"I would like to believe that peace is possible because without it, there is total darkness."
These were the grim words that my friend left me with as I returned to Dubai from Lahore on July 11 after a short trip to Pakistan. Family members of his perished in the recent attacks on Ahmadi mosques in the city and he was tasked with identifying their bodies at the morgue. It often seems when reading a Pakistani newspaper that you are in three or four simultaneous war zones. The day I arrived on my most recent trip to the country, Pakistan was hit with its most deadly attack of the year, in its tribal areas, resulting in 102 fatalities.
Amidst the ongoing violence there appears to be a more vigorous targeting of religious groups and sites, particularly in urban areas, culminating in the bombing of a prominent Sufi shrine, the Data Darbar in Lahore on July 1, killing more than 40 worshippers. The number of deaths from sectarian attacks has already reached 302 for 2010, compared to 190 for the whole of last year. It harkens back to 2007, when 441 Pakistanis died in sectarian violence. The difference then was that the targeting was mainly outside of Pakistan’s main cities (i.e. the sectarian clashes in Parachinar in FATA). This trend represents an ongoing effort by a number of militant groups to delegitimize the government and further undermine its authority; it also raises the fear of ‘sectarianizing’ an already volatile climate in Pakistan, which could lead to much greater levels of violence.
On May 28, gunmen raided two Ahmadi mosques, one in the Garhi Shahu area and another in the Model Town area of Lahore. 93 people were killed as they attended Friday prayers. I visited the Model Town mosque on July 10, where witnesses described the horror of that day and expressed a complete lack of confidence in the authorities ability to protect them from another attack. The attack itself started with gunfire and then a grenade was thrown at the imam’s pulpit inside the mosque. Two of the gunmen were apprehended by the worshippers, and prevented from exploding their suicide belts. According to an official of the community that I met with there, the attackers were no more than 16 or 17 years of age. This place of worship now resembles a war zone. While the bullet holes and other damage have since been repaired, new protective features are prominent: barbed wire, bars on all the windows, massive steel doors, barricades, snipers on the roof, and guns everywhere.
The events at the Ahmadi mosques were not a huge surprise due to the community’s historical ostracization. Ahmadis themselves are a small minority in Pakistan who are officially deemed non-Muslims – due to beliefs that conflict with mainstream Islam – by the country’s constitution since 1974. They are prevented from not only preaching their faith, but also from ‘posing’ as Muslims; this includes using the ubiquitous Islamic greeting ‘salaam alaikum’ and quoting from the Quran, punishable by jail time. The climate, suffice it to say, in Pakistan is extremely hostile to Ahamdis. Even the Pakistani media when reporting the recent attacks, refused to call their places of worships ‘mosques‘.
For residents of Lahore, the more recent attack on the Data Darbar shrine was a particular shock, as it is at the heart of the city’s Islam, the burial site of a respected Persian Sufi saint known as Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, who lived in the 11th century. Both Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent have a high regard for venerated spiritual figures, and their burial grounds are often visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually. In Mumbai, one of the most popular tourist destinations is the Haji Ali Dargah, dedicated to a returning pilgrim from Mecca nearly 600 years ago. These sites become places of gathering and resting, and some visitors also come with individual prayers seeking the intercession — or tawassul — of the deceased saints for everything from wealth to help with having children.
In orthodox interpretations of Islam, the veneration of Sufi mystics after their deaths represents a form of shirk or heresy, as it placing a partner beside God. In the utmost of puritanical interpretations particularly in salafi thinking — which the Taliban essentially adhere to — this type of heresy is itself a form of apostasy and thus a visitor of the shrine becomes a legitimate target of jihad. In this frame of thinking, regardless of the fact that some of these locations are at the heart of culture and community, they can be attacked legitimately by militants. Many years ago, Saudi Arabia was populated with Sufi shrines, but most were destroyed or isolated, under pressure from clerics, influenced by radical interpretations of Islam.
In Pakistani cities today, the proliferation of madrassas has made the religious schools the educational destinations of many youth. In Karachi, a city with around 20 million people, the Pakistani government often does not provide adequate educational facilities for students. Religious groups visit families living in so-called katchi abadis or impoverished informal communities within Karachi, and offer their children not only paid education but also food and sometimes lodging. Some of these schools — but certainly not all — offer environments that foster extremism, limit critical thinking, and offer no curriculum aside from religious teaching. In essence, they create a vulnerable cadre of youth who could be influenced to participate in sectarian violence, particularly targeting religious minorities and others viewed as lapsed Muslims. While economists have asserted that madrassas are not the dominant institution in Pakistani education nationwide, it does not negate the fact that there are over 1,800 madrassas operating in Karachi, and an undetermined number are influenced by extremist groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba. In fact, studies specifically indicate that there is a particular link between sectarian violence and madrassas, which is also cited in the recent Brookings report on madrassas.
The potential cross-section of Pakistan’s citizens who come into the crosshairs is vast. Among religious minorities, aside from the Ahmadis, there are Christians, Ismailis, Shiites (Twelver), Parsis, and small Sufi groups. The rising violence against the Shiite community (17-26 million population of Pakistan’s some 180 million) has been part of the rising trend in sectarian attacks. While in the 1980s this was more commonplace, large-scale attacks, particularly in the cities, had remained largely absent until the last two years. In December 2008, at least 27 people were killed at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar. A funeral procession for a murdered Shiite cleric was attacked in February 2009, resulting in more than 25 dead. The Taliban then claimed an attack on Shiites during the holy celebration of Ashura in Karachi, in December of 2009, in which 43 people lost their lives. Then again in February of this year, blasts targeting a bus of Shiite worshippers and a subsequent hospital where they were being treated resulted in 18 dead. In between and since there have been other sectarian attacks of a smaller scale.
The potential ramifications of this intensifying violence targeting multiple groups, is potentially catastrophic, beyond even the immediate violence. The Pakistani state is losing its authority very rapidly. The government is consistently viewed as absent and completely incompetent, apparent in many conversations with a wide range of Pakistanis that I’ve been having; more damaging is that the Pakistani Army is not trusted to stop the attacks, and confidence in that institution is very low. Sectarian strife is also sliding down a slippery slope. It could very quickly lead to a larger armed confrontation between the Barelvi movement that represents perhaps half the population and are opposed to the Taliban, and the Deobandi movement, that is much more supportive of a religious philosophy that is sympathetic to the Taliban. The Barelvi were especially taken aback by the damage at the Data Darbar.
The rising sectarian strife and religious violence is prodding Pakistan to have a more reflective conversation on its identity as a nation. Opposition leader Nawaz Shariff came out surprisingly after the attacks on Ahmadis, to call them group his "brothers and sisters"; he was, however, roundly criticized by clerics shortly thereafter. Yet, Pakistan’s national flag itself has a white strip to represent its minorities and their equal status in the country.
For a long time, the government due to its confrontation with India, coddled extremist religious groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and its offshoots. Now the national security threat comes from within, and national leaders — whether it’s the army, politicians, or civil society — need to start having a more involved conversation to acknowledge and protect Pakistani’s pluralistic identity and ultimately stop the slide to more sectarian violence. This conversation must confront directly sectarian and extremist philosophies that condition citizenship or legitimacy of Pakistanis based on a religious standard. More importantly, it should lead to real action that curtails religious incitement by clerics, politicians and other prominent figures. Without an honest and open discussion on these issues, Pakistan will continue to suffer the consequences from rising sectarian violence.
Taufiq Rahim is a Visiting Scholar at the Dubai School of Government, and blogs at TheGeopolitico.com.