Pakistani singer's killing summons outpouring of grief

The killing of a famous Sufi singer in Pakistan has highlighted continued violence from extremists who many say threaten the country's diverse cultural heritage.

Fareed Khan/AP
People comfort to the brother, center, of famous Sufi singer Amjad Sabri, who was killed by unknown attackers in Karachi, Pakistan, on Wednesday. Police officer Arif Mahar says Sabri was shot several times Wednesday while driving in his car. Sabri's brother, who was also in the car, was wounded.

The killing of a Pakistani Sufi singer on Wednesday was only the most recent death of a high-profile artist or politician working in opposition to extremism, prompting renewed outcry against the Taliban's continuing warfare against the diversity of the country's native cultures.

Amjad Sabri came from a family famous for devotional music. The singer was en route to a recording – he performed daily throughout Ramadan – when militants riding motorcycles ambushed his car in a crowded section of the port city of Karachi and showered it with bullets.

A faction of the Taliban claimed responsibility, denouncing Mr. Sabri as a "blasphemer." Officials were not certain, however, of the claim's authenticity, according to The New York Times. 

Mr. Sabri's style of music, qawwali, derives from Sufiism, a traditional strand of mystic Islam. The genre typically focuses on the love of God or other religious themes, and is central to the worship thousands of Muslims who embrace Islamic mysticism.

Shrines to Sufi saints dot southeast Asia, where the music often performed. Extremist groups such as the Taliban have hit these cultural enclaves with particular force, as they represent a threat to their interpretation of Islam.

Dozens of Sufi shrines have been targeted in previous attacks, and Sabri himself had been named in a blasphemy case in 2014. 

"These attacks have a chilling effect on the pluralism and diversity of religious practice and cultural expression in this part of the world," Pakistani human rights activist Ali Dayan Hasan told The Guardian. "That is very worrying."

Sabri's death was met with an outpouring of grief. 

"By all reports and accounts, Amjad Sabri was a kind and humble man," wrote an editor for Pakistan's The Nation, calling his death "a national loss."

"While we wait to find out why he was killed, the fear gripping the hearts of Pakistanis is that we are losing the brave, the creative, the talented and the outspoken to extremism and crime."

The day after the singer's death, thousands of Pakistanis lined the streets to mark his passing. The tearful mourners showered the vehicle carrying his coffin with rose petals as it passed through the streets on Thursday.

Shops and businesses near the singer's home closed, as mourners gathered around his home to express condolences to his family. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a secular political party, called a three-day mourning period for the singer.

"Amjad Sabri was one of the country's finest qawwals, known for his soul-stirring renditions of mystic poetry, and we failed him by refusing to acknowledge the hate and violence on our streets," The Nation's tribute read. "By promoting this poisonous ideology of a specific, rigid Muslim identity, we silently watch monsters grow."

"Our own dear Amjad Sabri ... was a true lover of God, life and all that’s good," another popular Sufi musician, Arieb Azhar told Agence France-Presse. "His mission of love has tragically been cut short by those who spread hate in the world, and is a great loss for all the divided people of our country."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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