Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani cleric known as the "father of the Taliban" was stabbed and shot dead in his home outside Islamabad on Friday, his family and helpers said.
The assassination of Maulana Sami ul-Haq, 82, by unknown assailants came in the wake of violent national protests by Muslim groups angered at a ruling by the Pakistani Supreme Court on Wednesday, in which a Christian woman was acquitted for blasphemy.
It was not immediately clear if the killing was related to the ongoing unrest. However, Haq aides said he had tried to attend the protests after a weekly prayer service. He had returned home because the roads were blocked.
On the highways between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, angry demonstrators were seen on social media videos that smashed and burned cars.
Haq, a former senator, was the longtime leader of a conservative Sunni Muslim party protesting against the West. He led a seminar for several decades in Peshawar near the Afghan border, where hundreds of young men were trained in the 1990s for the Taliban troops in Afghanistan.
The rapid rise of anti-blasphemy demonstrations has led to rivalries and tensions with more fundamentalist Sunni movements, notably the Deobandi school, which believes in armed jihad in defense of Islam. Haq was the best-known leader of this school in Pakistan, and his support of the Afghan Taliban was legendary. Although he declared his support for the recent protests, the current fervor could easily exacerbate these divisions.
Despite his history as a jihadist mentor and preacher, Haq was also a pragmatic politician who spent several terms in parliament. He worked with various governments to promote the mainstreaming of private seminars, and joined the opposition party Pakistan Movement for Justice, which won elections in July. In August, the leader of the party, Imran Khan, became prime minister.
As the news of the attack spread, Pakistani officials and religious leaders expressed shock and sadness at his death.
"I have great respect for Maulana Sami, and his death is a huge loss for Pakistan," said Maulana Fazl-Ur Rehman, a leading Sunni religious leader who heads another conservative Sunni party.
Pakistan Interior Minister Shehyar Afridi condemned the killing in a statement and said he shared "the pain" of his family. He said that Haq's religious and political service to the country will be remembered for a long time.
The news also provoked a renewed outbreak of demonstrations in the dark streets of Islamabad, where protests against the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the Supreme Court had been triggered on Friday and in other cities for the third consecutive day. At 8 pm, officials from the federal capital asked residents in an online post office to stay home because of the murder.
Haq's eldest son, Maulana Hamid ul-Haq, told the Pakistani media that his father had heart problems and he was in bed when the attackers arrived. He said the bodyguard and his father's 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 killings could further fuel religious violence against the government that had spellbound the country last week and may also trigger sectarian tensions. Since the ruling of the Supreme Court in the blasphemy case, thousands of demonstrators have blocked highways, burned tires and vehicles. They consider the acquittal of Bibi as an insult to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
Some demonstrators and their leaders demanded the killing of Bibi. The farmer in her early fifties was charged with blasphemy after arguing with some Muslim workers in a field in 2009. She was convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court overturned these rulings, causing some demonstrators to demand that the judges be killed and the army mutinied.
The government has tried to fight violence peacefully, but the crisis seems to escalate. Khan, who is currently in Beijing, addressed the nation on Wednesday night and appealed to the demonstrators not to demand state power. The PM emphasized that he and all Pakistani Muslims worship Muhammad and that the demonstrators' actions are "unfortunate".
On Thursday, a government negotiating committee met late at night with the leaders of the anti-blasphemy movement that led the protests. The religious group demanded that Bibi not leave the country, but the government refused, and the talks failed.
Late Friday, however, reports emerged that the leaders of the anti-blasphemy movement had reached an agreement with the government to stop the protests following the assassination of Haq.
"This is a very dangerous time and there is no time to lose," said analyst Amir Rana. "The government must bring all religious leaders together and tell them to make a joint statement to stop the protest."
He added, "The security forces must move quickly and control the volatile security situation. If these steps are not taken soon, the situation could turn into a sectarian dispute that would be difficult to control. "
Haq's killing could "further worsen and worsen the current security situation," said Saad Muhammad, a retired army general. "It's time for the government to end its confusion and indecision. It must restore the government's decision and reach out to all political forces to calm the situation before it gets out of hand. "
Haq "was not an ordinary man," said Muhammad. "He was a political and religious leader of great stature and had a large following." He said that Pakistan could not afford an outbreak of political or religious mass disputes. "
The Khan government, which had been in office for less than three months, was deeply shaken by the ruling of the Supreme Court and torn as to how to handle the riots. The anti-blasphemy movement is led by Sunni Muslims and consists largely of them. She has won millions of devotees in her crusade to defend the Prophet's honor.
Last year, the group held a three-week protest that blocked the highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Security forces were reluctant to intervene and instead negotiated with the demonstrators, giving in to some of their demands. Since then, the movement has gained momentum and political strength and has been surprisingly successful in provincial and paramilitary units.
Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.