By Dr Mohammad Taqi
November 21, 2013
“How, think you, will the Muhurram go this year? I think that there will be trouble” — On the City Wall, Rudyard Kipling, 1888.
This Moharram was one of those, after many years, in which there was trouble. The tragic turn of events this past Ashura day in Rawalpindi overshadowed an otherwise peaceful mourning season countrywide. The destruction of the mosque-madrassa complex and murder of 10 men associated with that entity, apparently by some from within the procession, must be squarely condemned. There is no excuse for murder and mayhem. The same goes for those who ravaged several Imambargahs later on. As abhorrent as the incidents were, they still seem to have happened because of a breakdown in law and order and classic tit-for-tat sectarian rioting rather than an elaborate CIA/RAW/Mossad plot or Saudi-Iran proxy war that many leaders and analysts in Pakistan are portraying them as.
Nonetheless, domestic and transnational jihadists have already pounced on them to exploit the sectarian fault line. Omar Sheikh Khorasani of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mohmand Agency wing, in an Urdu video statement, has vowed a Syria-like revolt to exact revenge on the ‘apostate’ Shia, ostensibly on behalf of the Sunnis. The banned sectarian outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) reincarnated as the Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) and its jihadist allies are out in full force with preposterous claims about the number of casualties and are circulating gory pictures from elsewhere in the world to drum up sympathy for their rabidly anti-Shia cause.
By most accounts, the trouble started with a faceoff between the Maulvi Ghulamullah Wali Masjid congregation and the mourners in the Ashura procession over a vituperative Friday sermon by the prayer leaders Qari Amanullah and Maulvi Shakir using the mosque’s public address system. People in the procession reacted to Qari Amanullah and Maulvi Shakir’s vitriol and rattled the gates of the complex, eliciting a barrage of stones from the mosque. The hotheads in the procession apparently snatched weapons from the police when it tried to intervene and shot and killed several people.
In the ensuing chaos nearby, markets were set on fire and by that evening four Imambargahs were burnt to ashes in other parts of the town. It is inconceivable that the Rawalpindi administration would not know that the Ghulamullah Wali mosque has been a sectarian flashpoint for decades. As this newspaper has noted, several members of the SSP/ASWJ were inside the mosque and the adjoining Taleem ul Quran seminary. There are reports that the SSP/ASWJ had been rallying their members to converge on the Ghulamullah Wali mosque for the Friday showdown that they intended to induce with the Ashura procession. However, despite knowing the volatile situation full well, the district administration failed miserably to implement the legal restriction on the mosque leader’s loudspeaker use. Even more disgraceful was the police surrendering their weapons, absconding and thus failing to protect the mosque, the markets and the Imambargahs.
The district administration and the police are certainly spread thin during Moharram but they always have full information about the route and timings of the mourning processions. All major Ashura processions in Pakistan are licensed, their routes are chalked out in advance and the administration apprised of the itinerary by the licensees and caretakers of the Imambargahs. Processions are even delayed or their route tweaked beforehand at the administration’s request to avoid potential conflicts. Once a procession — whether religious or political — is underway, the police and intelligence services monitor its progress and regularly update their superiors about the number and composition of the participants and the anticipated or actual problems en route. The administration apparently neither expected the disaster nor intervened to mitigate it once the tragedy was underway.
There is enough blame, however, to go around. Odious speeches are systematically delivered from many sectarian mosque pulpits to provoke exactly the response seen in Rawalpindi. Many such spiteful sermons constitute what are called ‘fighting words’. However, should even the most hateful of speeches be responded to by violence and destruction? Absolutely not! The mourning procession leaders have a responsibility to their flock and the general population for orderly conduct.
While many ordinary members of the Rawalpindi procession intervened to stop their comrades from violence, there is little to suggest that the leadership did much to stymie the mêlée. If the SSP/ASWJ orchestrated to provoke the mourners, the latter’s leadership failed to restrain them and avoid the pitfall. However, the insulting provocation and an injurious retaliation of an emotionally charged crowd notwithstanding, it is ultimately the state making religion a touchstone of the Pakistani national identity that spurs sectarianism. Ultra-fringe elements like the SSP/ASWJ have kept pushing for their version of the faith to become the state religion and for others to be banished from public life and view. The Shias see this as an attempt to relegate them to second-class citizenship. That the state has consistently patronised jihadists that have systematically attacked non-Deobandi/Wahabi Pakistanis does little to alleviate Shia concerns.
The PML-N governments in Punjab and Islamabad have even outsourced the post-disaster damage control to the father of the Taliban, Maulana Sami ul Haq, and his ilk. It seems lost on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his associates that less not more religiosity is needed to curb sectarianism in general and to manage the current episode in particular. The state cannot allow clergymen to spread hate throughout the year and then expect them to behave differently for a few days. There is no crash course in tolerance. By skirting its responsibility to take charge, bringing the criminals to book swiftly and sharing facts with the population, the PML-N leaders are letting ASWJ and its allies fill the vacuum and set the stage for the al Qaeda-linked TTP to unleash more terror.
It is not surprising that not just the TTP but all pro-Taliban groups and individuals are closing ranks behind the ASWJ zealots. What is disconcerting though is that many otherwise reasonable people are conflating an isolated riot with the years of brutal terrorist attacks against the Shias. Some, who for years have obfuscated jihadist terrorism, nominally denounced it or just sat on the fence, came out clearly as jihadist partisans. The Shias, on their part, must never waver from the nonviolent course again; they simply cannot afford to lose the moral high ground. The radicalisation of Pakistani society is deeper and broader than it seems. This societal milieu conducive to radicalism, not just the insult and injury in Rawalpindi, is what portends a bigger danger to Pakistan.