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Muslim extremists battle moderates

Muslim militants — the Taliban in Pakistan and the Shabab in Somalia — are at war not just with the Western world and their own governments, but also with those practicing homespun, tolerant versions of Islam.

Pakistan: Worshipers still flock to the grave of Rahman Baba, a Muslim mystic revered by millions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But they now pray at a mound of rubble and twisted steel — all that remains of his tomb in Peshawar since militants bombed it in March.

The attack was a sign of the extreme intolerance of militants like the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups, and the threat posed by the insurgency to the religious and cultural heart of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million people that the United States sees as critical in the global fight against Islamic extremism.

While still devout and socially conservative, most Pakistanis follow or are influenced by Islam's mystical path of Sufism. But Sufis are not rising against the militants or even loudly criticizing them, partly due to fear: The Taliban are known to terrorize and kill opponents. And for many ordinary Pakistanis, anger at the Taliban is offset by anger at the United States for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that many view as directed against Muslims.

Experts note the Taliban are primarily a political movement, not a religious one, despite how they present their struggle. "If most of Pakistan believed what the Taliban believe, the story would be over," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the U.S Council on Foreign Relations. "So there is something there, but a lot of it has to do with political control. They use the rhetoric of Islam and claim to follow a pure version of it, but this is not a religious issue."

Somalia: Men of peace, the Sufi clerics suddenly became men of war. Their shrines were being destroyed. Their imams were being murdered. Their tolerant beliefs were under withering attack.

So the moderate Sufi scholars recently did what so many other men have chosen to do in anarchic Somalia: They picked up guns and entered the killing business, in this case to fight back against the Shabab, one of the most fearsome extremist Muslim groups in Africa.

"Clan wars, political wars, we were always careful to stay out of those," said Sheik Omar Mohamed Farah, a Sufi leader. "But this time, it was religious."

The Sufi scholars are part of a broader moderate Islamist movement that Western nations are counting on to repel Somalia's increasingly powerful extremists. Whether Somalia becomes a terrorist incubator and a genuine regional threat, or whether this country finally steadies itself and ends the years of hunger, misery and bloodshed may hinge on who wins these battles in the next few months.

The Sufis have achieved what Somalia's transitional government has not: grass roots support, which explains how they were able to move so quickly from a bunch of men who had never squeezed a trigger before — a rarity in Somalia — into a cohesive fighting force backed by local clans. "We see the Sufis as part of us," said Elmi Hersi Arab, an elder in the battered central Somalia town of Dusa Marreb. "They grew up here."

Muslim extremists battle moderates 05/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:50pm]

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