The killing of an outspoken anti-Taliban cleric in a suicide-bomb attack in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday has raised the question of whether militants are attempting to stoke sectarian violence as they step up their campaign of terror in Pakistan's towns and cities.
"This certainly has the potential to trigger a level of sectarian violence not seen in the Punjab since the 1980s," says Badar Alam, the Lahore bureau chief of Herald, a leading monthly magazine. But, he adds, "with tactful handling by civil society leaders and condemnations by leaders of all sects, it can be contained."
A simultaneous blast occurred at a mosque in the northwestern town of Nowshera, killing at least three people and injuring more than 100.
According to eyewitnesses the Monitor spoke to at the scene of the Lahore blast, a young man approached the office of cleric Sarfraz Naeemi and blew himself up, killing the religious leader and five others. At least seven more were injured.
Among the most progressive clerics in Pakistan
Dr. Naeemi belonged to the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam and had a reputation as being among the most progressive clerics in the country. He also led a 22-member alliance of religious schools that had branded the Taliban as un-Islamic and supported the government's military operation against them.
In a June 3 rally, Naeemi had suggested that fireband cleric Sufi Mohammad, the spiritual leader of the Taliban in Swat, where the Pakistani military is currently engaged in a major operation against the Taliban, "should wear bangles if he chooses to hide like a woman."
In the aftermath of the blast, students at the Jaamia Naeemia madrassah began mourning loudly, while police started sifting through evidence outside the multicolored facade of the madrassah. With its pink, blue, yellow, and green walls and stained glass windows, its flamboyant appearance is the very antithesis of the hard-line Wahhabi Islam followed by the Taliban.
The students later led a procession onto the street chanting "Death to the Taliban" and "Long live Pakistan," while some burned tires in protest of the police's inability to provide protection.
Lahore police chief Pervez Rathore later insisted that the cleric had refused a personal security assignment.
An ambulance sent to the scene by the Ahl-e-Hadith Youth Forum – a religious group theologically close to the Taliban – was attacked. Stores throughout the Garhi Shahu area of Lahore closed for the day.
Thursday evening, Naeemi's followers staged a sit-in outside the Punjab Assembly building to protest his killing. Pakistan's main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has condemned the killing, terming it a "great national tragedy."
Unity is crucial
Javed Ghamidi, a leading religious scholar and member of Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology, says that unity is now crucial to prevent the issue from spiraling.
"What happened today was a huge tragedy," he says. "It's important for religious scholars to come together now."
While the interests of the militants are served by fomenting violence in Pakistan's settled areas, and they have allied themselves with Sunni extremist groups in Punjab, the latest attacks are also an extension of the Taliban's "war on cities," according to Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent into Chaos."
Alluding to the simultaneous blast that took place in the garrison town of Nowshera, Mr. Rashid says: "What we're seeing here is the war of the cities. It's a concerted effort to cow the populace and the security services, to sap support for the military offensive in Swat."