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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.

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Sufis and moderate Sunnis belonging to the looser Barelvi school of thought, meanwhile, are the main roadblock for these stricter versions of Islam to establish hegemony in Pakistan. Barelvis believe in the linked and broken chain of spiritual leaders, reaching ultimately to the prophet Muhammad, who intercedes on their behalf with Allah.

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Particularly infuriating for the Taliban is that the Barelvis are putting up a fight against a militant-approved Islam. Moderate Sunnis belonging to the Barelvi sect have formed an alliance against the Taliban and have been active in protesting the growing Talibanization and militant Islamism for the past year.

"Sufism is a way of life in Pakistan for centuries, unlike decades-old Islamic fundamentalism or militant Islam," says Syed Munir Shah, a Sufi scholar. "They [militant Islamists] want to rule the world by guns and we [Sufis] try to rule the hearts and souls by spreading a message of peace and religious harmony. Sufism is the strongest shield against the militant face of Islam." Still, the shrine attacks are aimed at polarizing Pakistani society, say experts. And militant organizations appear to be stepping it up.

Sectarian violence

Indeed, in addition to such earlier targets as Western institutions, the Pakistani Army, and security agencies advancing the war on terror, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban have homed in on Islamic practices of which they disapprove.

The biggest shrine in Islamabad, Bari Imam, was attacked in 2005, killing 30. Since then, big shrines in Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi have also been targeted, among others across the country.

In December 2008, a spiritual leader named Pir Samiullah belonging to the Barelvi sect, along with seven colleagues, was killed by Taliban militants in Swat Valley for dissenting. His followers buried him, but the Taliban exhumed his body and hanged it publicly. "Fighting us is like negation of [the] Quran," the then-Taliban commander was quoted as saying.

Playing off mixed feelings about US intentions in the region, Al Qalam, a publication of banned militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, recently warned of Americans donating dollars to strengthen the Barelvi school.

"They [the US] want to use the successors of shrines as their partners to counter jihadis.… This is an attempt to destabilize Pakistan as Americans are holding secret meetings with them … it is conspiracy against not just the Mujahideen but also against Pakistan."

In the end though, mainstream Pakistan won't fall for it, says the historian, Mr. Ali, "I believe [the militants' efforts] won't be successful because cultural traditions and values here don't approve of militant Islam."