THE killing last week of three lawyers in Karachi was the latest reminder of the sectarian menace that haunts Pakistan. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 203 people were killed and 297 injured in 30 incidents of sectarian violence in 2011.
The map of sectarianism stretches across Pakistan, from Kurram Agency to Karachi, Mastung district to Lahore. Geopolitics — in particular, increased global pressure on Iran — and upcoming general elections in Pakistan are likely to intensify sectarian clashes in the near future. And yet, political interest in coining holistic policies to stem sectarian violence is sorely lacking.
Improved law enforcement is no doubt the best antidote to sectarian and extremist violence. Deweaponisation and the prosecution of terrorists would certainly reduce the incidence of religiously motivated violence. Successful crackdowns against sectarian militants in the late 1990s and the banning of groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in 2001-02 led to a reduction of such violence in the past decade. But the recent resurgence of sectarianism suggests that targeted security operations cannot suffice to weed out sectarian violence.
Pakistan’s weak judicial system and low rates of conviction have made ‘crackdown’ a euphemism for extrajudicial killings. As such, attempts to stem sectarian violence exclusively through law enforcement have invited retaliation (recall the many police officials involved in arrests of sectarian militants who were killed in the mid-2000s) and spurred an ongoing spiral of violence between the state and militant groups.
Moreover, while crackdowns in the late 1990s and the first decade of this century broke the organisational structure of sectarian groups, they led to the infusion of sectarian militants and their ideologies into other extremist organisations. Members of the LJ, SSP and other sectarian groups joined global jihadi networks such as Al Qaeda that boasted more resources and a broader agenda.
A decade later, we’re seeing a boomerang effect as sectarian groups return to their original mandates, but with the added advantage of enhanced training, more diffuse militant networks, sanctuaries, funding and other advantages proffered by links to numerous extremist groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
In short, Pakistan’s brutal history has shown that tougher law-enforcement can suppress, but not stamp out, sectarian violence. What’s needed is a sustained state response comprising multifaceted, long-term policies. And the need is now greater than ever.
Developments surrounding Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons threaten to ignite sectarian violence throughout the region. If Tehran proceeds with its weapons programme, Pakistan may descend into a proxy sectarian battleground where Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for influence — a throwback to the Iran-Iraq war and its aftermath.
Conversely, if international sanctions rein in the country’s nuclear ambitions, Tehran will find itself left with few retaliatory options beyond supporting sectarian groups in order to create regional havoc. Either way, Pakistan must take steps to ensure that it is less vulnerable to widespread sectarian strife than at present.
Focused operations against sectarian groups must be complemented by policy initiatives in the educational, economic, agricultural and media regulatory sectors. The need to register and monitor madressahs cannot be overstated: by design, madressah education intensifies sectarian divisions and blurs out religio-cultural commonalities. In the short term, the state must scrutinise madressah curriculums for hateful and prejudiced content against rival sects, and fund conferences and exchange programmes to boost interaction — and thus understanding — between sects. In the long -term, the emphasis must be on increased participation in the government school system, and the development of an inclusive, secular curriculum.
Holistic policies to counter sectarianism must also acknowledge that much violence has more to do with socio-economic or political dynamics than ideology.
For example, sectarian outfits originally flourished in Punjab, where Shia landlords stirred resentment among lower-middle class Sunnis. In an urban context, sectarian clashes between Barelvis and Deobandis are often sparked by attempts to take over mosques — a form of land-grabbing which assumes significance when access to land resources translates into political power.
Tribal warfare, meanwhile, underpins the sectarian violence in Fata. As such, the state must prioritise overall development in the form of job creation and equitable land use, with a particular eye to sectarian flashpoints.
In an age of media saturation, attempts to stem sectarianism must also involve content regulation. The legal publications and websites of Islamic organisations and religious political parties, religious TV programming, and pamphlets of Islamic welfare organisations must be systematically screened for hate-inciting content.
This could prove tricky, as media professionals themselves are not qualified to judge whether religious content is accurate, permissible and unprejudiced. However, the industry could appoint a panel of religious scholars to help moderate content.
More broadly, Pakistan must strive to develop an independent foreign policy so that Islamabad can engage on its own terms with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that have the potential to stoke domestic sectarianism. Issues such as international financing for sectarian outfits must appear on bilateral agendas, but that will only be possible if there is cooperation in other, mutually beneficial areas.
Sadly, the probability of any of these policy initiatives being pursued is extremely low, particularly since we are now in election season. Sectarian groups can be counted on to influence vast constituencies and guarantee victory at the ballot box; indeed, prominent members of banned sectarian outfits continue to contest elections or campaign on behalf of mainstream political parties.
Who can forget Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah’s participation in an SSP rally, or the permission granted to SSP leader Azam Tariq to contest elections from jail during Pervez Musharraf’s regime? If political parties are unable to look beyond the short-term political gains that result from allowing sectarian groups to flourish, there is little hope of stemming this most heinous form of violence.
The writer is a freelance journalist.