LAST week, the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly issued a ‘Code of Conduct’ aimed at stemming sectarian violence in the region.
The first of its kind, the law is a good example of what the state response to soaring sectarian violence should have been all along. There are indeed considerable difficulties in enforcing such a code and ensuring that violators are prosecuted. But the symbolic weight of the legislation is significant in a country where militants belonging to sectarian outfits roam free, convene rallies and prop up politicians of mainstream political parties.
Moreover, the fact that the code was enacted at a regional level is important — given the various incarnations of sectarian tensions across Pakistan, it is essential that the issue be addressed at a local level.
The 15-point Gilgit-Baltistan code prohibits imams from issuing fatwas against other sects or using mosque loudspeakers for any purpose other than sounding the call to prayer. All manner of hate speech, particularly during the Friday and Eid sermons, has also been outlawed. In fact, the code compels clerics to declare that the killing of members of other sects is haram. Further, religious leaders are banned from harbouring terrorists, collecting funds on behalf of sectarian organisations and demanding government jobs and other state resources along sectarian lines. Those who violate the code will be tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
The issuance of this fairly comprehensive code at a local rather than federal level sets an important precedent. The fact is, sectarian tensions are fuelled by a variety of hyper-local factors in addition to ideological differences, including ethnic, economic and political dynamics. The specific provisions of the Gilgit-Baltistan code seek to address issues that fuel sectarianism in the region. Similarly tailor-made codes are urgently required at the provincial (or even district) level elsewhere across the country.
This column focuses on the dynamics of Sunni-Shia violence in various parts of Pakistan, but the same principle — the need for local legislation to counter religiously motivated violence — could equally apply to other forms of religiously motivated violence against Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians and Barelvi Sunnis.
Given the social, geographic, ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity of Pakistan’s Shia population, it would be difficult to coin an effective, one-size-fits-all legislation against sectarian violence at the federal level. The first challenge would be the differences in the relative social capital of Shias in different parts of the country: in the urban centres of Sindh and Punjab, Shias — most of whom are immigrants from northern India — are affluent, literate and well-integrated into political, bureaucratic and corporate hierarchies.
In the rural areas, on the other hand, the perception is that Shias are often poor and have a lower literacy rate than the national average. Such distinct populations would obviously need different sorts of protections from sectarian violence.
Each part of Pakistan also has unique ethnic, political and criminal dynamics within which sectarian tensions play out. For example, sectarian violence in Karachi is compounded by the city’s ongoing turf wars over land resources. Members of rival sects are targeted on ideological grounds, but also as part of broader tussles. Sectarian violence in the city is further fuelled by the high levels of urban weaponisation, a factor that also influences other kinds of violence.
In Balochistan, anti-Shia sectarian violence has an ethnic dimension. Currently, Hazaras are persecuted for their beliefs, but long before this sectarian aspect flared up, they were ostracised for their ethnicity. Discernable by their Asian features, Hazaras have been treated as members of a de facto lower caste since the 19th century and — barring some exceptions — forced to work menial jobs and denied social mobility. They have been branded ‘outsiders’ owing to their Mongol lineage. In the present context, their ethnicity also makes it easier to identify and thus target them along sectarian lines.
Criminal dynamics have also been known to fuel sectarian violence. The current resurgence of Sunni-Shia violence can be traced back to the mid-2000s, when the Taliban, who subscribe to the Deobandi school of thought, began instigating violence against the Shias of Parachinar in the Kurram Agency. No doubt elements within the Taliban, especially the so-called Punjabi Taliban, were motivated by anti-Shia ideology, but there was also a pragmatic element to their sectarianism.
At the time, the emerging, Fata-based Pakistani Taliban movement was seeking connections to the Punjab-based militant groups that had long promoted an anti-Shia mandate. Moreover, the Taliban wanted access to routes into Afghanistan via Kurram, which the local Shias were blocking. By 2010, Taliban fighters from North Waziristan were participating in local sectarian clashes in Kurram in the hope of securing safe passage across the Durand Line.
In addition to social, ethnic and criminal dynamics, legislation seeking to stem sectarian violence should accommodate for the different sources of funding for militant groups. Some receive international support, others rely on charitable donations collected in mosques and madressahs, and still others resort to extortion, kidnapping and other criminal activities. Arguably, legislation that tackles specific forms of fundraising is likely to be more successful in clamping down on sectarian violence rather than general, federal-level edicts banning sectarian groups.
Finally, local laws should take account of the broader political context in which sectarian groups operate. In southern Punjab, the consolidated power of Shia landlords had led parties seeking political inroads into the area to link up with anti-Shia militant groups. And in Karachi, broad Shia support for the MQM has been used as a way to influence the city’s overall power dynamics — sectarian attacks have been known to overlap with and instigate ethno-political violence.
Legislation that acknowledges and outlaws the political connections of sectarian groups is vital. Ultimately, a strong, local-level state response to sectarianism is the only solution to the growing problem of sectarianism.
The writer is a freelance journalist.