Pakistan’s sectarian dilemma

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[By Ammar Zafarullah]

The recent string of bombings at a religious procession in Lahore is a sad reminder of the fact that sectarian conflicts are far from over. The responsibility of Lahore carnage was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned sectarian outfit that has carried out similar attacks in the recent past. As sectarian violence in Karachi in January 2010 brought life to a standstill, protestors torched down public property after a suicide bombing at a Muharram procession. This is the new facet of terrorism ,ie, sectarian terrorism.

The numbers of attacks by sectarian outfits against religious minorities have increased over the last few years. These sectarian groups are now acting at the behest of al Qaeda and Taliban. This alliance should not come as a surprise as for al Qaeda any chaotic situation in Pakistan is desirable. Sectarian outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi seek financial and technical support from al Qaeda as the goals are overlapping, and it has culminated in a marriage of convenience between the two entities.

As more and more money poured into the religious seminaries, it further intensified propagation of hate speech against minorities. Saudi Arabia and Iran for years have been engaged in a relentless proxy war where Pakistan is their battlefield. Both countries have massively funded the religious seminaries. It is ironic that in Pakistan where every business is regulated the unprecedented growth of religious seminaries remains unchecked. This is why there is no system of gauging how much funds these seminaries receive and how these funds are utilised.

The government in 2002 took a commendable initiative by banning sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. However this ban has not materialised on the ground. The offices of these organisations are still functional and so is the recruitment process. Most of these organisations have changed their names and continued their operations. In the aftermath of the devastating floods these groups have resurfaced under the umbrella of charity outfits. Hafiz Saeed the leader of Jaamat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba has held a number of processions in the flood affected areas where he termed the war of terror as a battle between infidels and Islam. The infamous cleric of Lal Masjid Mulana Abdul Aziz who was granted bail despite of being charged in nine cases of terrorism is proactively involved in collecting funds for flood relief. Not negating the fact that these organisations have an established network of volunteers and while they may carry out relief activities their clandestine motives are embedded in violence.

Unfortunately there are no quick fixes for the dilemma of sectarianism. Reforms such as regulation of religious seminaries, implementing constitutional restrictions against religious armies and curbing the phenomena of hate speech, are the foremost and essential steps to counter sectarian extremism. Until these measures are taken sectarian outfits will continue to settle their scores, and the leaders of banned organisations will continue to openly preach their sectarian venom.

The government needs to embark upon a reform agenda which envisions promoting pluralist traditions, secularism and the core foundations of humanism in Islam. Islam is a diverse religion and it offers various perspectives, as a state we cannot adhere to any particular school of thought. The constitution of Pakistan calls for equality for all inhabitants regardless of any religion or sect they hail from.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2010.

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