Jul 11, 2010

Expanding the agenda

Attacks on shrines -- the new agenda

By Waqar Gillani

At least 44 people were killed in the suicidal attack on Data Darbar, on July 1, at the time when religious rituals were going on. The attack, first of its kind on any shrine in Punjab, allegedly by the religious extremists working as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was not quite unexpected, going by the reports of the Pakistani security forces. However, it could not be averted. Monday last, the city police chief admitted before the Lahore High Court that it was a major security lapse.

Over the last year or so, Lahore has seen a number of attacks on its security forces and religious places. The most recent few -- on Ahmadiyya worship places and Data Darbar shrine -- are sectarian in nature that killed at least 130 people and injured more than 300, according to the official reports.

Attacks on shrines of Sufi poets and mystics is not a new phenomenon in the history of the TTP-led religious extremism. Sainthood and shrines are a concept in which the Deoband-dominated TTP does not believe in. The concept is also unacceptable to another 'jihadi' outfit, Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), which is predominantly controlled by the Wahabi school of thought. The JuD -- the parent organisation of Lashkar-e-Taiba -- and the al-Qaeda-connected TTP are deadly against shrines and the rituals attached.

A recent publication of one of such banned militant outfits, which claims to be a relief organisation, severely criticised American interest in renovating and preserving shrines of Sufi saints in Pakistan by offering generous financial grants. The said column in the weekly Jarrar (dated April 30, 2010) lashed out at the ruling elite -- the present PM and FM included -- who are the successors of saints and boast a large following in south Punjab's city of Multan also known as the city of saints. It reads, "These rulers receive bagfuls of US dollars for the graves of their forefathers called Pirs, but they have no mercy for thousands of common people who are killed in America's drone attacks in the tribal areas…"

"Attack on places like Data Darbar shouldn't surprise any one, given the present wave of religious militancy," says educationist and analyst A H Nayyar, talking to TNS.

"Some of these militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipah e Sohaba Pakistan and Majlis-e-Tahfuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuwwat have extremist views about their opposing sects. …These people are extremely harsh."

Nayyar gives the example of the killings of Shias in tribal areas by the TTP. "Even in Kurrum Agency where they are in majority, the Shias are savagely hounded and killed.

Similarly, these militants are harsh towards the followers of the Barelvi school of thought, he maintains.

According to official security reports (also available on the internet), rise in suicidal blasts and attacks are gradual but sure. In 2010, till July, there have been a total of 37 terrorist attacks -- big and small -- in the province of Punjab.

Between 2001 and 2005, only seven terrorist incidents were reported in the province but a year later the number went up to 28. In 2008 and 2009, 35 and 45 attacks were reported in Punjab, respectively.

Sectarian attacks are also on the rise and generally TTP and affiliated groups have claimed responsibility for them. Investigating agencies in Punjab believe the trend not only reveals militant groups' affinity of approach to sectarian issues but also a close nexus between Taliban and several major sectarian and militant groups in Punjab. The groups, known as the "Punjabi Taliban", are a splinter group of LeJ, JeM, SSP and many others. However, army and security forces personnel are the prime targets.

TTP, in Punjab, is working in coordination with groups that are anti Sunni Barelvi, anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi, an investigator tells TNS, adding, "This has become a nexus and it is expanding its targets."

As per investigators, 11 major sectarian terrorist attacks have been reported in Punjab over the past five years. These include the ones in Chakwal, Dera Ghazi Khan and other cities. Their sectarian agenda also includes communal targeting like the SSP-led riots against Christians in Gojra, district Toba Tek Singh, and central Punjab and attacking Ahmadis in Lahore, Faisalabad and many other cities in Punjab. They also hit cultural, entertainment and secular symbols -- remember the low-intensity blasts at the music market on Hall Road, Lahore, and five low-intensity blasts in the walled city around the dancing girls' bazaar a couple of months ago. There have also been incidents where threatening letters were sent to the schools asking them to stop cultural and sports activities that involve women.

Though the government agencies are clueless about the July 1 shrine attackers, investigators have found some clues about the Ahmadiyya worship place attackers. Ma'az, one of the attackers arrested from the Model Town worship place in May 28 attacks on Ahmadis, is highly impressed by the JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar. "He is a great admirer [of Azhar] and loves his sermons. He thinks that Ahmadis are wajabul Qatal," an investigator tells TNS.

It is also open that these attackers took shelter for two days at the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Lahore's suburbs. TJ is a known hardliner Deoband organisation which strictly stops paying homage to saints. The attackers also sought refuge in a mosque of Tableghi Jamaat in Lahore for two days before they executed their plan.

"The attack on the shrine is not a surprise, actually. According to reports, there have been 50 attacks on tombs and shrines in NWFP," says Shaukat Javed, former Inspector General of Punjab Police.

He adds that Barelvi congregations have been attacked in Karachi also, a couple of years back. That is why, they choose a mix of public places, tombs and security forces offices. "It is more ideological if you take the example of Iraq," he adds. "This is an ideological war and don't blame it on America, please."

The latest findings by the investigators of Ahmadiyya attacks have also led to the areas of six other local facilitators of these attacks. "They think that Pakistani state and security forces are standing with the infidels like America," says an investigator, adding, "These attackers want to make Islamic Emirates of Pakistan excluding all other sects."

Following the attacks on shrine and pressure from the Sunni Brelvi sect, the government, apparently, has closed the SSP head office in the central Punjab city of Jhang, a move considered discriminatory by the banned outfit. "There will be zero tolerance now. No banned outfit allows is to operate," says Mushtaq Sukhera, regional police office of Faisalabad.

Nayyar believes that this sectarianism will increase after such attacks. "I am sure this will further increase," he says, adding, "It is not an element of surprise. The country has a history of sectarian violence for the last 205 years." He says that you can expect any kind of violence by the religious fanatics. "The solution is to show zero tolerance to any kind of religious extremism." He recalls one incident of 1984 in fro0nt of Badshahi Mosque when there was a serious fight between Deoband and Brelvi.

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