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Islamic militancy

‘Father of the Taliban’ Maulana Sami ul-Haq is stabbed and shot to death in Pakistan attack

  • The killing of Maulana Sami ul-Haq in his home came amid a nationwide eruption of violence over the acquittal of a Christian woman for blasphemy
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 2:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2018, 9:46pm

A Pakistani cleric known as the “father of the Taliban” was stabbed and shot to death in his home outside Islamabad on Friday, his family and aides said.

The killing of Maulana Sami ul-Haq, 82, by unknown assailants came amid a spate of violent nationwide protests by Muslim groups angered at a ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday that acquitted a Christian woman on charges of blasphemy.

It was not immediately clear whether the slaying was related to the ongoing unrest. But aides to Haq said he had attempted to join the protests after weekly prayer services. He had returned home because roads were blocked.

Angry protesters were seen on videos posted on social media smashing and burning cars on the highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

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Haq, a former senator, was the long-time leader of a conservative Sunni Muslim party that preached opposition to the West. For several decades, he ran a seminary in Peshawar near the Afghan border that trained hundreds of young men to join the Taliban forces in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

As news spread of the attack, Pakistani officials and religious leaders expressed shock and sorrow at his death.

“I have great respect for Maulana Sami, and his death is a huge loss to Pakistan,” said Maulana Fazl-Ur Rehman, a leading Sunni religious politician who heads another conservative Sunni party.

Pakistan’s interior minister, Shehyar Afridi, condemned the slaying in a statement and said he “shared the pain” of his family. He said Haq’s religious and political service to the country would be long remembered.

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The news also brought a fresh outbreak of demonstrations on the darkened streets of Islamabad, where protests against the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the high court had erupted Friday, as well as in other cities, for the third day in a row. At 8pm, officials of the federal capital asked residents in an online post to stay home due to the assassination.

Haq’s eldest son, Maulana Hamid ul-Haq, told Pakistani media outlets that his father had been ailing with heart problems and that he was in bed when the attackers came. He said his father’s bodyguard and driver were out at the time. He said Haq was stabbed and probably shot. His body was taken to the Rawalpindi district hospital.

Analysts warned that the slaying could further fuel the religious anti-government violence that has roiled the country in the past week and potentially inflame sectarian tensions as well. Since the Supreme Court ruling in the blasphemy case, thousands of protesters have blocked highways, burning tires and vehicles. They view the acquittal of Bibi as an insult to Islam and the prophet Muhammad.

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Some of the demonstrators and their leaders have demanded that Bibi be put to death. The peasant woman in her early 50s was charged with blasphemy after arguing with some Muslim workers in a field in 2009. She was convicted and sentenced to death. The high court overturned those rulings, prompting some protesters to demand that the justices be killed and that the army rise up in mutiny.

The government has tried to quell the violence peacefully, but the crisis appears to be escalating. Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is now on a visit to Beijing, addressed the nation Wednesday night and appealed to the protesters not to challenge state authority. He emphasised that he and all Pakistani Muslims revere Muhammad and said the protesters’ actions were “deplorable.”

On Thursday, a government negotiating committee met until late at night with the leaders of the anti-blasphemy movement that spearheaded the protests. The talks broke off in failure. The religious group demanded that Bibi be barred from leaving the country, but the government refused.

“This is a very dangerous time, and there is no time to waste,” said analyst Amir Rana. “The government must assemble all religious leaders and tell them to issue a joint statement to call off the protest.”

He added: “The security forces need to move swiftly and control the volatile security situation. If these steps are not taken soon, the situation could turn into sectarian strife that would be hard to control.”

Haq’s killing could “further worsen and deteriorate the current security situation,” said Saad Muhammad, a retired army general. “It is time for the government to end its confusion and indecisiveness. It must restore the government’s writ, and reach out to all political forces to calm the situation before it gets out of control.”

Haq “was not an ordinary man,” Muhammad said. “He was a political and religious leader of great stature, and he had a vast following.” He said Pakistan cannot afford an outbreak of mass political or religious strife, adding: “The government must act to restore law and order before it’s too late.”

Khan’s government, which has been in office less than three months, has been deeply shaken and torn over how to handle the unrest after the high court ruling. The anti-blasphemy movement is led by and largely comprised of mainstream Sunni Muslims, and it has gained millions of fervent supporters with its crusade to defend the honour of the prophet.

Last year, the group staged a three-week protest that blocked the highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Security forces were reluctant to intervene and instead negotiated with the protesters, giving in to some of their demands. Since then, the movement has gained momentum and political strength, doing surprisingly well in provincial and parliamentary races.