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Paris Attack Puts Focus on Threat From Blasphemy Groups

French investigators worked Friday at the site of the stabbing near the former Charlie Hebdo offices, in Paris, with a Pakistani man suspected in the attack.

Photo: ian langsdon/EPA/Shutterstock

A Pakistani immigrant suspected of stabbing two people outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris followed a South Asian Islamic sect that in Pakistan has become increasingly emboldened, and on occasion sparked violence, in defending the central figure in Islam from what adherents see as blasphemous insults.

In a video police say they found on the suspect’s phone and that was released on social media after the attack, a man who says he plans to stage an attack on Friday—when the stabbing occurred—appears to cry as he says he will take revenge for the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which Islam prohibits.

The man then sings in devotional song about the Prophet Muhammad in the video. French police say they believe the suspect is the same as the man in the video.

Charlie Hebdo magazine was the target of a 2015 attack that killed 12 people. ISIS and al Qaeda both claimed attackers were members. The magazine has since moved to a different location. The attack on Friday seriously injured two employees of an unrelated production company who were taking a break outside the building.

In Pakistan, Arshad Mahmood, the father of the suspect in Friday’s attack, identified his son as Ali Hassan, the same name police say the suspect gave when he was apprehended.

Mr. Hassan couldn’t be reached for comment. It couldn’t be determined whether he is represented by a lawyer.

The man in the video identifies himself as Zaher Hassan Mahmood, a name the father said his son sometimes used in France. Police said they found a scanned copy of an identification card of the suspect’s on his phone bearing the same name as the man on the video uses. Mr. Mahmood identified the man in the video as his son.

Mr. Mahmood said his son traveled to France as an immigrant two years ago along with two brothers and received his legal permission to work in the country on the same day as the attack.

Mr. Mahmood, who farms a small plot and lives in a village in central Pakistan, said his son, one of seven children, studied the Quran diligently as a child, prayed regularly and liked to sing religious songs. He said that people in the area were coming to congratulate him on his son’s actions. He said he traveled to France in search of work.

“We are proud of our son. Whatever he did is in his love for Prophet Muhammad,” Mr. Mahmood told The Wall Street Journal. “I say whatever he did is right. There is no comprise on dignity and respect of Prophet Muhammad.”

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

So far no indications have emerged that Mr. Hassan belonged to an extremist organization or network of militants.

The video recording indicated that he follows a strain of Islamic thought centered in South Asia known as the Barelvi tradition, the largest among Pakistani Muslims. The sect, to which the father said his son and the family adhere, focuses on honoring the personality of the Prophet Muhammad.

The sect is overwhelmingly opposed to violence, and hasn’t been linked to militant groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS that have broad anti-Western political agendas.

But experts said the sect has become increasingly aggressive in Pakistan, deploying defense of the Prophet as a tool to gain and motivate followers through accusing others of blasphemy.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that Barelvi Islam has become more assertive in recent years as it has competed for influence with other sects. But the blasphemy issue is also becoming more important to other Muslim traditions, she said.

“There’s been a transformation of Barelvis,” said Ms. Siddiqa. “The blasphemy issue is being weaponized.”

In 2011, a prominent politician, Salmaan Taseer, was killed by a Barelvi who was one of his own police bodyguards. Mr. Taseer had called for reform of laws against blasphemy, which make insults to the Prophet Muhammad a crime punishable by death. Human-rights groups say they are often misused to settle personal disputes.

The man who killed him was transformed into a hero for some Pakistanis. When the killer was convicted of murder and executed, thousands turned out for his funeral.

In Pakistan’s 2018 general election, a new political party of hard-line Barelvis emerged. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which campaigned almost solely on the blasphemy issue, garnered more than two million votes. The party finished third in Pakistan’s most-populous province, Punjab, and won two seats from the city of Karachi for the regional parliament there.

Ejaz Ashrafi, a spokesman for Labbaik, said the group doesn’t call for violence. “However, no Muslim can tolerate such blasphemous acts as making sketches of Prophet Muhammad,” he added.

Earlier this year, an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was accused of blasphemy was shot dead in a courtroom where he was on trial for the offense in the northwestern city of Peshawar. In 2016 in the U.K., a shopkeeper of Pakistani origin was killed over supposed blasphemy by another man of Pakistani origin.

While it is unclear whether these incidents were tied specifically to the Barelvi sect, their focus on blasphemy was seen as influenced by growing intolerance toward perceived insults to the Prophet.

In the video Mr. Hassan said he was a follower of a cleric called Ilyas Qadri, who runs a well-established mainstream Barelvi religious organization based in Pakistan called Dawat-e-Islami. Mr. Qadri has said that supporters shouldn’t turn to violence over blasphemy. A spokesman for the group said that Mr. Hassan wasn’t a member and that they are a peaceful group.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com

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