Attacks on Pakistan's Sufi Islamic shrines complicate war on militants
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - In case the metal detectors, armed police and iron gate were not enough to deter would-be assailants, caretakers of this city's historic Bari Imam shrine this week added razor wire and four rifle-toting antiterrorism commandos. At the majestic Golra Sharif shrine across town, administrators installed four closed-circuit security cameras and moved parking 100 yards off site.
Across Pakistan, religious institutions are on high alert after a deadly attack Monday at the Baba Farid shrine in Pakpattan, in the eastern province of Punjab, where explosives hidden in milk canisters attached to a motorcycle killed seven people and injured 14. It was the latest assault, authorities said, in a terrorist campaign waged by Muslim extremists against those of their compatriots who favor a moderate strain of Islam known as Sufism.
From December 2007 through this week, there have been at least 28 major attacks on shrines, mosques and other Islamic targets, most of them Sufi, according to a survey by the Long War Journal, an online magazine. All told, at least 643 people have died in the attacks, a number based on a tally from news accounts.
The aim of the extremists, Pakistani government and religious authorities say, is to sow sectarian violence in an ideological struggle for the future of Islam. In the process, the assailants are forcing Pakistan to shift resources away from efforts to combat insurgents who fight U.S. troops from bases along the Afghan border, the officials say.
"They want to convert the war on terror into a sectarian war," said Hamid Saeed Kazmi, Pakistan's minister of religious affairs. "If they create a sectarian issue and things go that way, there will be bloodshed in the whole country, each city and street, and the government will be unable to concentrate operations against the militants in their territories."
Sufism is a mystical interpretation of Islam marked by a more tolerant mind-set than the hard-line version favored by the Pakistani Taliban. Many Pakistanis worship at the shrines dedicated to Sufi saints, a practice that outrages militant Muslim groups that view such displays as sacrilegious.
Though Sufi shrines have been targets of attacks since 2005, when a suicide bomber killed 43 people outside the Bari Imam complex in Islamabad, experts said the assaults used to be concentrated in more remote tribal areas, near militant havens. More recently, the attackers have grown bolder, striking more popular sites in bigger cities, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst who studies terrorism. Last July, two suicide bombers entered the crowded Data Darbar shrine in Lahore, detonating explosives packed with ball bearings. Forty-two people were killed and 180 injured.
"The groups that are doing this are dominated by Taliban who think these shrines, and what happens there, is un-Islamic," Rizvi said. "It's a manifestation of their intolerance and also an attempt to demonstrate to the government that they are alive and kicking and taking the initiative."
The cash-strapped Pakistani government has had trouble summoning the will and resources to fight back. Despite frequent roundups of alleged criminals who are said to be security threats - usually people living in poorer neighborhoods - government officials have been criticized for not doing enough.
With little recourse, shrines have been limiting their hours of operation. In Peshawar, the Rahman Baba shrine, which was bombed in March 2009, has suspended prayer gatherings and musical programs, said caretaker Gauhar Ali Bacha.
The helplessness shown by authorities has angered worshipers. Thousands of protesters demonstrated after the Lahore bombing, some brandishing weapons and calling for armed retaliation.
"We hope such a situation does not come to that pass," said Punjab Home Secretary Shahid Khan, when asked about the potential for sectarian clashes. "We also hope the Sufis, through their own code of conduct, are determined to take the peaceful and nonviolent route."