Yet another bloodbath, yet another day of mourning. It is the Pakistan story so regularly repeated that we have forgotten the count. From the Peshawar school massacre, to the Lahore park explosion, it is children who are bearing the brunt of the unending cycle of militant violence. One thought the Peshawar tragedy would be the final turning point uniting the nation, but that public outrage proved to be fleeting.
Now the latest carnage has taken place in the heart of Punjab and has shaken the nation yet again. But have we really been shaken out of our slumber? One is not sure. The situation is now much more complex and grave with the cancer of religious extremism spreading all over. The state is now confronted with a fresh challenge following the emergence on the scene of a new coalition of extremists of all hues blended with the mainstream Islamic political parties.
As Lahore bled, a horde of zealots protesting the execution of Mumtaz Qadri stormed Islamabad breaking security barriers and leaving behind a trail of destruction. They virtually put the high-security Red Zone under siege demanding that the former police guard and murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer be declared a national hero and martyr. The army was called in after police and paramilitary troops were unable to control the rampaging fanatics. The haplessness of the civilian administration was pitiable.
Sunday’s incidents laid bare the government’s patchy and lacklustre response to violent extremism.
It is quite intriguing how the government allowed Qadri’s supporters to gather at Liaquat Bagh despite warnings of anticipated violence. It was so obvious that the crowd had been mobilised from across the province and had come prepared for a confrontation. The capital was at the mercy of the mob for several hours before the military took charge. Even then, the rioters continue to occupy Constitution Avenue defying the government’s authority.
Those two incidents on Sunday evening laid bare the government’s patchy and lacklustre response to violent extremism that continues its unabated rise. Surely there has been a significant decline in terrorist attacks over the past year, but the problem is far from over. The attacks on the air force base in Badaber outside Peshawar and on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda district are cases in point. One of the main reasons for this impunity is the lack of a coherent counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategy.
Seemingly there was no connection between the Lahore terror attack and the Islamabad siege, but one is not sure that the two were completely isolated incidents. The common objective was to create fear and bring the government under pressure to pull back from some of its recent policy measures that these radical groups believe could limit their space.
It is not without reason that squabbling religious groups have come together to defend what they describe as the ‘Islamic identity of Pakistan’. ‘Islam is in danger’ is the mantra being evoked once again to whip up religious sentiments. The execution of Mumtaz Qadri has simply worked as a catalyst uniting various religious factions. It is not just the alliance of different sectarian and militant outfits, they are also joined by mainstream Islamic parties like Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and factions of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.
What happened on Sunday must not come as a surprise. Although the civilian administration has as usual been in a state of denial, one could see it coming. There has been a concerted campaign to mobilise support not only on the Qadri issue, but also other matters such as the Punjab government’s law on violence against women.
Curiously, the law prohibiting hate speech and incitement to violence was not invoked by the administration. Efforts to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, putting aside the parties’ ideological and political differences, are mainly dictated by a common cause to stop full implementation of NAP. It is a backlash by the radical Islamic groups critical of the military operation against the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups. The government’s decision to execute Qadri and Nawaz Sharif’s liberal stance on women and other issues has also angered the conservative lobby.
Most interesting, however, is the role of JI in the current anti-government campaign. While it had traditionally kept itself out of sectarian religious politics, the party has been very active in pro-Qadri protests. It has also been vocal in the movement against the Punjab women’s protection law. The Jamaat has staged protests in favour of Qadri and supported the agenda that called for declaring the convicted killer a martyr.
The religious groups protesting Mumtaz Qadri’s execution have also called for the hanging of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman charged for blasphemy. She is the same woman whose support cost Salmaan Taseer his life.
It is a desperate attempt by JI — which once was arguably the most powerful and well-organised Islamic party in the country — to regain its shrinking political base. While many of its more radical youth activists joined Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, the party has lost its electoral base significantly after the disintegration of the MMA. The Qadri issue has apparently provided it with an opportunity to come back on the national political scene. But that may also be its undoing.
Surely, the Lahore carnage and the storming of the capital by the zealots have finally forced the Sharif government to shed its ambiguity in dealing with religious extremism in Punjab. Yet the government is still not willing to take full ownership of the counter-terrorism operation in the province. It is the military leadership that has taken the initiative yet again.
Sharif may have found the courage to execute Qadri, but there is still a lot of confusion on how to deal with its aftermath. The attempt to lay siege to Islamabad by a few thousand fanatics highlights the vulnerability of the nation’s capital. It is not just the capital but the entire nation that is under siege. The battle lines have clearly been drawn. Is the state ready to take this battle to its conclusion?
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016