Islamists exploit sectarian shrine rift in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD | In Sunni Islam, there are two schools of thought about shrines: One is to venerate them; the other is to blow them up.

Multiple suicide bomb attacks on Pakistan’s most sacred Muslim shrine in Lahore, the country’s cultural capital, have exposed this rift between the nation’s two largest Islamic sects.

Members of the Barelvi sect, which esteems shrines, have condemned adherents of Wahhabi, which regards historic sites as idols that should be destroyed and whose followers include elements of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups.

Government officials and analysts say exploiting the differences between the sects is part of a strategy by al Qaeda and its local affiliates to foment unrest and find new sanctuaries in cities, as well as recruit militants.

The July 1 attack on the centuries-old Data Darbar complex, which houses the tomb of Muslim sage Hazrat Ali Hajveri, left 45 people dead and triggered large-scale protests against the provincial government of Punjab for harboring and abetting terrorists.

The attack on the mosque appears to have strengthened anti-Taliban and anti-al Qaeda sentiment in Pakistan, but it also is prompting new fears of large-scale sectarian clashes in Pakistan’s provinces.

Officials in the Pakistani Interior Ministry said the attacks appeared to be tied to an al Qaeda strategy of triggering sectarian clashes. Sectarian strife would destabilize society to the benefit of the terrorists, who would seek to set up bases and sanctuaries in cities.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that repeated attacks from U.S.-operated Predator drones in the country’s remote tribal areas have put al Qaeda and its offshoots under severe pressure to move from the countryside into the cities.

“Obviously, the purpose of the [mosque] bombing was to create chaos, uncertainty, to challenge the state authority and weaken people’s confidence in the state,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst, told The Washington Times.

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