months, its students driven away by a campaign of religious ostracism. On the morning of Jan. 5, its former headmaster, a member of the Ahmedi Muslim sect, was shot dead by two young men on motorbikes. No one has identified Mohammed Yusuf's killers, but there is little doubt what motivated them.

"We have been here for 35 years, and things were peaceful. Then this new mullah came and started preaching against us," said Fateh-ud-Din, 32, Yusuf's son, slumped in an empty classroom. "People started insulting us in the streets. The mosque put up a big sign saying we deserved to be killed. Finally, they came after our father."

A handful of radical clerics have been whipping up hostility toward Ahmedi Muslims, who believe in a rival prophet, and other minority sects in this large provincial capital. The campaign is but one strand of a broader and potentially more significant trend in the heart of Pakistan: the self-confident reemergence of conservative Sunni Muslim activism.

In recent weeks, even as conservative Sunnis have targeted Muslim minorities, they have also launched a high-profile campaign against Western European laws and practices that they allege are anti-Muslim. They have held peaceful rallies in downtown Lahore, met with journalists and sent delegations to the provincial legislature. Their movement opposes recent bans on veils in Denmark, a prohibition on new minaret construction in Switzerland and the republishing of controversial cartoons mocking Islam in a Norwegian newspaper.

In some ways, the two movements seem contradictory: One shuns and persecutes a Muslim religious minority in Pakistan for believing in a rival prophet; the other decries discrimination against minority Muslim communities abroad. Yet both appeal to religious sentiment to galvanize support even as the nation's army fights Taliban militants in the northwest tribal regions.

"We are against terrorism and the Taliban, and we don't want any conflict with other religions, but the West is playing with our emotions and trying to destroy the peace. They are the real terrorists," said Asim Makhdoom, a cleric from the Jamiat-e-Islami party, who preached against the cartoons and other European actions at a mosque one recent Friday.

Over the past year, a rash of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks across Pakistan have turned public opinion increasingly against Islamic extremism. These activists are trying to appeal to Muslim emotions while distancing themselves from religious violence, even though some have previously condoned it or been linked to terrorist acts.

The driving force behind the anti-cartoon movement is Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a group affiliated with the anti-Indian insurgent militia known as Lashkar-e-Taiba. The militia was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and banned by Pakistan several years ago, but Indian and U.S. officials believe it masterminded a terrorist siege in Mumbai in November 2008 that left 166 people dead.

After the Mumbai attacks, the spiritual leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, cleric Hafiz Saeed, was placed under house arrest. For months, his followers lay low and his spokesmen avoided the press. But with Saeed recently released by Pakistani courts for lack of evidence in the case, his aides and supporters are suddenly accessible and outspoken.

"We believe this is the right time for Muslims across Pakistan and around the world to stand up and show they will not tolerate disrespect," Khalid Hafiz, a political adviser to Saeed, said in a recent interview. He shrugged off questions about the Mumbai attack, saying that the government had failed to prove its case and that the only surviving attacker, a Pakistani man whom Indian authorities traced to Lashkar-e-Taiba through cellphone calls, was unreliable.

"Why blame us? It is all because we support the liberation of Kashmir," Hafiz said, referring to the disputed region between Pakistan and India. He insisted that Jamaat-ud-Dawa had cut all contact with Lashkar-e-Taiba and that the group focuses exclusively on education and charity work.

In raising alarms against anti-Muslim discrimination abroad, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its allies have chosen a distant cause that resonates with Pakistanis nationwide. People here were outraged when a Danish newspaper first published the offending cartoons several years ago, and a TV talk show recently featured two veiled women calling for European governments to "respect civil liberties" and curb "Islamophobia."

In contrast, the leaders of the anti-Ahmedi movement have seized on an issue that deeply divides Muslims here and appeals to a darker, angrier aspect of religious feeling among poor, jobless and frustrated Pakistanis. Posters outside mosques in Yusuf's neighborhood tar Ahmedis as anti-Muslim converters -- a label that implies they deserve death.

The cleric who led the crusade, Maulvi Mohammed Faridi, is staying in a local police station, receiving well-wishers for tea, until things calm down. In a brief interview there, he denounced Ahmedis as "the worst enemies of Islam." He insisted that he had nothing to do with Yusuf's death, but added with a shrug, "If someone got carried away with emotion, what can I say?"

In shops and offices near Yusuf's former school, some residents expressed contempt for Ahmedis, and several younger men seemed itching to take action. A few older people, however, expressed shame over the hysteria and regret over the killing.

"He was a good man and a good teacher. I sent my children to his school, and no one ever tried to convert them," said Sahadat Ali 48, a real estate salesman. "I went to his mourning ceremony, but almost no one else from the neighborhood went. When hatred is created in people's hearts, they stop thinking."

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