STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a vital reality about the troubled nation of Pakistan. The most common victims of Islamist extremists in that country are the extremists' fellow Muslims. Attacks by the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups dominate headlines about Pakistan yet most Pakistanis follow a different form of Islam - more moderate and peculiar to South Asia. To extremists moderation makes Muslims into targets. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're climbing a hill. Our destination is a small shrine on top. The shrine has a dome, decorated with green flags and tiny minarets.
Inside is a tomb. On it, a woman places candies and rose petals and kneels down to pray. This tomb contains the remains of an ancient saint, says Mohammed Riaz, a local elder.
MOHAMMED RIAZ: (Through translator) This shrine has been here for at least 400 years - that's what our elders told us. They said the saint of the hill is buried here. People come here to have their wishes fulfilled.
REEVES: Riaz says people from the nearby village come here every day to pray for health and prosperity, for rain and bumper harvests. Until recently, no one interfered. Then, says Riaz, out of the blue, the shrine, the saint of the hill, was attacked.
RIAZ: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: One night after midnight, some men climbed the hill and started digging up the tomb. They did a lot of damage. When locals found out, there was an uproar, says Iftikhar ul-Haq, another villager.
IFTIKHAR UL-HAQ: (Through translator) People here were very angry. They held a procession to the local police chief's house to complain.
REEVES: The villagers are in no doubt who did it. They blame ultraconservative Muslims, who consider the practice of praying the saints to be un-Islamic.
UL-HAQ: (Through translator) Tension is rising here because they only consider themselves as Muslim. To them, we are infidels.
REEVES: There are hundreds of thousands of shrines in Pakistan. Praying to saints for miracles is extremely common. It belongs to a salvation variant of Islam, an Islam entwined with Sufi mysticism and ancient folk practices. Its followers are often loosely termed Barelvis. Barelvis are seen as more moderate on most issues than the more puritanical Islamic sects.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
REEVES: Barelvi religious leaders say their kind of Islam is under assault. They say that assault is coming from Deobandis, a catchall term for followers of an ultraconservative school of Islamic thought. This assault's been going on for years, says Maulana Khateeb Mustafai, a leader Barelvi cleric.
MAULANA KHATEEB MUSTAFAI: (Through translator) The They infiltrate Barelvi mosques. They have desecrated and demolished countless shrines. Their organizations are getting support from Arab states. That's why this is happening.
REEVES: Deobandi Islam has long been growing stronger in Pakistan. The rise of Deobandi militants, including the Taliban, plays a role in this. That trend took off here in the 1980s when Pakistan was flooded by Jihadis funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistani governments carried on covertly using Jihadis as proxies in various neighborhood conflicts. Another factor may be at work. Sociologist Mushtaq Gadi says Pakistan's authorities lean towards the more clear-cut doctrine of Deobandi Islam in order to reinforce Pakistan's national identity.
MUSHTAQ GADI: The creation of Pakistan was on the basis of religion. So if the state doesn't patronize puritan, fundamentalist kind of approaches to Islam, the existence of Pakistan, purely on the basis of religion, may be challenged. That is their fear.
REEVES: The battle for the soul of Pakistan is proving deadly. Six people were killed recently near a Sufi shrine in the city of Karachi. Their throats were cut. Many Sufi shrines have been bombed over the last few years. It's believed in Karachi alone hundreds of mosques have been taken over by radicals. Political commentator Talat Masood says one reason Deobandis are generally on the rise is because they have money.
TALAT MASOOD: The money and the financial support that the Deobandis have been receiving is from Saudi Arabia and they flush them with funds.
REEVES: Masood is a retired Pakistani general. He dislikes the direction his country's taking.
MASOOD: It is becoming extremely difficult to swallow this change. Because my concept of Pakistan was so different to what, the way it is drifting, towards such extreme conservatism. And also giving a very poor image of Islam to the rest of the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
REEVES: Small boys crouch over an outdoor tap and scrub their clothes clean. These kids are pupils at a Deobandi madrasa in Jhelum, in the heart of Pakistan's Punjab province. Qari Omar, head of the madrasa's information department, sits cross-legged on the floor of his office. He has a pistol beside him. Pakistan can be a dangerous place, he says. He's been told to have a gun to hand in case anyone attacks the school. Omar doesn't have a lot of time for claims that Deobandis attack shrines and take over Barelvi mosques.
QARI OMAR: (Through translator) These allegations are baseless. On the contrary, we claim that they are taking over our mosques in various areas.
REEVES: But Omar agrees that Deobandis abhor the Barelvi practice of praying to saints.
OMAR: (Through translator) We believe, and the Quran states this, asking anyone other than Allah for help is not right. We do not consider it Islamic because help can only be sought from God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: In Pakistan's capital, the contest for the public's hearts and minds is being fought with decibels. The streets echo to sermons by firebrand Deobandi clerics. Traditional Barelvi Islam is joining the fray.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
REEVES: On a balmy spring evening, hundreds of people sit on the ground in a giant open tent bathed in fairy lights. This is a kind of religious gala. The crowd wave brightly colored flags as a famous Barelvi cleric performs a favorite song. A man meanders through the crowd squirting incense. Young men line up nearby to enter a raffle. The prize is a motorbike. Barelvi organizations hold these crowd-pleasing events quite often. It's partly a way of pushing back against the fundamentalists. They need to do much more than this, says Maulana Tahir Iqbal Chisti, a prominent Barelvi cleric and activist.
MOLANNA TAHIR IKBAL TRUSHTI: (Through translator) All Barelvi organizations do not have any financial support. They are not responding in an organized way, whereas the Deobandis are organized and highly trained ideologically.
REEVES: Back on the hilltop, at the shrine of the saint of the hill, the locals are getting organized. They've rebuilt their broken tomb. And now, says Mohammed Riaz, they have security.
RIAZ: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: My son guards the shrine around the clock, he says. If the extremists come again, every villager will turn out to resist them. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.