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Sectarian threat to polls

February 13, 2013

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THE brutal killing of a leading lawyer in Peshawar last Friday, apparently for his belief, should awaken everyone who wields any authority in Pakistan to the dangerous consequences of the continued failure to address the root causes of sectarian violence in the country.

The assassination of Malik Jrar Husain, a soft-spoken, non-controversial lawyer and a prominent campaigner for human rights, is the latest in a series of high-profile sectarian killings in Peshawar. Earlier, some weeks ago, two senior doctors, one an eye specialist and the other a gastroenterologist, had been shot dead. And an additional sessions judge barely survived a bullet injury.

It is said that Mr Jrar Husain was being considered for elevation to the high court bench. At a time when scores of posts of high court judges are said to be lying vacant in the country for want of qualified candidates his death is doubly painful. One wonders whether Peshawar is becoming another Karachi, where the targeted killing of prominent professionals seems to have resumed.

A month has passed since the nation-wide protest against the Jan 10 massacre of the Hazara Shias in Quetta had rattled the powers that be and the Raisani ministry had been sent packing. Mercifully, no major incident has been reported from Quetta since then, although one wonders why the law-enforcement agencies, that were in command even before the imposition of governor raj, had failed to establish order earlier.

Elsewhere, however, the monster of sectarian violence has been taking its toll. Only the other day two religious scholars were killed in Karachi. Earlier, 27 people were killed in a blast outside a mosque in Hangu. The attacks on Eid Milad processions at some places in Punjab indicate that the virus of sectarian intolerance has also spread to the villages.

Notwithstanding the imposition of governor rule in Balochistan, the shock caused by the Quetta massacre and the bereaved families’ refusal to bury the dead for four days has scarcely galvanised the state and society into action against the menace of sectarianism.

What makes the situation especially serious and disquieting is the fact that the administration is still treating targeted killings for sectarian differences wholly as a law and order matter and that too in a narrow sense. The emphasis continues to be on increasing the ring of security for vulnerable communities and individuals. An example is the federal interior minister’s assurance to the president of the Jafaria Alliance that additional security was being provided to the Hazaras in Balochistan. The public has not been taken into confidence as to what ‘additional security’ means.

The complaint that even the task of catching the culprits responsible for the major incidents of sectarian bloodshed is not carried out does not seem to be baseless. The organisations behind the killing of the Hazara Shias and quite a few members of other sects in Balochistan have been known for many years. One of them made its plans to exterminate the Hazara Shias known in advance. The statement that the organisation to which the killer gangs belonged was banned long ago is meaningless. For one thing the new identity acquired by the outlawed organisation is known to the authorities, and for another the relevant laws do not exempt persons belonging to banned outfits as well as those committing crimes after their organisations are banned.

Besides, no action has been reported against the instigators of sectarian violence. A great deal of literature is published year after year that causes hatred among the various religious sects. Suppression of such activity was one of the primary objectives of the law designed to deal with terrorism and sectarian violence, an objective that, for all practical purposes, seems to have been discarded. Those having access to pulpits and possessing public address systems continue to preach hatred, extol violence and incite impressionable youth to murder anyone who does not share their belief.

That sectarian madness cannot be cured by courts and law-enforcement agencies is now a cliché. Yet alternative strategies are not developed to answer the need for a battle of minds that the situation demands. The recent accord in Karachi between two religious organisations belonging to different sects for a joint protest against fratricide was welcome but they need to do much more to promote inter-sect harmony.

The problem with initiatives for a better understanding between different sects and mutual tolerance of one another is that exchange of views and making of compacts are limited to leaders/scholars of the parties involved; the process is not carried to the grassroots. Ordinary members of the different communities, especially in the vast countryside, get messages of inter-sect goodwill in bits and pieces through the media or intermediaries and often remain unconvinced. There is great need for the leaders of the various sects to address, jointly as well as separately, their followers in towns and villages.

One does not know whether it is possible to persuade the ulema of various inclinations to concentrate on the elements of unity in Islamic thought instead of excommunicating all those who wish to seek salvation from one of the many other legitimate paths open to them. The reason is that often sectarian exclusivity is pursued for worldly gains. Separate mosques, madressahs and debating caucuses are built and organised as a means to acquire power over ordinary people and also to harness methods of better living. Often the arguments for sectarian peace and harmony fail to break the rock of material interest. And now sectarian controversies are politically motivated as well.

A nation-wide effort by religious scholars as well as lay persons and civil society activists to keep sectarian forces out of politics is urgently needed during the run-up to the general election. One can already see growing polarisation in society, and political and religious parties, along sectarian proclivities. There are grounds for apprehension that certain elements might exploit sectarian differences to undermine the democratic character of elections. The danger of violence too cannot be ruled out. That will be a great disservice to both religion and politics and, as in the case of nuclear fallout, the next generation of none of the sects will escape the dehumanising effect.