Attack on Lahore shrine raises concern about sectarian violence in Pakistan

Thousand of Pakistanis protested Friday after militants attacked a Lahore shrine. Debate is intensifying about the potential for a rise in sectarian violence.

By , Correspondent

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    Pakistani Muslim devotees use prayers beads to recite Koranic verses for the victims of Thursday night's bombing, at the shrine of popular saint Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday. Suicide bombers attacked the shrine Thursday, killing 42 people and leaving many injured, while raising the specter of more sectarian violence in Pakistan.
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Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets on Friday demanding better security for places of worship and a crackdown on extremists following twin suicide bomb attacks at the country’s most famous Sufi shrine that have raised concerns about an increasingly sectarian cast to the country's violence.

But some analysts said it would be a mistake to characterize the recent spate of attacks as sectarian, given the one-sided nature of attacks thus far.

“We don’t see violent attacks coming from the other groups. They are coming from one community,” says Rasul Baksh Rais, head of political sciences at the Lahore University for Management Sciences, adding that the militants are finding themselves increasingly unpopular for carrying out such strikes.

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Security was beefed up at mosques and shrines in the cities of Peshawar and Karachi, while protesters at the iconic Data Darbar shrine demanded that the provincial government of Punjab end its alleged sponsorship of terror groups.

Though the Taliban have officially denied responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 42, most analysts believe it to be the work of the so-called “Punjabi Taliban,” an umbrella term used to describe a loose-knit alliance between various sectarian Punjabi militant groups that have in the past been sponsored by the Pakistani government and intelligence agencies.

“Punjabi militants are sectarian in origin, and when they find themselves unable to attack government or security targets, they will lash out at other sects,” says Ashaar Rehman, the Lahore editor of Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily.

Lahore attacks last May

Last May, militants attacked two Ahmadi-sect mosques in Lahore, killing almost 100. Militant groups in Pakistan predominantly follow the conservative Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith strains of Sunni Islam, and view Ahmadis, Shiites, and other strains of Sunnis (such as Sufis) to be heretics.

The Data Darbar shrine is over 900 years old and houses the remains of Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery, a figure revered by Muslims and Hindus alike. Every Thursday night, adherents gather to pray and make their devotions to the saint through dance, in stark contrast to the austere form of Islam practiced by the Taliban. It is the “biggest icon of Lahore,” says Mr. Rehman, and the attack represents a major step-up in what he calls “the battle for competing ideologies.”

The last major attack on a Sufi shrine took place at the Rahman Baba shrine in Peshawar in March 2009.

Outside the Data Darbar shrine on Friday, worshipers lashed out at the government but promised to remain uncowed.

“The government must crack down on all terror being committed against all sects,” said Fazl-e-Kareem, a prominent Barelwi scholar, to a crowd of some 2,000 people. The Barelwi sect accounts for the majority of Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, and its traditions and beliefs are closely associated with Sufism.

Others were keen to point out what they called government hypocrisy. “This is all the fault of the Deobandi extremists whom the government continues to support,” says Muhammad Saleem, a businessman and member of the Sunni Tehrik, a Islamic political organization affiliated with the Barelwi sect.

“They pay the salaries of Jamat-ud-Dawa but fail to protect us,” he added, in reference to the provincial Punjab government’s lack of action against the charitable arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was officially proscribed by a United Nations Security Council resolution but remains a legal organization in Pakistan.

Others in the crowd lashed out at the United States for continuing its drone attacks, which they blamed for destabilizing Pakistan.

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