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Pakistan: Shrines under attack

By Farooq Sulehria

The Oct 7 attack on the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, which left ten people dead, was yet another deadly episode driven by fanatical hatred. By desecrating saintly shrines considered holy by millions of Pakistanis, a certain variety of puritans want to end the "heretic" practice of what they consider "shrine worship." Last summer, Lahore's most revered shrine, that of Data Shahib, was targeted.

The first bloody attack on a Sufi shrine, in 2005, which drew a great deal of attention in Pakistan, was a suicide assault on Bari Imam, a revered mausoleum atop a lush green hill overlooking Islamabad. Bari Imam, like any Sufi shrine, attracts devotees across the sectarian divide. However, since one particular sect has special veneration for Bari Imam, the incident arguably falls in the sectarian category.

Sufi shrines began to draw puritan wrath in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Much of the media chose to ignore the phenomenon. The reasons might be threats from the Taliban, sympathy for them and a tendency to hush up uneasy questions related to sectarian strife in the country. Another reason why the media ignored the phenomenon might be that almost the entire province is part of Pakistan's "periphery" for many people, so what happens there does not matter very much to them. Hence, there was hardly any debate when terrorists exploded bombs at the shrine of Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba in Peshawar on Dec 18, 2007. The shrine is situated at the GT Road. No causalities were reported, though.

The second attack on March 3, 2008, at the 400-year-old shrine of Abu Saeed Baba in Bara Tehsil claimed at least 10 lives. The shrine itself was set on fire. The shrine of Ashaab Baba on the outskirts of Peshawar was desecrated in 2008 through detonation of explosives in it. But the police in Buner foiled a bid to demolish the shrine of Hazrat Pir Baba in December 2008.

It was the attack on the legendary Sufi poet Rehman Baba in March 2009 that finally made headlines in a large number of newspapers. The attack on Rehman Baba's mazar could not be ignored.

According to a newspaper report, the shrine's watchman had received a threat from suspected militants on his cell phone three days before the attack. He told police that the attack was meant to discourage the tradition of women making pilgrimages to the grave of Rehman Baba, a 17th century poet revered for his message of love and peace. The high-intensity device almost destroyed the grave of Rehman Baba and the gates of a mosque, a canteen and a conference hall situated in the spacious shrine complex. Police said the bombers had tied explosives around the pillars of the tombs to bring down the mausoleum.

A day after the attack on Rehman Baba's shrine, the shrine of Bahadur Baba in Nowshera was desecrated. In May 2009, Sheikh Omar Baba's shrine in Peshawar was reduced to rubble. Eyewitnesses said the militants moved religious books and copies of the Quran from the shrine to a nearby mosque before the explosion.

To contextualise the attacks on the saintly shrines, one must bear in mind the Taliban's drive in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to rid Pakistani society of "moral ills." The victims of such puritanical campaigns have been "prostitutes," faith-healers (pirs) and musicians. Several leading actors and singers have given up their professions under the pressure of moral policing by the militants, and female dancers were forced to flee Swat district in droves. It was not merely coincidental that the first beheading which occurred in Peshawar was that of a faith healer, Pir Rafiullah, after his kidnapping from Nowshera.

A flurry of attacks on saintly shrines signifies the shift in the character of the sectarian strife in Pakistan. In the 1980s, a conflict between two Muslim sects began to take shape owing to a number of factors: the Afghan war, the arrival of petrodollars in Pakistan and the revolution in Iran. Now two sub-sects of the same faith are on a collision course. Paradoxically, in this war between sub-sects, it is the majority faction that is under attack.

Besides the symbolic shrine attacks in this fight, there have been incidents of outright hostility. On April 9, 2006, a bloody bomb attack on Sunni Tehrik's public meeting held at Karachi's Nishtar Park eliminated the entire ST leadership. Though the blame was conveniently pinned on a Karachi-based party, fingers were also pointed towards a sectarian outfit. A year before, sectarian incidents had left over two dozen people dead in Khyber Agency. This fight between Pir Saif and Mufti Shakir began on the airwaves through FM radios in December 2005. On March 25, 2006, 19 followers of Pir Saif were killed. More lives were lost in revenge killings.

As all these acts of mindless terror motivated by fanatical hatred go on unabated, Pakistan's Deobandi leadership conveniently blames the "foreign hand" (read India) for all these attacks. A section of the media further peddles this conspiracy theory. Thus, as with many other issues, we go into a mode of self-denial. That prevents a debate on a problem going out of control.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:

Source: The News, Pakistan