Pakistan’s sectarian cancer: A national conundrum

By Salman Rafi Sheikh

Neither is it a conspiracy nor an isolated incident of terrorism, the May 13 attack on Ismaili community in Karachi — Pakistan’s most crowded city — is a continuation of a very deeply entrenched, deliberately projected, and systematically breaded phenomenon: religious exclusivism. It is the vibrancy and plurality of Pakistan that the militants wish to destroy. In targeting Ismailis in Karachi, the militants have grotesquely reiterated their message to the country: No one can exist outside the narrow, distorted version of Islam that the militants propagate. The version of Islam that these militant outfits propagate is, in fact, not their own production. It has a history of its own which is independent of these outfits; for, this parochial version of Islam and consequent ideological engineering of Pakistani society were the basic tools the post-colonial state of Pakistan used and deployed with all means at its disposal in its “nation-building” mission.

Over the years, in fact since its creation, Pakistan has been conceptualized as a piece of land achieved for the Muslims and by the Muslims. With the passage of time, this conceptualization of Pakistan was further reduced to certain sects, resulting in the exclusion of Muslims belonging to other sects. This exclusivism, which actually was nourished by certain political regimes, especially military dictators such as Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, for certain political ends has resulted in a highly stratified society which places Sunni Muslims on top position while other sectarian and religious minorities, especially Christians, are forced to bear the brunt of their “non-conformity” with the State sponsored religious sect or religion.

Given the peculiarity of Pakistani State’s relationship with a particular sect, it is not a coincidence that in an overwhelming majority of the cases of religious and sectarian terrorism, religious and sectarian minorities have been targeted, especially since the beginning of the so-called “war against terrorism.” Again, it is not a mere coincidence that almost all of the organizations involved in terrorism were actually established, trained and funded by Pakistani state in the name of doing “jihad” in Afghanistan during Soviet-Afghan war, and after it in Kashmir in 1990s. Many of these organizations continue to operate under the state patronage and enjoy a sort immunity against prosecution.

These organizations are especially conspicuous in ‘peripheral’ areas of Pakistan such as Balochistan where sectarianism has deliberately been ‘implanted’ to wean Baloch youth away from participating in ‘Baloch National Movement.’ As a matter of fact, until a few years ago, Balochistan was relatively free from sectarian killings. However, today it has become one of the most dangerous places on the earth for a sectarian minority, Hazara community, which is a minority sect in Shia sect of Islam. According to some careful estimates, there are hardly any Hazara families left in Balochistan who haven’t lost a family member to sectarian terrorism.  In the Shia-dominated Mari Abad quarter of Quetta, each family has tales of death and exile to tell us. Sectarian violence — in particular against Shias, who make up roughly 20% of Pakistan’s 200 million people — has claimed thousands of lives in the country over the past decade. In the latest bloodshed, 45 Shias (Ismaili sect of Shia Islam) were massacred in Karachi on Wed., May 13, 2015. The worst atrocities, however, have struck Balochistan, home to some 200,000 Shias, according to local organisations. The constant fear of violence and death is pushing young people from this region towards illegal migration. Unfortunately, this is the only means left for them to survive.

The brutal attack against the Ismaili community also raises some very specific questions in the context of Karachi and the security policy being pursued in the provincial capital specifically and in Pakistan generally. Clearly, whatever the state has done over the last 18 months in Karachi, and in all of Pakistan since the Dec. 16 Peshawar School attack, there is no rational expectation that no more terrorist attacks will occur or that all terrorist attacks will be foiled. That a number of terrorist attacks, causing a huge loss of life, have taken place in various places, poses a serious question on the politico-military strategy being pursued to curb the menace of all forms of terrorism in Pakistan i.e., political, religious and sectarian. Most importantly, it raises a fundamental question about the efficiency of military courts established, as a part of this strategy, to do “speedy justice.” That all forms of terrorist activities continue to take place and that all forms of attacks continue as a matter of routine is a self-evident failure of this very strategy. Many in Pakistan believe that the army, by establishing military courts, has just managed to grab more political power than it ever had in the entire political history of Pakistan.

Given the political underpinnings of the Pakistani army’s fight against terrorism, it can hardly be expected to widen its scope to all types of terrorist outfits in Pakistan. First and foremost, a strategy based on raids, bombing, military operations, arrests and, if necessary, killings can never rescue such neighborhoods from the militants as in the case of Youhana-Abad — a Christian neighborhood in Lahore which was attacked by suicide bombers less than two months ago. The incident was immediately followed by lynching of two Muslim men by Christian mob.  Events that followed this unfortunate incident in the suburbs of the provincial capital reflect precisely how religious terrorism is treated in Pakistan, and how systematic persecution of religious and sectarian minorities is relegated into insignificance.   In the words of one prominent Pakistan academic and journalist, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “to the extent to which Youhana-Abad was talked and written about in the days after the bombings, it was not the death of innocent Christian men, women and children that made the news, but the response of the enraged mob that lynched two men in the aftermath of the church attacks. Deploring the reaction of the mob is one thing, but using the lynching as a pretext to completely erase the bombings from public memory is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.”

This is how apathy to sectarian and religious killings is institutionalized in Pakistan. In response to Wednesday’s attack on Ismailis, a number of conspiracy theories were spread out to reduce the significance of this attack. Some officials were quick to discern a “foreign hand” behind this “unfortunate attack”; while others attributed it to the presence of the ISIL in Pakistan since a pamphlet, showing ISIL’s presence in Pakistan, was found near the attacked bus. Whether or not the ISIL has any presence in Pakistan is a moot question; however, it is certain that some terrorist outfits continue to remain outside of the purview of the state’s definition of terrorism and are therefore ‘free’ to spread extremist thought in Pakistan. As such, it is quite possible that some sectarian-terrorist outfit might have decided to use the ISIL’s name to raise its international profile. And, as a matter of fact, there has been virtually no discernible action against the extremist mosque-madrasah-social welfare network that serves as an indoctrination and recruitment nexus for militants. Even if the ISIL has any presence in Pakistan, it is these very “state friendly” terrorist breeding houses where ISIL would find its best recruits. The state’s action against these “friendly” organizations, such as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), have always largely remained confined, as in this case too, to temporary arrests followed by no investigation and prosecution of any kind.

That the Pakistani State is complicit, if not directly involved, in protecting terrorists/terrorist organizations is quite evident from the fact that even after many years have passed, the murderer of Salman Taser, the ex-Governor of Punjab, has not been hanged by the authorities. That the military courts are as selective in their approach towards awarding capital punishment as the state has been in eliminating terrorist outfits is also evident in this example.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistani state has responded to this yet another ‘incident’ in a very typical manner. So far, what we have heard is that the “scope of investigation” is being widened, probably to stage a few arrests from “friendly” outfits in order to create an atmosphere of (pseudo) “legitimacy” and “authority.” Yet there is nothing new since this follow-up is repeated every time such attacks take place. After each new, grotesque low in the militants` war on Pakistan, the state responds in the same manner. Emergency meetings, long huddles, promises to double down on the existing militarized security strategy and some vague promises about doing something about the peddlers of hate. Not only is this a reflection of Pakistan’s pseudo “war on terror” but also signifies a sad reality: Second-class treatment meted out to religious and sectarian minorities. They do not enjoy “first-class” citizenship in Pakistan and since they are not treated as “full” citizens, their extermination does not evoke the kind of response that an attack on religious majority, for instance, would invoke. It is quite an unfortunate, yet a very consciously injected phenomenon, that in Pakistan, much like Israel, only those people practically enjoy the status of “first class” citizens who adhere to the state-sponsored religious ideology/religion. Not only is it exclusionary but also counter-productive. The unprovoked attack on May 13 on the most peaceful community in Pakistan is yet another manifestation of Pakistan’s gruesome ideological premises and the way it continues to eat into its vitals, destroy its diversity and compartmentalize society into mutually exclusive, hostile, and vertically arranged sections.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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