By Shahzad Raza
March 2-08, 2012
Because of blood that was spilled 1400 years ago, the history of Islam is marred with the killing of thousands of Muslims over sectarian differences.
Most modern states deal with sectarianism with stern use of state force and by creating social and economic opportunities for all their citizens. Pakistan struggles on both counts.
Sectarian violence has continued unabated since the 1980s when military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq decided to "Islamize" Pakistan. The political regimes in 1990s surrendered before the merchants of death. For them, the issue was too sensitive to be touched at the cost of popular support. It was another military dictator who tried to stop sectarian violence. The move did win Pervez Musharraf international support, but he did not address the root cause of the problem. Sectarian groups that were banned by the Musharraf regime are now operating under new names.
Sectarianism in Pakistan is a dynamic phenomenon, and it always finds new battlegrounds, new recruits and new targets. The spectre now haunts urban Sindh and Balochistan.
A recent report by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) says Karachi was worst hit by sectarian terrorism in 2011, with 36 attacks in which 58 people died. "Karachi, Quetta and Kurram (Agency) have been the most troubled areas in the last few years," says Muhammad Amir Rana, director at PIPS.
Rana works closely with local and foreign experts to develop an understanding of otherwise oversimplified sectarian issues in Pakistan. His organisation collects data on sectarian clashes, attacks and killings, and uses it to formulate various sets of analysis. According to PIPS statistics, 314 people were killed in 111 sectarian related incidents of violence in 2011.
The advent of violent sectarianism in Punjab, Rana recalls, dates back to the assassination of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a Deobandi religious leader from the district of Jhang. A killing spree that began in reaction still continues in one way or the other.
Deobandi groups are better trained and more experienced because of their involvement in the Afghan war, they are financially and logistically stronger, and have a large supply of fresh recruits from a large number of unregistered Madarsas, and can carry out suicide attacks, according to the PIPS director. Shia groups have little resources and usually resort to target killings, and very occasionally, car bombs.
"What we have seen recently is the ruthless targeting of Shia doctors," Rana says. "In response, Shia groups kill lawyers and leaders of their rival groups."
The recent PIPS report also discusses the situation in Balochistan, where there has been unprecedented violence against the Shia Hazara community, in the form of targeted killings and attacks on buses carrying pilgrims or daily commuters.
Analysts link the rise of sectarianism to state-sponsored systematic radicalization of the society during the Afghan war of the 1980s. Successive political governments in the 1980s were too weak to reverse the trend.
Piles of intelligence reports warned against mushroom growth of unregistered Madarsas. Although not all of them were involved in terrorist activities, many were used as operational headquarters, satellite offices or hideouts by sectarian militants. But little action was taken.
Amir Rana also notes that the fading distinction between Jihadi and sectarian outfits. "Law enforcement agencies have arrested a number of activists who were working for several sectarian and militant organisations simultaneously. This complicates the matter."
The PIPS director emphasises inter-sect dialogue to revive the lost harmony and spirit of coexistence. "The violence must stop first. And then, multi-pronged peace efforts should be launched at various tiers."
Shahzad Raza is TFT special correspondent based in Islamabad.
Source: Friday Times, Lahore