Hijacking National Identity

Spearhead Analysis – 23.01.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Divisive politics, and highlighting denominational differences along religious lines is not a recent phenomenon; religion has always been the reference point of most conflicts throughout history. Whether this can be attributed to the nature of religion itself is a debatable notion, but what remains true is that the politicization of religion and its inclusion in the secular domain of politics has almost always been problematic.

In recent news, the opposition was prompted to walk out of the Senate in response to Interior Minister’s remark that terrorist organizations should not be put on par with sectarian organizations, and added that the Sunni-Shia conflict dated back to 1300 years and is grounded in history. This was in response to objections over his meeting last October with the leader of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, who was a part of a Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC) delegation. What came under fire was the lack of understanding of the nexus between sectarian and terrorist organizations, his possible apologetic attitude and appeasement of sectarian organizations rooted in the practices prevalent in previous governments.

The prevalence of sectarian violence in Pakistan is woven through history – drawing on old distinctions of faith, but unraveling in a modern context. The rise in sectarian violence is a thread of continuity gaining momentum in Pakistan society since the early years, carefully pushed by a military ruler who met his bittersweet ending in a crateful of mangoes, and a Pakistani constitution that just wont budge.

A walk through history

It all started with the Pakistani state’s attempt to mold a national identity based on Islam, and while Muslim nationalism in India in the onset of the Pakistani movement was detached from sectarianism and was largely pan-Islamic in nature, the official narrative began to shift as early as the 1950s. According to Raza Rumi in his paper titled ‘Extremism Watch: Mapping Conflict Trends in Pakistan 2010-2011’, he discusses how this shift occurred when new textbooks commissioned for junior classes carefully constructed an identity that was not only in opposition to the Indian identity, but was also Islamic in nature. This non-inclusive identity, constructed through the public education system, allowed the state to pick and choose historical narratives and teachings of religious somebodies gelling in with the definition of the Pakistani man it was set out to create – a Sunni Muslim.

One of the earliest sectarian attacks occurred in 1963, when a Wahabi mob attacked a house occupied by 200 Shi’as, in which 118 were killed, was considered by most as the starting point of Shia persecution in Pakistan.

In addition to clashing identities on a societal level, the 1974 constitutional amendment took a turn for the worse when it launched apostasy verdicts against a minority in Pakistan, and declared them non-Muslims – embarking on a journey that would shape Pakistan’s future as an intolerant society resting on sectarian politics. While the amendment was specific to the just one community, it has also been used by radical Sunni clerics to victimize the Shia community in Pakistan.

Enter a military ruler, and sectarian politics reached a crescendo in Pakistan. That was a time when political Islam was on the rise, whereby his rigid interpretation of Islamic law was enforced in the country partly as of his own ideological leanings, and mostly to legitimize his illegal rule in Pakistan. His carefully worded referendum where a vote in favor of him was to be taken as one in support of Islamization, and vice versa, not only gained him 97.7 percent of votes, but also shaped Pakistani politics in a manner where courting religious sentiments and misusing religion in electoral campaigns became a foolproof tactic.

While sectarian rifts were on the rise in Punjab, evidence suggests that the dictator was aware of the situation but chose to turn a blind eye to it, as he did towards a renowned Indian Muslim cleric funded by Saudi Arabia questioning Deobandi Madrassahs in Pakistan whether they believed Shias to be Muslims or not, which led the seminaries to send fatwas declaring Shias as non-Muslims. In 1986, there was the massacre of the Turi Shiites at the hands of the Afghan mujahidin in conjunction with the local Sunni population in the Kurram agency of the tribal areas.

He actively wooed religious-rightist sentiments to gain a foothold in Pakistan’s political scene, and polarized Pakistani society along religious lines – shifting from a society that viewed Islam through a pluralist and tolerant lens, to one narrowing it down to a more rigid Deobandi Islam.

In terms of geo-politics, the Deobandi division deepened and gained strength following the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Sunni-Shia rift in the Middle East following the Iranian revolution hardened religious identities, and the romanticism surrounding the Deobandi variant carrying out ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union added to its appeal.

Even after democracy took root in Pakistan in the 90s, sectarian violence continued to worsen. The governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto saw the rise of sectarian militancy in the country, where between 1996-98, sectarian violence led to 204 terrorist attacks solely in Punjab. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister, started a cleanup operation against the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) but stopped after the group tried to assassinate him.

Fast-forward, and PML-N is accused of being linked, and lending support to sectarian elements in Punjab.

From footprints to foothold

While the media and intelligentsia often downplay incidents of sectarianism to avoid inflaming communal passions, sectarianism seems to be on the rise in Pakistan. Location wise, sectarian attacks are more frequent in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and tribal areas where there’s a prevalence of a pervasive, extremist Salafist ideology implemented by armed rebels, and the existence of unregistered madrassas, and unregulated madrassa curriculum.

To a lesser degree, Sindh and Punjab also witness sectarianism, especially with security being on high alert around the time of Ashura. While the mobilization of security forces is a sight that Pakistanis are desensitized towards, it speaks volumes of the security situation in Pakistan, especially with regards to minorities, whereby an added sense of insecurity takes over close to occasional religious events and processions.

Sectarian groups find their strength in dishing out sectarian narratives through the country’s religious institutions, preaching the politics of hate. This jihadi madrassa system continues to thrive in Pakistan, and its correlation with sectarianism is one that cannot be ignored. Remote areas, with low-income groups are easier to target, where smaller madrassas are more vulnerable owing to the lack of supervision by security forces and agencies in case of possible infiltration by extremist groups to influence clerics and exploit economically disadvantaged individuals. While bigger madrassas tend to focus on nurturing sectarian hatred, the smaller ones translate this hatred into violence.

The irony of the state is that it wants to control violence, but not what triggers it, and that is where its fault lies. The drivers of sectarian hate are intact, in that the ideology preached by religious clerics through religious institutions continues to be a reality, and hate speech along sectarian lines is unregulated. If that wasn’t enough, prominent leaders fail to recognize the problem of sectarianism – either due to their naivety, or a fear of the outcome of their dissent.

It can be argued that to find a solution to violent outbursts over sectarian demarcations, an honest discussion surrounding the factors fuelling sectarian hatred needs to take place. However, the situation is one where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. There’s a dangerous cycle that exists, where discussing a taboo would probably unleash a bloodthirsty reaction, and ignoring it would make you part of an ideological rut, and a system devoid of change – destined to perish.

The nexus

The point that Chaudhry Nisar seemed to have missed is that, on the surface, both terrorist and sectarian groups in Pakistan function on the premise that their version of religion is more superior than the next person and warrants violence against the ‘infidel’. Whether this is done to safeguard the sanctity of their religious beliefs, or to accumulate power is a separate debate altogether. However, sectarianism in its modern-day manifestation cannot be separated from the growth of Pakistan based terror groups and their allegiance to global Jihadist groups; the relationship is symbiotic, where in many cases not only do they share ideologies, but also provide each other with manpower.

Local sectarian groups and terrorist outfits are linked to transnational groups like Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi leader Naeem Bukhari being a prime example, whereby the overarching goal is to spread terror along religious lines, but a little sectarian violence here and there on the side also goes. It so happens that extremists associated with Salafi/Deobandi sectarian groups, aided by external jihadi outfits as well as transnational terror networks such as the Al-Qaeda, see Shias in general as targets to perpetrate violence against.

The dangers of Chaudhry Nisar’s statement are many. First, it seemingly follows Pakistan’s alleged policy of distinguishing between good types of violence, and bad, the okay kind and the not so okay kind. By saying that the laws governing sectarian groups should differ from terrorist organizations, and then backing his suggestions with history, he comes across as yet another leader unable to call a spade a spade, with an apologetic attitude towards violence.

Secondly, meeting with the member of a banned organization under the DPC becomes problematic in that it allows proscribed organizations to freely assemble under legitimate organizations to be given space for debate and discussion. Moreover, what’s even more alarming is that the DPC has also been publicly calling for an armed Jihad in neighboring India over Kashmir, and has been allowing its platform to be used by banned outfits. The position this puts Pakistan in internationally is the usual – that Pakistan uses terrorism as a state policy.

As evident from its absence of a policy framework, the Pakistani state seems to be negligent towards the growing menace of sectarianism despite its ability to bind local and international terrorist networks in a shared goal of violence against certain groups. The emergence of hate narratives along sectarian lines, and a general leaning towards religious-sectarian issues as opposed to national issues, points to the worst; the Pakistani public is becoming increasingly intolerant, and for all the wrong reasons. Rather than digging a hole impossible to get out of, the government needs to realize that this is not the time or place for petty vote bank politics – the world is watching.