File photo of Sami-ul-Haq, head of the Defence of Pakistan Council. The cleric, who had close ties to the Afghan Taliban, was assassinated on Nov 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Aarmir Qureshi

The high-profile Islamic cleric and politician Sami-ul-Haq, known for his role in, and influence over the Taliban, was killed in his home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Friday, November 2.

Haq’s killer, the killer’s motive and the killer’s affiliation, remain unknown. But the incident is certain to inflame already high tensions in Pakistan, where Islamic  radicals are demonstrating furiously against a recent court decision to overturn a death sentence on  a Christian woman.

Haq, the head of a prominent Islamic religious school in Pakistan, was known as the “father” of the Taliban movement, dating back to the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  He also founded the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an umbrella grouping of militant groups, in November 2011.

But despite his firebrand reputation, his views had moderated somewhat in recent years, and he favored political processes rather than violent extremism.

The former Pakistani senator, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Sami (JUI-S) political party, and most recently, ally of newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, succumbed to wounds inflicted in a knife attack, his family members confirmed.

Haq’s assassination came amidst a tense standoff between the government and radical Islamist protesters, led by Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), over a Supreme Court verdict that cleared Asia Bibi, a member of Pakistani’s Christian  minority, of blasphemy charges for which she faced the death sentence.

Bibi had become involved in an altercation with Muslim women who chastised her for touching their water bowl. It was alleged, by a local Islamic cleric, that Bibi then blasphemed.

Amid demonstrations, Haq knifed at home

The JUI-S chief’s son Hamid-ul-Haq confirmed that his father had been found wounded by his driver around 6:30 pm local time. He was rushed to hospital where he eventually passed away.

“He wanted to go to the demonstrations against the Asia Bibi verdict, but had to come back [home] because the roads were blocked,” Hamid-ul-Haq said. “The two house helps left for around 15 minutes….when someone came from outside and ‘martyred’ him in a knife attack.”

Haq lodged a first information report (FIR) against unknown persons on Saturday. The report says that the JUI-S founder was stabbed 12 times in the stomach, chest, forehead, and ear.

“It’s a complete failure of the government that the country has reached a stage where nobody is safe on the roads or in their own homes,” Haq added.

The ‘Father of the Taliban’

Sami-ul-Haq was  known as the “Father of the Taliban” for his role in the “holy war” waged by the Taliban, with Western and Pakistani support, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

His name was often preceded by “Maulana,” an honorific title for a religious teacher, as he was a Deobandi cleric. The Deobandi school of Islam, based in India, is known for being highly orthodox; it is a large followings in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Many militants graduated from Haq’s Pakistan religious school, or madrassa, named Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania. It continues to be the alma mater for leaders of various Taliban factions including the Afghan Taliban, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Haq also headed the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defense of Pakistan Council), an umbrella group of radical Islamist groups in response to US forces killing soldiers at a Pakistani check-post. The  Council includes the likes of UN designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, and chief of anti-Shia militant group Ahmed Ludhianvi.

In an interview to the Jamestown Foundation in May 2007, Haq tried to justify the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan and his own stance.

“Well, the Taliban were busy in their studies when the factional wars in Afghanistan reached their climax,” he claimed. “Naturally, when the leaders could not make it, the students had to come to the rescue of the war-torn country. Thus, the Taliban rushed back to rescue their country from the factional fighting.”

He was steadfastly against any US involvement in the region, and bitterly opposed the presence of American troops.

“Similarly, when America attacked Afghanistan in late 2001, the same event happened — it is understandable that when infidels attack a Muslim country, then it is the duty of every Muslim to defend it,” he said. “The US attack on Afghanistan was a clear act of aggression and terrorism. But when someone rises up against US aggression, then he is called a terrorist. It is a strange and illogical philosophy.”

Despite his formidable reputation and appearance – Haq had a bristling red beard, and favored a traditional head dress – he was not nearly as extremist as some. In Pakistan, he was in favor of the political process, rather than violence, and served  multiple terms as a senator.

While maintaining strong fundamentalist views, Haq  issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 2013, in favor of polio vaccinations at a time when other Islamic clerics were opposed to it. He called the objections against vaccinations “false and unfounded”.

It was owing to his influence over the Afghan Taliban that a delegation from the Kabul government met with Sami-ul-Haq last month to ask for his help.  They wanted him to ask the Taliban in Afghanistan to come to the negotiation table.

Haq had expressed his desire for the Afghan jihad to be concluded, which, he hoped, would result in the emergence of a completely independent Afghanistan state that did not rely on the US.

Haq’s  JUI-S, a Deobandi party, was also moving into more mainstream politics.

JUI-S formed an alliance with the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) before this year’s elections. Imran Khan’s party that ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province gave Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania millions of dollars in funding for JUI-S’s electoral support.

The shifting of the Islamist vote from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to the PTI, and newly formed parties like the TLP proved to be crucial in the PTI’s triumph earlier this year. Huq’s JUI-S, however, was prominently absent from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the Islamist coalition that had reunited in the build up to the elections to “establish Sharia in Pakistan,” despite Haq having been one of its founding members.

Condemnations of the murder began pouring in on Friday night. Those condemning the assassination include the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Prime Minister Khan and other leading politicians.

“I condemn [the murder] in the strongest words. It’s a personal tragedy for me,” said Fazl-ur-Rehman, the president of MMA. “I’m spiritually linked to Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania. It’s my alma mater – I studied there for eight years. Everything I am is because of this Dar-ul-Uloom. It’s this nation’s loss, it’s the Muslim [community’s] loss. I stand in solidarity with his family and his party.”

Investigators are not clear who was behind the attack. Wild rumors suggest that Afghan or Indian bodies might be the perpetrators, but as it gather evidence, Islamabad is refraining from making an accusations or allegations.

What is certain is that the assassination is adding fuel to Pakistan’s flames at at time when Islamic fundamentalists are protesting nationwide against the Asia Bibi case.

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