Although Pakistan's headlines are dominated by the violent excesses of Taliban extremists, the majority of Pakistanis subscribe to the more mystical Sufi tradition of the country's Barelvi school of Islam. And attacks on their places of worship are becoming depressingly familiar. Last Sunday, two bombers attacked the 13th Century Sakhi Sarwar shrine, near the southern Punjabi town of Dera Ghazi Khan, slaughtering 50 people and injuring twice as many. Mercifully, two other bombers failed to detonate their devices, preventing even higher casualties. Still, it was the deadliest assault yet on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan and the sixteenth in the last two years.
The Pakistani Taliban swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack, as they have done for each previous one. Pakistan's Taliban claims the mantle of the hardline Deobandi tradition, with many beliefs in common with the austere Wahabism of Saudi Arabia. They regard the Barelvi, who comprise more than three quarters of Pakistan's Sunni Muslims, as irredeemable heretics. The Barelvis favor a more tolerant approach to Islam, promoting a cult of the Prophet and incorporate folkloric traditions such as seeking intercession from rural saints. Sakhi Sarwar, a mystic who is also revered by some Hindus and Sikhs, is said to grant women a son a local legend that rouses anger among Islam's more literalist adherents, who ascribe such powers only to Allah.
Tensions between Deobandis and Barelvis have punctuated most of Pakistan's history. But with the arrival of al-Qaeda in the country a decade ago, local militants forged links with the global jihadists, their sectarianism sharpened to accept al-Qaeda's "takfiri" worldview that deems adherents of other strains of Islam as deviant apostates worthy of death.
One reason for the uptick in sectarian-based terror attacks may be that the militants' ability to strike the high profile urban targets that once grabbed global headlines has been diminished by Pakistani military offensives in their strongholds over the past two years. "It has become harder for the militants to strike hard targets," says security analyst Ejaz Haider. "Some lessons have been learned from the previous attacks."
So, the militants have, over the past two years, more keenly focused on sectarian attacks. Traditional Shi'ite processions are now routinely targeted by suicide bombers. In May 2010, two mosques of the minority Ahmedi sect were targeted in Lahore, killing 93 people. And there's been an escalation of bombings directed against the majority Barelvis. After attacks on two of their most prominent shrines, Data Darbar in Lahore's old city and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Barelvis came out on to the streets, wielding weapons and vowing revenge against the Taliban. They did not extend blame to the broader spectrum of Deobandis, perhaps wisely evading the beginnings of a more gruesome sectarian conflict that Pakistan can ill-afford.
Not all Barelvis are the models of peace and tolerance that some have portrayed them to be. It was a Barelvi, Mumtaz Qadri, that assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January, for his opposition to Pakistan's prejudicial blasphemy laws. The assassination was applauded by 500 Barelvi scholars in a joint statement. And the Sunni Tehreek, a Barelvi militant outfit, rewarded Qadri's family and threatened Taseer's daughter. While they may favor a more permissive vision of Islam, certain Barelvis are quite capable of violence where they feel the Prophet has been dishonored.
The campaign to defend Pakistan's blasphemy laws from reform has, in fact, united Barelvis and Deobandis since last November. Barelvi anti-Taliban rhetoric was also put on pause. "We had seen the Barelvis getting ready to organize a campaign against the Taliban," observes analyst Nasim Zehra, "but they got sidetracked by the blasphemy issue and this was forgotten." Until last month's assassination of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, the religious right was able to frequently draw tens of thousands on to the streets.
Sectarian hatred aside, rural shrines are a far easier terror target than the more heavily guarded state and economic targets in the cities. Suicide bombers, especially the teenage boys favored by militants, can often evade notice before they reach the target. A crowded space helps secure the militants' aim of causing high casualties. In the case of the Sakhi Sarwar bombers, they only had travel to a relatively short and unimpeded distance from North Waziristan to the edge of Punjab.
The bombings may also be an attempt to relieve pressure from sporadic Army actions against militants in the northern tip of the tribal areas. "Just to remain alive there, the militants have to try and force the government's hand into diminishing pressure," says analyst Haider. "To counter that pressure, they mount attacks in the mainland in the hope of securing some deal back in the tribal areas." By targeting shrines across the country, the militants are able to demonstrate their enduring geographical reach and expose the state's vulnerabilities.
The bad news is that the state is in a poor position to respond. After the latest bombings, Barelvi leaders denounced the Punjab provincial government for failing to provide security at shrines. The Punjab government dismisses the charge. "It's happening all over," says Ahsan Iqbal, a leading politician from the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the ruling party in Punjab. "This is not something that is province-specific." Iqbal casts blame on the federal government for failing to share intelligence. The federal government reverses the charge, and argues that the law and order is a provincial responsibility. What no one seems to be focusing on is the desperate need to enhance the police's capacity, with better equipment, counterterrorism training and an intelligence gathering network that reaches deep into Pakistan's remote areas.