Way of the Terrorist
Places of worship in Pakistan continue to be be targeted by terrorists. It will be a long time before any action succeeds in eliminating them and establishing lasting peace.
Of late Pakistan has witnessed a spate of attacks on places of worship of different sects and communities. The phenomenon, according to certain circles, seems to suggest that the menace of sectarian violence was poised to raise its ugly head and was simmering below the surface. The questions being asked now areas to what impact the National Action Plan has had in quelling the attacks and what more can the government do to stop the attackers? To answer these questions, it is important to understand the problem in its historic perspective.
Sectarianism is a national problem related to faith and perceptions of the people with all the sensitivities involved and regrettably fuelled by the xenophobic sermons of religious scholars enjoying reverence and following among those people who subscribe to a particular religious sect. The burgeoning hate syndrome among different religious sects which has been nurtured and sustained over a long period by the clergy either under the patronage of the powers that be or as a reaction against the excesses perpetrated by the rival religious groups and sects, has severely undermined national unity. The scars and wounds inflicted by this phenomenon are so deep and painful that there seems to be no quick-fix solution to stop or eliminate the menace and establish the much-needed sectarian harmony in the country. That is the reason one incident at a place leads to a chain reaction throughout the country. The issue is no more a question of law and order to be dealt with by the district administrations as and when it occurs.
Basically it is the responsibility of the state and the government to ensure communal and sectarian harmony. But instead of fulfilling its obligations in this regard, the pakistani state has encouraged the rise of both Islamism and its sectarian manifestations. As a result, the Shia-Sunni rivalry which dates back to the time of choosing the successor of the Holy Prophet
(PBUH), has assumed a militant hue in Pakistan.
Different religious groups and sects were allowed to operate freely to implement their divisive creeds; some of them were also used by the rulers against other sects through agencies based on political considerations. This was specially done during the Zia regime, when there was an attempt to scuttle the burgeoning Shia influence in the backdrop of the Iranian revolution and the attempts by the Iranians to export the revolution to other countries. This led to the emergence of sectarian Sunni groups like the Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) which was founded in 1985 by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. The SSP rejected the notion of freedom of religious observance if it meant that the Shias would be free to criticize the early caliphs and companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH. According to Zia ur Rehman Farouqi, who succeeded Haq Nawaz Jhangvi as the head of SSP, true faith lay in following the path of the Prophet’s companions; anything else was hearsay.
The emphasis on following the Holy Prophet ( PBUH and his early companions was simply a subtle way of condemning the Shias as heretics. The SSP enjoyed support of the Deobandi ulema and JI and also had covert relations with the ISI. Its cadres attended Afghan Mujahideen training camps and came back to kill Shia leaders in Pakistan. These assassinations resulted in a severe backlash by the Shias who formed the Sipah e Mohammad Pakistan in 1991.
A wave of tit-for-tat killings of ulema and attacks on each other’s worship places occurred, accentuating a mutual hatred between the two sects. The SSP split into two groups and one of its off-shoots, called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, continued its anti-Shia disposition. This group founded by Riaz Basra in 1994 comprised mostly the Afghan Jihad veterans and was closely associated with the Taliban and Al-Qaida. Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the group has been targeting the Hazara (Shia) community in Balochistan.
The sectarian conflict, unfortunately, has not been confined to a Shia-Sunni rivalry alone; it has also erupted between different competing Sunni organizations. As Deobandi and Wahabi groups swelled their ranks through state patronage and organized militias, the traditionalist Barelvis found themselves marginalized and thus formed a militant organization of their own called Sunni Tehrik in the mid-nineties. This rivalry has consumed hundreds of human lives through mutual acts of terrorism. The designation of the Ahmediya sect as a minority through a legislative act in 1974 by the Bhutto regime in the wake of countrywide protests and later Ziaul Haq prohibiting the Ahmedis from calling themselves Muslims, also strengthened the culture of sectarianism, leading to horrendous sectarian killings and attacks on places of worship, like the one in Lahore on May 28, 2010 and in Mardan on September 3, 2010. Reportedly, more than one hundred worshippers were killed in both these incidents.
Sectarianism, along with terrorism, is one of the biggest threats to the survival of Pakistan as an independent country. In the wake of 9/11, some sectarian outfits have made a common cause with the terrorists (TTP) and vice versa. So the attacks on places of worship are not purely sectarian in essence. Apart from the sectarian groups venting their hatred against other sects, the terrorists also find it a convenient method to achieve their objective of terrorizing the people as well as accentuating sectarian fissures to keep the country divided and vulnerable to their machinations.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in briefing the Standing Committee of the Parliament on Interior, rightly said that terrorists were focusing on soft targets and attacking mosques, churches and Imambargahs to divide the nation. This reaction was very much expected in the backdrop of Zarb-e-Azab. Evidentally, theattacks do not have a sectarian or xenophobic hue as perceived.
Unfortunately sitting governments all over the world suffer from the syndrome called ‘disadvantage of incumbency’ and therefore are a convenient target for criticism. The same is the case for the flak being hurled at the PML(N) government about its handling the issues of terrorism and sectarianism. This is notwithstanding the fact that the government has been trying to quell these problems with an unprecedented seriousness and political will. The implementation of the NAP which is the outcome of the collective wisdom of all the political forces and is ungrudgingly backed by the military establishment, is the best possible response to dealing with these problems, both on the military and ideological level. The government and the military leadership have exhibited unstinted resolve for the implementation of the NAP and some positive results are already visible. Sectarian killings of Hazaras in Balochistan have been effectively checked, North Waziristan has been almost cleared of terrorists and the cooperation of the Afghan government in tackling terrorism has been achieved.
The infrastructure of the terrorist outfits in North Waziristan and sectarian entities in Balochistan have been dismantled but how far-reaching the impact of these developments will be is still not clear,. There needs to be a more faithful implementation of the NAP with the cooperation of all stakeholders. While the government and security forces are pursuing the desired objectives with unruffled commitment, the possibility of a backlash of their actions cannot be ruled out. Realistically speaking, it may take years to eliminate the headache but the continued and unstinted support of the masses could perhaps reduce the time.
The writer is a freelance columnist.