By Rozina Ali
March 29, 2016
When the bomb went off in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, on Sunday, families were settled into the lull of Easter celebrations. Picnics were out and children were scattered across the playground. The suicide bomber walked purposefully to the swings before blowing himself up, along with the kids around him. More than seventy people died in the attack, at least twenty-nine of them children, and more than three hundred people were wounded. One reporter who arrived at the scene told me that victims were rushed to the hospital in ambulances, taxis, private cars, and rickshaws, while surviving children were rounded up as security guards tried to find their families.
Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistan Taliban that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, took credit for the attack, claiming that it targeted Christians (in fact, more Muslims than Christians were killed). For nearly two decades, as terrorist attacks have intensified in the country, its minorities—Christians, Sufis, Shias—have been under assault. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a Reuters journalist based in Islamabad, told me that the Christian families she spoke with in Lahore insisted that the government is doing its best to protect them. In the aftermath of past attacks, authorities had increased security at churches, especially on Sundays. Perhaps as a result, some surmised, the terrorists attacked a public park—not just hurting Christians, but Pakistanis of all faiths.
The news of another attack came as no surprise in Pakistan, where more people are killed by terrorism than in Europe and the United States combined. In one of the country’s deadliest incidents, the Taliban massacred a hundred and thirty-two children at an Army school in Peshawar, in December, 2014. Lahore, too, has seen regular extremist violence. Jamaat ul-Ahrar attacked two churches last year, killing at least fifteen people. Still, Sunday’s bombing, which was big, public, and in reality indiscriminate, came as a shock to the city. It reflected terrorism’s alarming spread from the mountains of Northwest Pakistan and the chaos of Karachi into the heart of Punjab province, where Lahore—a city of history and poetry, fashion and music, famed foods and delicate gardens—is located.
Both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shehbaz, the province’s Chief Minister, hail from Lahore. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—the province has enjoyed relative autonomy, escaping the strong fist of the Army. While the Army has been conducting widespread counterterrorism raids in Karachi over the past two years, detaining thousands, Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has refused to allow such troop levels into Punjab. Instead, it has relied on police and counterterrorism forces inside the province to weed out extremists. Pakistan has regularly teetered between Army and civilian rule, and while 2013 saw the first transition from one civilian government to the next, the threat of military rule, especially in light of the government’s failure to prevent recent terrorist attacks, is all too present.
Even as the tension between the military and political establishments came to the fore with the Lahore bomb blast, the government was under severe pressure from religious hard-liners in the capital of Islamabad, a hundred and sixty miles south. Last month, the government executed Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who assassinated Punjab’s relatively liberal governor, Salman Taseer, in 2011. Taseer was trying to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which criminalize desecration of holy (mainly Islamic) places and books, and he had defended a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was given the death penalty by Punjab’s government for insulting the Prophet Muhammad (the sentence was later overturned).
When Qadri killed Taseer, right-wing religious groups lauded him as a hero. This weekend, tens of thousands of his supporters, members of the Barelvi movement of Islam, marched into Islamabad to protest his hanging, setting fire to buses and metro stations and damaging property around the city. Since Sunday, their numbers have dwindled into the thousands, but the group has settled in front of the parliamentary building as police try to quell any more violence. They have presented the government with a list of demands, which include implementing their version of Sharia law, removing secular and Ahmadi Muslim politicians from government, executing Asia Bibi, declaring Qadri a martyr, and releasing jailed Sunni clerics even if they were convicted of terrorism.
Unlike the Taliban, who follow the Deobandi and Salafi strains of Islam, Barelvis are relatively tolerant of minorities. Still, when I spoke with Raza Rumi, a commentator and analyst based in Ithaca, he said that blasphemy was a key issue for the Barelvis and that they condone violence to protect religion. Sharif’s party, the P.M.L.(N.), has historically relied on right-wing groups such as the Barelvis for political support, but as the government moves toward tolerating a more outspoken civil society and clamps down on extremism (Rumi told me Qadri’s execution would have been unthinkable five years ago), the right-wing base is pushing back. “These groups feel betrayed by Nawaz,” Rumi said.
Yesterday, after closed-door deliberations and strong statements by Sharif that he will “avenge every last drop” of blood spilled in Sunday’s attack, Army rangers entered Lahore for their first counter terror raids in the province. More than five thousand people have reportedly been arrested. The military’s strong presence in the political heartland of the country could conceivably weaken the Sharifs’ hold on power. Meanwhile, the protesters in Islamabad are in the third day of their sit-in. Some reporters speculate that government representatives are speaking with the protesters today, but so far authorities have neither cracked down on nor negotiated with them. Zahra-Malik, the Reuters journalist, articulated the question that almost everyone in Islamabad seems to have: “What is the government’s strategy?”
There might not be a long-term one. Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, in Islamabad, told me that the “reliance on counter terror actions” is effectively a reliance on the military. “The political capacity to handle matters such as in the Islamabad sit-in seems poor,” he added. But security in Pakistan can’t be maintained only by a military-led aggressive war on terrorism. Extremism in the country is intertwined with minority rights and tolerance, and requires a shift in politics that allows civil liberties and space for minorities. One start would be continuing Taseer’s efforts and reforming blasphemy laws, a move that requires courage and will from the top.