On Friday, media outlets reported that suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Pakistan. The “near simultaneous” blasts occurred in Lahore and Nowshera, a city in NWFP. According to news agencies, a leading moderate cleric was killed in the Lahore bombing. BBC News reported that Sarfraz Naeemi, the senior cleric at the Jaamia Naeemia madrassa in Lahore, “was greeting visitors in his office after Friday prayers when the suicide bomber managed to get inside and detonate explosives.” Naeemi, who had denounced the Taliban as “un-Islamic,” was seriously injured and was said to have died on his way to hospital.
The Associated Press in its coverage spoke to Naeemi’s son Waqar who was close by when the bomber attacked. He said, “I was still in the mosque when I heard a big bang. We rushed toward the office and there was a smell of explosives in the air. There was blood and several people were crying in pain.” The NY Times cited another eyewitness, a student from Naeemi’s madrassa, who told the news agency, “I thought the whole building had collapsed. I rushed down the stairs and when I reached the bottom I saw Naeemi Sahib and three other people injured.” Five people were killed in the Lahore mosque bombing, and 10 were injured, Dawn reported.
The bombing in Nowshera, which occurred a few minutes after the Lahore attack, took place in a military high-security zone, close to an armed forces supply depot. According to BBC News, a van “drove up to the gate of a mosque compound during Friday prayers before the driver detonated the explosives.” The news agency added, “The blast was so powerful that the roof of the mosque collapsed, with many people now feared to be buried under the debris.” The attack killed at least six people and wounded more than 90, reported Pakistani media outlets AAJ Television and Dawn.
Friday’s bombings and the subsequent assassination of Sarfraz Naeemi garnered swift condemnation from government officials and Pakistan’s political figures. GEO News quoted PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who called the killing of Naeemi a “great national tragedy,” asserting his assassins “have proved their enmity with Islam, mankind and Pakistan.” The Times of London noted, “Dr. Naeemi appears to have been targeted because he had been integral in helping to generate political, religious and public support for the army’s campaign in Swat over the last few weeks.” Last month, he established the Sunni Itihad Council, an alliance of 22 Islamic groups and political parties, who explicity oppose the Taliban. The Council, reported the Times, “claims to represent about 85 million Pakistani followers of the moderate Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, which incorporates music and mysticism and venerates saints and their shrines.”
In an interview last month with the Times of London, Naeemi stated, “The Taliban is a stigma on Islam. That is why we will support our Government and our army and their right to destroy the Taleban. We will save Pakistan.” He added, “The Taliban are few but because they have turned to Jihad they are seen more. If there are 100 people in this room and one is waving a gun, then you see the one with the gun.”
The statements made by Naeemi must be remembered in the aftermath of these bombings. Taliban militants are attempting to enforce the perception that they are winning the war by bombing high-profile targets and launching large-scale attacks. And, while these attacks are still damaging because they highlight the cracks in Pakistan’s security apparatus, perceptions do not always mirror reality. These militants are targeting innocent civilians, worshippers during prayer time, and foreign workers who have come to aid the country’s displaced. They are targeting those courageous enough to speak out against them. The commitment of such atrocities is counterproductive because it marginalizes their support. It increasingly seems these militants are grasping at straws and attacking out of a desperation to show they still have the upper hand, rather than acting out of a position of strength.
This week’s string of violence should sway public sentiment further against the Taliban. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Associated Press conducted a string of interviews with more than three dozen Pakistanis across the country, [the AP noted that this was not a scientific poll]. According to the news agency, “not a single person expressed sympathy or allegiance toward the Taliban. The most common answer was the militants should be hunted down and killed.” The AP added, “Certainly, the militants retain some support, particularly in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have used as sanctuary. The extremists would likely retreat to these areas if they continue to suffer defeats elsewhere. But the change in public mood is empowering the army in its offensive against the militants…”
Ultimately, we have gone from a country where many remained ambiguous about the Taliban to a nation where even Nawaz Sharif, who often catered to the right, have denounced their actions. Given that this is as much a war of ideas as it is a tangible offensive, that shift is extremely significant. However, while an increasing number of Pakistanis have decided they are against the Taliban, this does not mean their faith in the government has been renewed in its wake. The state must therefore also work to demonstrate that it can provide services and security to the average Pakistani, particularly those who are displaced and must return home.