A recent bomb attack on a Sunni Muslim evangelical mosque in northwestern Pakistan has raised the possibility that the hardline Taliban are now targeting a puritanical Muslim movement.
The January 16 blast at a mosque in Peshawar, the capital of the insurgency-plagued Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, shocked many as it killed eight members of a pacifist missionary movement that practices a branch of puritanical Sunni Islam also followed by the Taliban. The Deobandi school advocates strict religious observance and attracts a large following across South Asia.
Jamaat-e Tabligh said that the blast at the mosque, which doubles as their preaching center, was caused by a gas cylinder. But Peshawar police investigators said it was a time bomb concealed inside a tin canister usually used to store cooking oil.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the country's largest insurgent faction, was quick to distance itself from the bombing and called it a conspiracy of the country's spy agencies. The group, however, has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and adjoining tribal areas recently.
Mushtaq Yousufzai, a Peshawar-based journalist, says that one theory circulating in the region concludes that the bombing in the mosque was accidental. "The plotters were probably carrying the bomb to attack another target," he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. "They were staying at the evangelical mosque because it is considered a safe hideout."
But he says that many credible observers view the bombing as a warning to the pacifist missionary group. "This was a message to the Jamaat-e Tabligh to back the Taliban's violent campaign in the region."
The discovery of a remote controlled bomb in another Jamaat-e Tabligh mosque in Nowshera, a sprawling garrison city 40 kilometers east of Peshawar, lends credence to this theory. The bombs were defused an hour after the January 16 blast in Peshawar.
The group was first targeted last year when a bomb ripped through the group's mosque in Swat. Twenty-two worshippers were killed and more than 50 injured in the Mingora attack. The city is the center of the northwestern Swat Valley, which was a stronghold of current TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah before a large military offensive dislodged him in 2009.
The emergence of the Taliban has strained the already fragmented Deobandi clerical establishment. The puritanical sect emerged as a 19th century reformist movement in the subcontinent.
Today's Deobandi leaders are divided over whether to back a peaceful struggle for the implementation of Islamic Shariah law through political mobilization and religious observance; or to back the Taliban's armed struggle, which has entailed perpetrating atrocities against civilians.
Following the assassination of many prominent Deobandi clerics, most Pakistani Islamist leaders are afraid to criticize the Taliban. Maulana Amanullah Haqqani, a prominent leader of the Deobandi Jamiat Ulema-e Islam political party, says the attack on Jamaat-e Tabligh was carried by 'enemies of the country' – a euphemism for foreign intelligence services.
He sees no motive for the Taliban to attack the lay missionary group. "They are not involved in sectarianism because they resist meddling in someone else's faith. A true Muslim can't even think of targeting such peaceful people."
The near century-old Jamaat-e Tabligh is one of the largest grassroots Muslim organizations in the world. Millions of its followers, organized in small bands, visit mosques to preach greater observance among Muslims. The group also engages in converting non-Muslims to Islam.
In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e Tabligh has a considerable following in all parts of the country. During recent decades, it has attracted elites beyond its traditional middle-class base. Hundreds of thousands of devotees participate in its annual gathering in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.