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In Pakistan, militant attacks on Sufi shrines on the rise

Al-Qaeda-linked militants are stepping up their attacks on Sufi shrines, possibly as part of an effort to impose a more fundamentalist Islamic practice on the country.

By Owais TohidCorrespondent / November 5, 2010

A woman mourns the death of her husband who was killed by an explosion a day earlier at the Shrine of Sufi Saint Fareed Shakar Ganj, in Pak Pattan, located in Punjab province on Oct. 26.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

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Karachi, Pakistan

Shrines in Pakistan are spectacles of devotional singing and dancing, colorful garlands, and decorative tokens of vows to Sufi saints, often festive spots for families to gather and devotees to perform. But under increasing threat by Al Qaeda-linked militants, they have also become danger zones.

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More than 70 suicide attacks at shrines have killed hundreds of worshipers in Pakistan since 2005, but the attacks have escalated recently, and the revelry has been increasingly replaced by metal detectors, paramilitary troops, and shrapnel.

In October alone, the Pakistani Taliban were believed to have been behind the deaths of some 17 pilgrims and the injuring of 100 more in separate bombings in two cities.

The motivation for these attacks might get lost in international headlines, but they are an indication of the brewing cultural war for the direction of Islam in Pakistan.

From Iraq to Pakistan

That war has crossed borders. Attacks by militants on Shiite shrines in Iraq, it is believed, began as a way to exploit Shiite Sunni sectarianism. Since then, shrine attacks have been used in Pakistan by Al Qaeda-linked militants to edge out both moderate Sunnis and devout Shiites and push a militant-approved version of Islam on Pakistan, say analysts.

"They want to capture the country by imposing their militant ideology. They want to silence the [dissenting, moderate] voices by eliminating them. They want to frighten common men," says Lahore-based analyst and leading historian Mubarak Ali.

Who's who

Behind this extremist push are two strict branches of Sunni Islam: the Wahhabis and Deobandis. Members of Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban all generally belong to one of these though they hail from different countries. Both sects take a literalist approach to Islamic texts, are widely considered extremist, and view visiting shrines and worshipping saints as heresy.

The Wahhabi is the dominant faith in Saudi Arabia, while the Deobandi, a similar sect, is found in Pakistan and India. During the 1980s, Deobandis and the Wahhabis linked to help then-military ruler Zia-ul-Haq counter Shiite influence in the wake of the Iranian revolution.

They helped establish thousands of fundamentalist madrasas, mostly run by the religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam all over the country. It is believed that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar revitalized the links between the two groups during the current Afghan war.

Road block to extremism?

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