SHRINES & VIOLENCE
Religious shrines are being increasingly targeted in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On December 06, 2011, the cities of Kabul and Mazar-iSharif were rocked by powerful explosions that left 58 people dead and several injured. The first blast ripped across the packed Abul Fazal Shrine where Shia mourners gathered for Muharram rituals. A few minutes later, another bomb, tied to a bicycle, exploded in a mosque in Mazar-iSharif as a chanting Shia procession passed by, leaving four people dead.
Commentators all over the world viewed the attacks as signs of an evolving sectarian crisis in Afghanistan. Although Shia leaders in the country labeled the incidents as a strategy to deepen the rift between Sunnis and the Shias, the attacks in Afghanistan beg for attention because of their rarity. Pakistan, on the other hand has witnessed numerous bomb blasts targeting shrines and places of worship, causing many casualties and losses.
In 2010, a suicide attack on Data Darbar in Lahore left more than 40 people dead and caused the shrines to be closed to the public for the first time in centuries due to security rea- sons. In December 2011, a Muharram procession was targeted in Karachi, which left some scouts dead. In April of the same year, an attack during the festival at Sakhi Sarwar Shrine in Punjab left 41 people dead in April.
Modern conflicts have taken new strategies and ethnic tensions readily mix with anti-state rebel forces. Warring groups increasingly use psychological techniques to pressurize governments and the populace while at the same time continue vying for the top slot amongst the same groups. Attacks on shrines are a statement against a particular group of people unlike attacks on market places or in schools. Any group when hit at a place of worship will take the sentiment to the core considering the role religion plays in the lives of people. Historically speaking, invading armies would attack holy places of the conquered as a symbol of victory. Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, describes the current trend of attacking shrines as something inscribed in our unconscious; the religious idea of victory of good against evil.
While the Taliban have not claimed any responsibility of the attacks in Afghanistan, it is the Pakistan-based extremist group Lashkar-e-jhangvi, which has claimed to be behind the blasts stoking new tensions between distrusting neighbors. Afghanistan has always believed that terrorists from across the border have created problems and destabilized the peace process in the war-torn country. The Muharram attacks in Afghanistan have once again provoked international powers to demand Pakistan to ‘do more’ in curbing terrorist and militant outfits that thrive within the state.
It is interesting to note that in recent times banned militant organizations, religious organizations, drug cartels, terrorist outfits or other rebel groups have changed interstate dynamics and will continue to do so in the future… if states fail to contain them. Only last year, Nicaragua’s navy chief claimed that drug cartel “la Familia” in Mexico was running most of the drug business in Central America. Similarly, Sri Lanka blamed India for helping Tamil rebel groups. After
9/11, US waged a war not against Afghanistan per se, but against Al-qaeda and Taliban who represent groups and ideologies rather than states and boundaries. The American mission in their words was more of liberation of the Afghan people and avenging 9/11. The excuse to ‘renew’ diplomatic ties or review relationships between India and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, US and Pakistan is based more on how groups and organizations behave rather than how states behave in themselves.
Following any attack, especially in Pakistan, a synchronized ritual always follows without any change. Government machinery comes out in the open to ‘condemn’ and pledges ‘to teach the perpetrators a lesson.’ Clichéd speeches are made and more than often little or no follow-ups are conducted. The neglect in pursuing those responsible gives terrorist organizations space to spread their networks deeper within the state. Sooner or later, they emerge stronger than state actors in certain areas. The intricacies of modern intra state power grabbing have taken new and complex routes. However complex it might be, organizations of terrorist nature and ambitions can only be controlled by state mechanisms owing to the resources available to them.
Pakistan has long pursued terrorists. From launching an army offensive against the Taliban to beefing up relations with the US, the government claims to be against the war mongering organizations. However, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have often been strained and following the December attacks and Pakistan’s refusal to attend the Bonn Conference, things appear to be gloomier than ever. Tensions escalated to new levels when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar blamed refugees from Afghanistan for disrupting peace in the country sparking an all new debate on the status of refugees.
Attacks on religious venues weaken the state since they bring to the forefront the growing power of anti-state actors and their extensive networks and machinery. However, it also remains true that these attacks and those behind it can be contained only through state intervention given the resources at their disposal. We may write down articles after articles on ‘why’ and ‘how’ but the essential question for states like Afghanistan and Pakistan starts with ‘when.’ Only if states decide to fight against the menace that has struck them from within, peace can return to their country, their shrines and their people.