Taliban Targets, Pakistan's Sufi Muslims Fight Back

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Pakistani Muslims protest during a rally in Lahore on Oct. 25, 2010, after a bomb attack killed four people at the Baba Farid Sufi shrine in Pakpattan

Just as al-Qaeda's tyrannical puritanism sparked a backlash among the very Sunnis they claimed to be defending in Iraq, so is Taliban violence against Pakistan's Sufi community provoking its adherents to fight back. The dominant form of Sunni Islam among Pakistan's non-Pashtun population is the Barelvi movement, which accommodates many of the rites and practices of Sufism. But the Taliban deem Sufism — particularly its veneration of saints and its devotional singing and dancing — a heresy, and militants have bombed dozens of Sufi shrines and killed hundreds of worshippers since 2005. That onslaught has prompted adherents of the typically nonviolent and politically quiescent sect to begin preparing for battle.

A major turning point in Sufi attitudes came with the twin suicide bombings in July of Lahore's revered Data Darbar shrine, one of the oldest Muslim shrines on the subcontinent. Forty-two people were killed and 180 wounded in a night of carnage. Now, Pakistan's Barelvis are mobilizing to fight back against the extremists, but not with arms. "We're thankful to them, those who started destroying things like the shrines, because they forced us to wake up, come together and confront them, God willing," says Sayyed Safdar Shah Gilani, a Sufi cleric and the central chief organizer of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC). "We [have been] compelled to come out on the streets."

The SIC, a grouping of Barelvi organizations, was formed in May last year "to fight the growing Talibanization" of Pakistan. At its launch, it included eight parties; today it comprises 60 and counting.

On the opposite side of the ideological divide is the minority but politically vocal Deobandi Sunni Islamic sect (named after the movement's original seminary in Deoband, India). Its adherents follow a hard-line, Saudi-inspired version of Islam that is increasingly associated with the Taliban and other allied militant groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many Barelvi clerics, who have traditionally shunned politics, have realized that they need a direct voice in parliament, and plan to field candidates in the next general election. But the polls are years away, and until then, the council plans a nationwide campaign to politically engage its followers and raise awareness about the evils of Taliban ideology. The centerpiece of this campaign will be a "long march" protest, starting in Islamabad on Nov. 27 and winding its way through Punjab to the Data Darbar shrine two days later. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to join the procession, signaling to Pakistan's entrenched politicians the emergence of a new opposition movement.

Despite its ambitions, the new movement is politically untested. Religious parties traditionally garner about 5% to 6% of the ballot, says Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and military analyst in Lahore. "These groups can mobilize people on a religious call, but when it comes to getting votes, religious considerations aren't the only ones on people's minds," he says. Still, he adds, they can agitate and make life difficult for the government even if that ability doesn't translate into legislation.

The new assertiveness from the Barelvis is part of a larger battle over Pakistan's Islamic identity. And it will inevitably become a target for further sectarian violence. "The people, they have seen their future now," says Ragheb Naeemi, the principal of Jamia Naeemia, a prominent Punjabi madrasah, and a member of the SIC. The 37-year-old cleric's father, Sarfraz Naeemi, was assassinated in his office at the madrasah by a suicide bomber last year for his anti-Taliban fatwas. His son is determined to continue his father's campaign. "We were away from the scene and other parties were on the scene, but now the scenario will change, people are motivated."

Among other demands, the SIC seeks a ban on incendiary Deobandi literature, a clampdown on banned extremist groups that have merely changed their names but continue operating unmolested by the authorities, and the monitoring of Pakistanis who have fought in Afghanistan. It also wants stronger police and judicial action against terror suspects, and the establishment of a police unit to root out officers suspected of helping terrorists evade security measures at shrines and other places.

The new movement also hopes to eradicate extremist Saudi religious influence in Pakistan. Salman Ali, 24, a law student and one of the SIC's two youth officers, was at Data Darbar on that fateful night in July, and since then has taken his antiextremism message to colleges, high schools and universities across the country. "I tell them that the Saudi school of thought, the Wahhabi school of thought, is promoting terrorism in Pakistan. More than the dollar, the riyal is destroying Pakistan, and now the people are realizing this," he says. Dressed in slim-fitting black jeans, a tailored black shirt and a sharp black velvet jacket, Ali says he and others like him are "the real Pakistanis," not "the Deobandis and Wahhabis who are representing Pakistan all over the world."

Organizers of the march expect extremist attacks on their protest and have hired private security guards to pat down participants. Unlike the Iraqi sheiks of the Awakening movement who met violence with violence, most of Pakistan's Sufis have refused to take up arms. "Everyone knows that definitely something bad will happen in the long march, but we are going," says Ali. "And if we have to go to God, we will go. But now we have to fight for our country, for the peaceful face of our religion. We are ready for it."