By Qurat ul ain Siddiqui
KARACHI: A blast at a mosque in Darra Adam Khel in northwest Pakistan earlier this month killed more than 60 people. Recent attacks like this one have created a considerable challenge for Pakistan in tackling sectarian and other violence in the country. Though this attack on a Sunni mosque was possibly targeted at anti-Taliban activists, it also reflects terrorists’ disregard for religious and sacred places, further inflaming the growing civil unrest and sectarian divides in the country.
According to one alarming estimate, more than 4,000 Pakistanis have died in incidents of sectarian violence in the country in the past two decades. However, there is hope that the violent attacks can still subside if the government becomes more involved in establishing a culture of pluralism and tolerance amongst Pakistanis, encouraging them to bridge sectarian divides.
Sectarian violence in Pakistan has traditionally been linked to Shias and Sunnis in the country. Shias account for around 20 percent of Pakistan’s mostly Sunni Muslim population of 180 million. Tensions between the two sects began to surface in the 1980s, partly as a consequence of the grievances held by Sunni peasants against Shia landowners in the Punjab province.
This primarily economic divide assumed sectarian dimensions when the supporters of local Sunni cleric Haq Nawaz Jhangvi — who later founded the militant organization Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (Army of the Friends of the Prophet) — emphasized the cultural and ideological differences between the Sunni peasants and the Shia landowners. Their differences were further accentuated with the formation of both Sunni and Shia militant groups claiming to defend their respective brands of Islam by waging an armed struggle against the other group, especially during the reign of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, who ushered in a strict and conservative interpretation of Islamic law into the country’s political system.
Furthermore, flaws in the education system also factored in the overall milieu. Unregulated madrasas, or religious schools, preaching sometimes extreme interpretations of Islam, sprouted across the country, with the government doing little to address the situation. The violent conflict in 2007 that developed with the Jamia Hafsa seminary, adjacent to the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, and their demand for the imposition of a particular interpretation of Islamic law is a case in point.
But sectarian violence in Pakistan is not confined to the Shia-Sunni split. Ahmadi Muslims, who believe the second advent of Jesus came in the person of the 19th century Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, have also endured persecution and violence, the worst of which claimed 95 lives in a coordinated attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore on May 28.
What is peculiar, however, is that the evolving face of sectarian terrorism in the country has not spared the majority of Pakistani Sunni Muslims who follow the Barelvi school of Muslim thought — a sub-sect within Sunni Islam, which defends long-established cultural practices associated with Sufism.
Blamed mostly on the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Student Movement of Pakistan), the 2010 attacks on Sufi shrines, including Lahore’s Data Darbar shrine, Karachi’s Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine and later the Baba Farid Shakar Ganj shrine in the city of Pakpattan in Punjab — which combined killed at least 59 people — clearly indicate that the issue of sectarian violence has assumed even more complicated dimensions and requires effective and immediate countermeasures.
While there are various measures that the government can take to tackle the issue of sectarian aggression, a clear education policy with a special focus on schools’ curriculum is very important in diverting focus from sectarian to inclusive teachings. Any public or religious schools’ textbooks promoting biases or hatred on the basis of religious identity should be reviewed by an independent commission to evaluate its suitability for promoting tolerance amongst children.
Moreover, given the fact that religious leaders and clerics enjoy considerable influence over people, the government should encourage them to play a constructive role in preaching religious tolerance. Religious political parties should also be urged to promote religious tolerance and, given Pakistan’s particular scenario of religious diversity, promoting harmony between Islam’s sects in particular.
At the same time, the state should recognize the diverse religious communities and ensure their fundamental constitutional rights of equality in all spheres of life. Discriminatory laws such as the blasphemy laws and the law declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims have fomented hatred and violence against certain religious communities and should therefore be revisited.
These measures, if adopted, can create a change in the way people view one another, provided the state also offers effective governance. Reforming the country’s education system, employing the services of religious leaders to spread the message of tolerance and, finally, restoring equal rights for all Pakistani citizens by repealing discriminatory statutes are some basic steps that can help the government establish a culture of pluralism and tolerance, while also fostering empathy among people with different religious beliefs.
Qurat ul ain Siddiqui is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).