Pakistani soldiers battling Taliban fighters in the country’s northwestern mountains are getting support from more moderate Muslim clerics who say they, too, fear a militant takeover.
The clerics hail from the more tolerant Barelvi Muslim tradition whose followers in Pakistan far outnumber the extremist strain preached by the Taliban and their allies in al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups in the country. But the Barelvis have usually offered only passive resistance to extremists, reflecting their more inclusive version of Islam.
Now, some prominent Barelvi clerics are publicly supporting the broad military offensive launched last week against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and, in one case, offering to send volunteers to fight. The moves are being greeted as a sign that a growing number of Pakistanis are beginning to realize just how fragile the situation has become after years of ignoring or denying the militant threat.
The offensive in Swat continued Monday with Pakistani fighter jets strafing Taliban positions as soldiers pounded them with artillery. Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, said 700 insurgents had been killed in the past four days, a significantly higher number than previous figures given by the military.
The United Nations said some 360,000 refugees have already fled Swat and two neighboring districts, adding to the half a million Pakistanis who were uprooted in past offensives against the Taliban in the northwest and remain homeless.
Diplomats, analysts and some Pakistani officials say they fear images of refugees in squalid camps could turn public opinion against the offensive and prompt the army to pull back.
That’s happened in the past, and support for the Swat offensive is far from universal, especially among influential religious leaders in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 175 million people.
Pakistan’s largest religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which straddles the country’s competing religious traditions, has demanded the government resume peace talks with the Taliban. Many of the more extreme leaders from the Deobandi and Wahhabi schools that inspire the Taliban and al Qaeda, respectively, support the militants.
But the Barelvis, perhaps trying to ride a wave of public anger over the Taliban’s brutal rule of Swat, are pushing the government to sustain its assault on the Taliban in the valley and eventually widen it to other regions under the sway of the militants.
“We can’t allow the Taliban to take over the country,” said Mufti Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi, a leading Sunni cleric who heads the Darul Uloom Naimia, a major Islamic seminary. Mr. Naeemi is among a group of Barelvi clerics and political parties that on Friday announced the formation of a council whose goal, they said, would be to fight spreading “Talibanization” in Pakistan.
“Taliban are destroying our sacred religious places and killing religious leaders. They are working on an anti-Islam agenda,” Mr. Naeemi said in a telephone interview.
The U.S. pushed hard for Pakistan to move against the Taliban in Swat. But the Barelvi leaders cautioned that their support for the offensive shouldn’t be read as backing for the U.S., which remains deeply unpopular among the vast majority of Pakistanis, many of whom see the fight against the Taliban as America’s war.
The Barelvis, whose tradition is drawn from Islamic Sufi mysticism, believe humans can connect to the divine through holy men or saints, many of whose tombs are now important shrines.
The Taliban and al Qaeda, in contrast, view such practices as heresy and have repeatedly destroyed or taken over Sufi shrines. Such actions have angered many in Pakistan. But the clerics, like most Pakistanis, had until now remained largely silent. But with hundreds of thousands refugees now fleeing Swat, many of them telling tales of the Taliban’s harsh justice — floggings, beheadings and general intimidation — there’s a growing public backlash, and top civilian and military officials say they believe they now have the public support needed for a sustained offensive in Swat.
“It is against Islamic tenants to enforce Shariah through violence,” said Maulana Sarwat Qadri, chief of Sunni Tehrik, a group that in the late 1990s and early 2000s tried to retake mosques it said had been taken over by Deobandi and Wahhabi adherents. Sunni Tehrik had since fallen dormant, but it formed a new political wing over the weekend, and, said Mr. Qadri in a telephone interview, “We are ready to send volunteers to fight along the military against Taliban.”
Barelvis, like the Taliban, are from Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority. The Taliban has also targeted the country’s Shiite Muslim minority — who account for about 20% of the population — repeatedly attacking their mosques.
Non-Muslims have come under assault, too. About 50 Sikhs were expelled from a tribal area by the Taliban last month for refusing to pay special taxes imposed on non-Muslims under the Taliban’s Shariah. And in Swat, about 800 Hindus and Sikhs have fled the valley.
Write to Matthew Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.