KARACHI: As worshippers answer the call for prayer and walk towards Noor masjid, the evergreen flashpoint in the city between the Deoband and Barelvi sects, the simmering tension is unnerving.
Apart from obstacles such as iron grills and double cross barricades that have been placed on each corner of the three streets that lead up to the mosque near Saddar’s Jublee market area, one has to go through a full body search even before the slippers are taken off outside the place of worship.
The number of security personnel too is overwhelming for a space that hardly occupies 1,500 square yards and can accommodate about half the number of faithful. Dozens of policemen and Rangers have been deployed round-the-clock in the congested neighborhood, including an armored personnel carrier (APC) and three security vans. In fact, even when the namaz begins, one can’t help but feel the presence of men in plain shalwar kameez standing alert inside, guns ready, to jump on anyone who they suspect of causing trouble.
And all this because the two sides, both of which belong to the Sunni school of thought, are battling over possession of the mosque.
Spilling human blood
Naib Imam Abrar Ahmed Shaiq was sitting in his room inside Noor masjid, where a large flag of the banned organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat(ASWJ), hung above his head over the wall. The peculiar flag’s one third section has black and white stripes, the second part is red and the third longest part is green that contains a crescent and a flower in between.
“We don’t think the (Barelvi organization) Sunni Tehrik (ST) is any different from the Shia sect,” he declared.
Shaiq was extremely sad and bitter over the target killing of his friend, Maulvi Ameen, on Oct 5, who like him used to lead prayers at Noor mosque. “Just before Ramadan, Ameen told me he was facing life threats,” he says, adding that his friend, a former member of the SSP, left for Dubai to spend the holy month in peace there and had only recently returned to Pakistan when he was shot dead.
Later, ASWJ chief Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqui along with Jamia Binoria chief Mufti Naeem in a press conference blamed the Sunni Tehrik for the murder and specifically mentioned that Ameen was killed because he was associated with Noor masjid. The Deoband clerics then went on to announce a strike for Oct 7 to mourn his assassination. However, on the same day, Karachi’s landmark shrine, Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine was rocked by two suspected suicide blasts in the evening that killed 9 people.
The Sunni Tehrik immediately put the blame of the blasts on the shoulders of Deoband clerics and their backed organizations. Senior ST leader Shahid Ghauri was one of the first leaders to reach the shrine after the attack and didn’t hesitate for a second to point fingers. In fact, the Sunni Action Committee, a body of Barelvi clerics, named Mufti Naeem as ‘the mastermind’ behind the shrine attacks at a press conference on Tuesday (Oct 12). The SAC claimed that the Ghazi blasts were ‘attacks of revenge’ for Ameen’s murder by the Deoband groups and demanded that the state should ‘free’ Noor masjid from the ‘clutches of terrorists’.
Shaiq in his defence quotes an astronomical figure of 100 people belonging to the Deoband sect being killed in the last one month alone. “But even then we haven’t retaliated to the attacks by force” despite the Deoband-backed organizations being perfectly capable of exacting revenge on the same scale, he claimed.
Authorities are currently investigating both these incidents, Ameen’s murder and the Ghazi shrine blasts, in the backdrop of these developments.
How it began
The lava of the on going tussle has been brewing since early July when the rival sects pounced on each other with sticks, iron rods and guns on the premises of the mosque. The bloody fight which started on the night of Shab-i-Mairaj, the religious occasion when Muslims celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) ascent to the seven skies, had left at least a dozen injured, including one with a gunshot wound.
Authorities had arrested 22 people belonging to the Deoband side in the aftermath and sealed the Noor mosque for a few days. “Our companions were behind bars for 14 days,” says Shaiq, who complained that despite the ‘fact’ that the ST activists had started the fight, none of their people were apprehended.
Deoband clerics, including Jamia Binoria chief Mufti Naeem responded by forming the Sunni Wahdat Council and gave the government a 72-hour ultimatum to reverse their action. They warned that the situation would spiral out of control if their demands weren’t met immediately and went on to accuse the ST, the largest of all the Barelvi organizations with political muscle, of instigating the violence. Maulana Asad Thanvi went as far as to say that ST chief Sarwat Aijaz Qadri himself led his followers to the disputed mosque and directed them to open fire. “The bullet holes on the mosque are still visible,” added Naeem.
Qadri in his defence said that he wasn’t even in Karachi when the trouble started. “We all know which group has a terrorist background and is capable of such violent means,” he added. A ST spokesperson went on to claim that the Noor masjid has been ‘hijacked’ by the SSP and the Deoband clerics have only come out to rescue their “terrorist brothers” named in First Information Reports (FIR). The Sunni Ittehad Council, a conglomeration of the Barelvi groups, then issued a statement, warning that they should “not be pushed into picking up arms.”
The dispute over Noor masjid is actually tied with the history of Sunni Tehrik. The Braelvi organisation had made its first show of strength on December 18, 1992 when it organised a huge rally at MA Jinnah road in Karachi to put pressure on the administration to hand over this mosque. Dozens of people were injured and several vehicles were also burnt in that incident.
Other disputed mosques
Noor masjid, however, is just a case in point. Officials say that there are several dozen such cases all over the city. “The clerics have been fighting over possession of mosques for many years. One can find such cases in almost every district of the city,” says Javed Akbar Riaz, who is the town police officer of the area under which Noor masjid comes in.
The clerics themselves from each side present a long list of masjids and madressahs, which they claim have been either taken over by their rival sect or sealed by the government because of disputes. “We have a list of 27 mosques such as Jamia Noor where we can prove that it belongs to our people belonging to the Deoband school of thought,” says Naeem. Qadri goes a step ahead and claims that the problem dates back to the days of General Zia’s regime, when “thousands of mosques and madressahs across the country which belonged to Barelvis were forcibly taken over by the Deobands.”
The tension is so high that Governor Sindh Ishratul Ibad himself is trying to cool the tempers. Several meetings since July have taken place to break the deadlock. One of the main points being raised by Deoband clerics is that all cases which were registered against their cadres in the aftermath of the Noor mosque clash should be dropped. At the moment, Naeem informed, all their people who were arrested are out on bails. The Barelvi group is pushing for the exact opposite and is also demanding that the disputed mosque should either be handed over to them or sealed until the issue is resolved. The governor has formed a committee to decide all mosque related disputes, informs Naeem, which is expected to call a final meeting soon.
Meanwhile, Sunni Tehrik cadres fear the situation may worsen if issues aren’t resolved soon. Even the ST chief says there is an imminent threat to his life. In a meeting last July at the Qadri house in Nazimabad, he said “The risk to my life has increased manifolds now. The terrorists are out to get me. But I won’t back down. Two tiers of our leadership, including Saleem Qadri, have laid down their lives for our cause and I am ready to sacrifice my life too,” Sarwat Aijaz Qadri said, adding that he was keeping himself confined to his home these days only on the advice of his followers.
Mufti Naeem rejected the suggestion that he was singling out the ST chief because of what he himself had faced at the hands of the Barelvi organizations a few months back. Last March, the Barelvi groups which included leaders from the Sunni Tehrik had organized a large rally outside the New Memon masjid in Karachi, where they not only hanged Naeem’s effigy, but also burnt it. Naeem in an interview back then had termed the action as a death threat to his life.
A high ranking official who wishes to stay anonymous says the situation at the moment is under control. But warns that “eventually both the Deoband and Barelvi leaders will have to realize that they are playing into the hands of vested interests, who want to see sectarian violence between Sunnis spread across the country,” he said.
“If either side doesn’t back down, then remember that every neighborhood in the country has Deoband and Barelvi followers. And once that kind of violence begins, it would be impossible to stop the domino effect.”