LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - The son of one of Pakistan’s most prominent anti-Taliban Muslim clerics fears that his father’s murder by a suicide bomber a week ago could spark more sectarian violence in a country already riven by conflict.
Sitting by his father’s rose-covered mud grave, Raghib Naeemi is still receiving a stream of mourners a week after his father, Sarfraz Naeemi, was blown up in his office at his mosque complex in the eastern city of Lahore.
His murder came as security forces have been fighting to stem the growing influence of the Taliban, a fight that has sent jitters across Pakistan and raised international concern for the stability of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
Naeemi, 61, was a senior cleric of the moderate Barelvi branch of Islam and an outspoken critic of the Pakistani Taliban and their suicide bombing campaign.
“I have tried my best to restrain followers of my father and I will continue to do so but we are fearful that this could turn into a sectarian issue. The government should take concrete measures to avoid it,” Raghib told Reuters in an interview.
“We will not allow the conspiracy to stir sectarianism to succeed,” Raghib said later in a sermon on Friday.
Government forces have secured much of the scenic Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, which the Taliban had virtually taken over and turned into a stronghold.
The government plans to extend the offensive to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud’s main stronghold in South Waziristan, an ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghan border.
Naeemi had unequivocally supported the government offensive and was an outspoken critic of Mehsud.
“My father was targeted because of his fatwa that suicide attacks are forbidden in Islam,” said Raghib, who is now running Naeemi’s religious school. A fatwa is a religious decree.
“My father believed that this is the last war for the survival of Pakistan. If our army or government lost this war then we would lose Pakistan,” he said.
A day after Naeemi was killed, the military sent aircraft to attack Mehsud and his fighters in South Waziristan in retaliation.
Pakistani Sunni Muslims are predominantly moderate Barelvis but the hardline, austere Deobandi sect grew in strength in the 1980s during an Islamisation drive by then military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Pakistan, with the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia, fostered radical Deobandi groups and encouraged them to fight Soviet forces then occupying neighboring Afghanistan.
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s gave another boost to Deobandi groups in Pakistan.
Naeemi’s death has been widely condemned, even by some rivals, but some people suspect his murder might have been aimed at inciting sectarian violence in a country racked by rivalry between militants from the Sunni and minority Shiite faiths.
“After the death of Sarfraz Naeemi, the Barelvi-Deobandi issue has sharpened,” said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
“If such incidents happen again then I’m afraid the situation could be aggravated,” he said.
The offensive against the Taliban has widespread public support and Rizvi said Naeemi’s killing had bolstered that.
“I was shocked to learn of the death of Mufti Naeemi,” said Lahore grocery-shop owner Iqbal Ahmed, using a title for a religious scholar.
“Since his death I fully support the operation against the Taliban because Mufti Naeemi never preached hatred.”
But Naeemi’s murder has also spread fear among his moderate colleagues.
“I myself have received threats,” said Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a scholar who heads a Barelvi alliance of religious schools.
“I have no security at home or at my madrasa,” he told Reuters by telephone from Karachi, adding that alliance leaders were due to meet on Saturday in Lahore to discuss the danger.
A government official involved with security said authorities were providing protection but clerics had to take care.
“They should keep a low profile ... restrict their movements and keep their travel plans confidential,” said the official.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait