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Dangerous conflation

January 20, 2013

THE killing of MQM MPA Manzar Imam last week is the latest sign of the increasing overlap between sectarian violence and politics.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, but MQM leaders have pointed fingers at Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), highlighting the sectarian dimension of the murder. Imam himself was Sunni, but anti-terrorism police report that Imam was on an LJ hit list. Many details of the killing remain unclear.

By emphasising the sectarian angle, the MQM is highlighting that it is one of the only political parties to have spoken consistently and vehemently against the killing of Shias: Altaf Hussain backed the recent Hazara sit-in and has repeatedly condemned sectarian violence. Previously, in 2010, MQM MPA Raza Haider also fell victim to a sectarian attack. But the MQM is not the only party being targeted on sectarian grounds: members of the Hazara Democratic Party have been targeted since 2009, starting with their chairman.

The conflation of sectarian violence and politics sets a dangerous precedent in the Pakistani context, threatening the current default mode of sanitising matters of religious difference in the political sphere. Events that emphasise the sectarian affiliations or sympathies of politicians will make it increasingly difficult to maintain some semblance of secularity in the political realm.

While it is absolutely essential that political leaders speak out against sectarian (and other types of) violence, they should do so from a standpoint of fundamental human rights, law and order, and societal tolerance. As it stands, we avoid acknowledging the sectarian affiliations of our politicians. For all the growing schisms at the societal level, the media, parliament, armchair analysts etc gloss over these matters, confining speculations about the sectarian identity of public figures to online chat rooms.

Nothing exemplifies this trend more than the media’s reluctance to mention the sect of the country’s founder for fear of fuelling difference. Instead, the public sphere seeks to promote a national identity that is consonant with Muslim inclusiveness.

Sectarian blindness in the political realm is not only the conscious product of national identity formation, but also the inadvertent consequence of history. Traditionally, Pakistanis have identified first and foremost with their kinship group, clan, and by extension, ethno-linguistic group and have sought political representation (and patronage distribution) along these lines.

Sectarian differences are relative newcomers in terms of political identity formation (with some exceptions such as anti-Ahmadi mobilisation, which kicked off in the 1950s), imposed on Pakistan by Gen Zia’s policies and the coercive tactics of militant groups that have flourished in the past three decades. The ingrained affiliation to ethno-linguistic groups helps explain why religious parties have street power, but little electoral clout.

This is not to say that sectarian issues don’t impact politics in present-day Pakistan. Many politicians are sajjada nasheens who use their ties to Sufi shrines to woo constituencies. In central and southern Punjab, LJ’s parent organisation the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan is an electoral force to be reckoned with and all major political parties in the province rely on SSP’s backing to win parliamentary seats.

In places like Gilgit-Baltistan where sectarian differences are pronounced owing to demographics and a history of sectarian clashes, politicians dole out patronage along sectarian lines: under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Local Governance Ordinance (2009), local governments are more autonomous, and Sunnis complain that Shia leaders tend to channel development funds, job opportunities and key government posts to their Shia constituencies.

These examples demonstrate that sectarian affiliations matter at the political grassroots, but also highlight by way of contrast that the mainstream political sphere is largely free of sectarianism, owing both to the precedence of ethno-linguistic identities and efforts to engender an ‘imagined community’ of a religiously homogenous Pakistan.

Attacks such as the one against Imam, and Haider before him, could start putting politicians’ sectarian identities in the limelight. This over time might reorganise the Pakistani electorate along sectarian lines — rather than kinship, ethnicity, linguistics, or geography — especially if certain affiliations are seen to be vulnerable to attack and thus demanding of solidarity.

If this were to happen, there will be no chance of maintaining the partial separation of church and state in Pakistani politics that has struggled to endure in the wake of the Objectives Resolution.

Moreover, political organisation along sectarian lines would facilitate social cleavages and, in a worst case scenario, enable the political mainstreaming of groups such as SSP/ASWJ — an eventuality that Pakistan’s already ravaged social fabric probably could not survive.

In a Pakistani context, the problem with sectarian differences in the political realm is that they are violence-justifying. Sectarian groups peddle interpretations of religious texts that offer divine justification for violence against heretics (that is, members of other sects). This is already happening on the streets of Pakistan, in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Parachinar, Gilgit, and Dera Ismail Khan. Imagine what it would be like if the same proclamations were to come out of parliament.

Moreover, an expanded role for sectarianism in the political sphere risks making government a centre for theological debate rather than a platform for effective — and equitable — service delivery. Poll after poll suggests that ordinary Pakistanis care about inflation, power shortages, employment opportunities and water supply. The gradually shifting focus of Pakistani politics away from local issues towards ideological distinctions may be the greatest letdown yet.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf