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Dangerous Repurcussions of Relgious Extremism in the Punjab
More bloodshed that claimed the lives of more than 95 innocent worshipers. It has become an unfortunate reality in Pakistan to see attacks on mosques and places of worship. In fact, it is not just the last nine years that Pakistan has seen a cataclysmic increase in religious violence. Interestingly, religious violence waned after 9/11 and the subsequent Afghan invasion. The Taliban started hitting innocent civilians without even thinking once about their caste, creed or religion. Shopping centers, hotels and bus stops became their primary targets. Although the number of attacks — and subsequently causalities — rose to an an unprecedented level, there was little hint of victimization of any single religious group, or minority.
This impartiality of the Taliban — and their associated groups — has seen a major dip in recent years. There could be many reasons for that but the joining of Punjab-based sectarian groups, who were wielding immense support from the ISI during the Kashmir Jihad, in the Taliban ranks has exacerbated this problem.
Sectarian violence is not a recently emerged issue in Pakistan. It is now an open fact that sectarian groups started slitting the throats of their rival factions during the dictatorial rule of General Zia ul Haq. Saudi Arabia and Iran also jumped into the fray with their covert — and open — support of the Sunni and Shiite extremist groups, respectively.
Violence between these two factions took a turn for the worse in the 1990s when they started attacking each others’ mosques. That was the first time when mosque committees started hiring guards for protection; government provided police guards in large places of worship.
Violence against the Ahmadis, however, was not that blatant up until now. They are, of course, subjected to grave discrimination and are treated with contempt but only 109 people had lost their lives (Link in Urdu) before this attack since the declaration of the Ahmadi sect as non-Muslim in 1974, by the secular Bhutto government.
Now the total Ahmadi casualties are in between 160 and 180 as many dead in the recent attacks were policemen and bystanders and thus not from the community. If compared with the casualties between the warring Sunni-Shiite factions in Pakistan, this figure is minuscule. However, if compared with the total population of Ahmadis in Pakistan — at 0.22% — this death toll is astounding.
Ahmadis have remained a peaceful minority in Pakistan and have not taken up arms. Chances of them turning to the guns are still low despite this carnage. The repercussions of this attack, however, can be great with a serious fallout. These attacks will encourage other militant groups to attack the Ahmadis. Thus a minority, which is already living on the fringes with threats of violence, and people who are regularly subjected to tyrannical blasphemy laws, will be hard pressed to retaliate.
Punjab remains the center of most religious attacks and it also serves as the operational nerve center of sectarian groups. Christians, who are living relatively peacefully in Karachi and Islamabad, are subjected to harassment and blatant discrimination in the Punjab. Violent attacks are not uncommon and church burnings are not unheard of.
One wonders why these attacks are mostly concentrated in the Punjab when all provinces have Muslim majority populations. The answer lies in the blatant Islamization carried out by extremist organizations. They have instilled this false notion among common Punjabis that they are the protectors of Islam and Pakistan. Interestingly, the same notion is present among the Punjabi middle classes that constitute the major chunk of Pakistan’s armed forces. A blatant hatred for India and a delusion about the grandeur of Islam and them being its protectors has muddied the political and religious landscape in the province, and in Pakistan.
The same mentality resulted in Punjabis condoning the brutal military operations in Balochistan and before that, in Karachi and Sindh. Pakistani army merely reflects this notion of silencing every voice that it deems as a threat to Pakistan, without analyzing the parallels between treason and political repression.
Nawaz Sharif, the ex prime minister and the most popular opposition leader, has not said anything concrete against the rising militancy. His power base is in the Punjab and his reluctance to tackle the militancy and sectarian issue raises serious doubts about his policies. His party is already in power in the province and has failed to do anything about this issue. They are in cahoots with the militants? Nobody knows but yes they are afraid to stir up this hornet’s nest.
There needs to be something done about this false notion of superiority and the acceptance of militant organizations. Nawaz Sharif, who many say is counting his days to become the next PM of Pakistan, needs to tackle this issue without hesitation. There is already enough hatred of Punjab in other provinces and in Balochistan, Punjabis are being attacked. These innocent Punjabis, who are working as teachers, doctors and nurses, are victimized because an average Baloch thinks that they are responsible for his destitution. In actuality, it is the political leadership of Punjab, and more importantly, the military leadership that is responsible.
It is high time that both issues should be dealt with accordingly. Military leadership needs to stop political maneuvering and military operations in Balochistan. There is also a need for equal representation of other ethnic groups in the officers’ cadre of the armed forces. Similarly, it should start operations against the militant organizations in the Punjab, which it is hesitant to do so.
As for the political leadership of the Punjab, they need to educate their supporters to embrace and not disgrace. Blasphemy laws need to be repealed and religious organizations need to be reined in if they really want to stop this violence. Otherwise, we all are sitting on a volcano that is about to explode.