Perils of sectarianism

Published October 4, 2020
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

SECTARIANISM is so deep-rooted in our society that even the state deems it ‘normal’ and does not react unless extremist manifestations of the phenomenon start turning ugly. The state’s typical response entails the ‘concealment and appeasement’ approach, which was evident from its dealing with the recent upsurge in sectarian tensions in the country.

Since August this year, Shia-Sunni tensions have been on the rise. Reportedly, it all started after a Shia orator was alleged to have uttered some derogatory remarks in a small gathering in Islamabad. When outrage on social media grew, moderate religious scholars from the two sects tried to cool the situation down. However, banned sectarian outfits and radical Sunni organisations did not want to squander the ‘opportunity’ to flex their muscles and showcase their strength. The state allowed them to hold countrywide protests, but also ensured that there was a complete blackout of mainstream media coverage in order to contain the impact and give the impression of normalcy.

Meanwhile, state institutions engaged religious leaders to develop a legal draft to protect the honour of the family members and companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The draft of the bill, which was shared with religious scholars, would be called the Paigham-i-Pakistan bill. Paigham-i-Pakistan was a declaration against terrorism and extremism signed by hundreds of religious scholars of all sects in 2018 under the supervision of state institutions. For the first-time in Pakistan, a consensus religious decree categorically defined ‘jihad’ as being the purview of the state and disallowed the use of force to compel obedience to Islamic laws.

Recent countrywide protests have exposed the flawed strategy of the state.

It was ironic that banned groups were made custodians of Paigham-i-Pakistan and encouraged to launch a countrywide campaign in support of the state-led initiative. This also projected the leaders of violent groups as if they had abandoned their hateful ideologies and narratives. These groups were indeed using Paigham-i-Pakistan as a tool for their survival, with a view to keeping their networks intact. The recent sectarian campaign has exposed both the flawed strategy of the state and the dual face of the extremist groups’ leadership. The same religious leaders who had been preaching sectarian tolerance until last year suddenly took to the streets with slogans of hatred.

It is not possible for an organisation that is at its core sectarian and violent to change its ideology overnight. These radical groups had gone into hibernation under the cover of Paigham-i-Pakistan. One can imagine the consequences of the re-emergence of banned sectarian groups. It has taken the country decades to reduce levels of sectarian violence, but this time the situation can get even worse because Barelvi organisations have also come into competition in hatred against Shias.

It is not that state institutions were naïve in not knowing the impact of the country’s increasing sectarian divide, but that their approaches to counter it have certain flaws. They might have considered the political utility of religious groups, but on one level the state is also scared of ‘mullah power’.

As has been discussed several times in these pages, religion is at the core of nationalism in Pakistan and the establishment is too barren to visualise anything else. Religious scholars and clergy know this weakness of the state. Religious sloganeering remains at the heart of Pakistani politics, irrespective of military or civilian regimes. The clergy can also challenge the religious credentials of the national leadership, putting them in an awkward position and eroding their moral authority. This is a dangerous built-in tendency among religious groups, and state institutions try to manage them through multiple appeasement strategies, offering lucrative positions in government, and bargaining on their demands.

Call it a matter of expediency or a rational, cogent affair, but the relationship the state and religious circles have developed over the decades is pushing society deeper into extremism. Though there is an impression that Pakistan’s power elites are largely secular in their social lives, is it possible for the sectarian divide to widen and for them to remain immune to it?

Many political analysts fear that the state’s alliance with the clergy will eventually lead the country to an exclusive political structure, with an exclusive religious and sectarian identity. The same process is happening in neighbouring India, where the BJP government is excluding religious minorities from its neo-nationalist plan.

The contents of the prospective Paigham-i-Pakistan bill have not yet been revealed, but, strangely, the whole process is superseding parliament. The Constitution already protects religious identity and the rights of the majority. The new bill can disturb the social contract, which provides minimum safeguards for the country’s inclusivity.

The Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Tahaffuz Bunyad-i-Islam (protecting the foundation of Islam) Bill this year. Though there is no comparison between both bills, they reflect the governments’ approach towards religion. If the PTI government thinks that more religious legislation will convert Pakistan into the state of Madina, it is naïvety on its part, as it will only empower the religious clergy who are under the influence of extremists.

Religious extremism weakens national and social cohesion and also divides loyalties. The leaderships of many banned sectarian groups are more loyal to their respective capitals of ideological resonance, from where they also extract financial resources. Even when there were foreign travel restrictions on the leaders of banned organisations, they regularly visited Gulf states for pilgrimages and long stays. Many of them still enjoy the full security protocols provided by these states.

The sectarian divide is dangerous and cannot be bridged through policies of appeasement. It requires a dialogue within the communities and stakeholders at every level, but there can be no alternative to parliament-led engagement.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2020

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