Outrage at the Bari Imam shrine

Daily Times, May 28, 2005
Saturday, May 28, 2005 E-Mail this article to a friend Printer Friendly Version
EDITORIAL: Outrage at the Bari Imam shrine

A day after the urs (religious festival) of Bari Imam ended in Islamabad on May 26, a bomb blast at the concluding majlis (religious gathering) at the shrine killed at least 18 devotees; scores of others were wounded in the attack. The shrine is dedicated to a 17th century Sufi, Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, popularly known as Bari Imam. Bari Imam is considered the patron saint of Islamabad.

The Islamabad police chief says that initial findings point to a sectarian suicide attack. This is the strongest possibility given the pattern of past sectarian killings and suicide attacks since 2001. The shrine itself is claimed by both Shia and Barelvi Sunnis but is under the control of the latter since Raja Akram, its caretaker who was killed in February this year, took control during General Zia ul Haq’s time. Now the Barelvis celebrate the urs for a few days and the proceedings are capped after the last day of the festival by the Shia majlis.

At the time of the blast thousands of Shia devotees were attending the majlis while Barelvi devotees who had come for the festival were in the process of leaving. It is important to note that the Sunni-Barelvi denomination, which constitutes the majority of Sunnis in Pakistan, is a moderate, existential creed and has traditionally enjoyed affinity with the Shia community. They are unlike the ahistorical and puritanical salafis of Wahhabi and Deobandi denominations which are rabidly anti-Shia and consider many practices by the Barelvis as bida’ (innovations).

If the police finally determines the blast to be a suicide attack, the modus operandi would neatly fit other such sectarian attacks, mostly on Shia mosques and targets. Some reports suggest that on the final day of the urs some Shia hardliners from the NWFP also made some inflammatory speeches targeted against those Sunni and other denominations that apostatise the Shia. Of course, there are mischievous elements on both sides but two factors cannot be ignored in this regard. The May 27 attack was pre-planned and whoever mounted it could not have done so in the space of 24 hours after listening to the allegedly hard-line speeches by some Shia devotees. Also, the statistics of sectarian attacks clearly show that the Shia community is more sinned against than sinning. Shia retaliation is more focused and normally targets very high-profile Sunni-Deobandi or Wahhabi clerics, the assassination of SSP’s Azim Tariq in October 2003 being a case in point. More recently, in March this year, the Northern Areas IGP, Sakhiullah Tareen, was killed, along with four bodyguards, in an ambush after he led a crackdown in Gilgit in the wake of sectarian riots. Earlier, in January this year, a famous Shia cleric, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, was killed in Gilgit. His killing was followed by the assassination of an SSP cleric in Karachi. Another attempt on a cleric of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid did not succeed.

In February, Raja Akram, the caretaker of the shrine, was gunned down along with some others when a gunman opened fire on a funeral procession. However, police has not been able to ascertain the motive and it is not clear whether it was a sectarian attack.

The attack on Bari Imam came as US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca was concluding a visit to Pakistan. Just a day ahead of the attack, speaking at the National Defence College, General Prevez Musharraf had pointed to internal threats and claimed that his government had largely taken care of elements bent on doing mischief. But it seems that there are many fanatics still out there waiting for the right opportunity to shed blood. The attack also comes in the wake of a fatwa the government extracted from scholars of various denominations condemning sectarian violence and declaring suicide bombing for such a purpose as repugnant to Islam. The edict has already been rejected by various Deobandi scholars and religious leaders.

It is difficult for any government to entirely eradicate the possibility of such attacks. However, the problem needs to be tackled at two levels: at the level of better policing and intelligence gathering; and by making policies that aim at ridding the society of its growing religious radicalism. On both counts the government does not appear to be doing much. General Musharraf continues to fight shy of co-opting moderate, secular parties and there is evidence that his establishment still puts a premium on a linkage with religious parties. This does not bode well for the overall health of the country.

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