The suicide blast in Lahore on Easter eve, exclusively targeting Lahore’s Christian community and killing almost 72 people and injuring more than 200, is a reflection of Pakistan’s long-standing problem of competing religious identities and the consequent attempts on the part of the majority to ‘purify’ the land, which they see as ‘polluted’ by ‘other’ religious groups and sects.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the explosion. A spokesman for the group, Ehsanullah Ehsan, told the Guardian: “We have carried out this attack to target the Christians who were celebrating Easter. Also this is a message to the Pakistani prime minister that we have arrived in Punjab [the ruling party’s home province].”
However, the Punjab government denied, in its bid to oversimplify the problem, that religious minorities were deliberately targeted. Specifically, it downplayed the notion that the bombing was aimed exclusively at Christians, as those in the park were from all backgrounds.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, it should be remembered, is one of the many Taliban groups from Pakistan who have shown an inclination to join the Islamic State (IS). It has accordingly modified its organizational and operational framework to this end. It also nurtures a religious ideology that is more violent and more based upon religious “othering” than that of any other Taliban faction. This has led to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s emergence as a new threat to Pakistan’s security.
The group has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past few months. However, it would be a gross over-simplification to place this group or, generally speaking, terrorism in Pakistan in the larger regional context only. The problem, as a number of studies have shown, extends deeply into Pakistani society, with the wider regional context becoming relevant only recently.
Not first attack on Christians
This is not the first time Christians have been attacked in Pakistan. The Lahore attack was, however, the deadliest attack on them in Pakistan since the 2013 Peshawar church bombing that killed more than 80.
The degree to which religious hatred has escalated in Pakistan is evident from the way some ‘religious gangs’ almost hijacked Islamabad’s most sensitive area, the Red Zone, this month to force the government to hang Aasia Bibi, an imprisoned Christian lady who was originally sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2009-2010.
Then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, had publicly opposed using the blasphemy law against Bibi at the time. This led to his assassination at the hands of his security guard, Mumtaz Qadri.
Qadri was recently hanged for the offense, prompting the violent Red Zone protests by hundreds of Qadri’s supporters who called for the executed guard to be declared a martyr and also demanded Bibi’s execution.
Property worth millions of rupees was reportedly destroyed by the protesters who seem to have put the entire city under siege. They have commenced a sit-in and have vowed to stay until their demands are met. They are demanding the lady’s execution despite the fact that her case in currently on appeal and her death sentence has been postponed by the court.
The two episodes, taking place on the same day, reflect that the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan is not simply and merely confined to certain Taliban groups. Despite the fact that Pakistan has been claiming ‘marvelous success’ against the Taliban based in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the protests in Islamabad tend to reinforce that the problem of religious extremism and violence on that basis is not merely confined to a certain ‘remote region.’ It has crept deeply into the urban centers and among the so-called educated class, and is likely to exacerbate if only tackled through military and intelligence operations.
Although such operations are necessary and be seen as a part of wider de-radicalization strategy, this is precisely where Pakistan’s policy makers have failed to come up with a plan that envisages the problem of religious extremism and exclusivism in a much wider sociological context.
For instance, in one of my previous articles, I had written about how Pakistan’s top universities are gradually turning into places where extremism is preached and where liberal elements are sidelined effectively and allegedly under official patronage.
The problem as such cannot be tackled, assuming that Pakistan’s top policy makers are ‘serious’ in tackling it, through operations as extremism is emerging from areas that do not by any means fall under the purview of the National Action Plan (NAP). For instance, none of the 20 elaborate provisions of the plan says anything about radically changing or reforming educational curriculum and the extremely sensitive content being produced therein; while the fact of the matter is that the reason for extremism permeating the social fabric is this very extremely flawed curriculum being taught at school, college and university levels.
For instance, it was only a few days ago when a sociology book of intermediate level was reported to have contained in it extremely negative material about the Baluch people who happen to be one of Pakistan’s smallest ethnic groups. Exposed by a veteran Baluch nationalist, the book was not only widely criticized by Pakistan’s civil society and some political circles alike but also described as a clear manifestation of the ‘official silence’ against ethnic denigration.
Although its publisher did issue an official apology, it was not followed by any official action against its publishers and authors. The book had been taught in Pakistan, in Punjab mainly, for last many years, leading many of its young readers to believe that the Baluch people were simply “barbarians”, living on the very margins of “civilization” and, therefore, not worthy of being ‘true Pakistanis.’
The book and the content being taught in it again reflect how ethnic-fault lines have become extremely politicized and why ethnic-hatred is ever increasing in Pakistan. The official silence on this extremely significant issue is not merely an issue of neglect; it, on the very contrary, signifies tacit compliance.
Curriculum is, therefore, a part of the problem and goes a long way in perpetuating religious, sectarian, ethnic and national stereotypes—a thought pattern that goes a long way in determining social action and that quite often turns into blatant violence.
Likewise, roots of attacks on Christians and the fact that they are one of the most impoverished communities in Pakistan can be traced back to Pakistan’s ‘ideological engineering’ as the bastion of Islam and the land of the pure — concepts that had begun to be officially sponsored and implemented months after Pakistan’s creation in August 1947.
The problem of religious extremism — or any form of extremism — in Pakistan cannot simply be tackled through military operations. It can be tackled at sociological level by, as one prominent Pakistani physicist and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy argues, thoroughly re-imagining Pakistan’s socio-historical existence as the bastion of Islam and the land of Muslims only. Only then can Pakistan’s regional and larger foreign policy outlook be effectively changed.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org