Sect in stone

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It is important to speak of sectarian conflicts – rather than one sectarian conflict – when looking at the complex phenomenon of sectarianism in Pakistan. Sectarian violence, as well as sectarian conflicts, in the country exists in a complex web of interrelated and mutually reinforcing forms of violence and militancy, often making it difficult to separate these intertwined factors.

Keeping the complex contexts and interrelated forms of violence in mind, any analysis of sectarian violence should carefully avoid monocausal explanations. Sectarian violence, indeed, consists of several levels: criminal activities, competition between sectarian groups and violence to put pressure on political and law enforcement bodies, for example, are all now part of this enterprise.

Another mistake would be to see sectarian violence as being targeted against just one side of the divide. Despite the obvious asymmetry – the vast majority of those being killed are Shias – it is important to note that Sunnis are also being targeted. There is a steady stream of target killings, particularly against Sunni activists in Karachi, which is sometimes lost amidst news about striking acts of violence against Shias.

The recent growth in sectarian violence is better explained by the reinforcement of elements and factors which have enabled and supported sectarianism and sectarian violence in the past. Violent sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi extended their network outside their traditional strongholds in south Punjab long before the recent surge in violence, and their connections with other militant groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban are also not established recently. This is reflected in the gradual change in the focus of violence which has moved away from Punjab, the hub of such violence particularly in 1990s, to locations such as Quetta and Gilgit which, though not new venues of sectarian conflicts, are where the most striking violent incidents have taken place recently.

Sectarian violence has increased because of a clear expansion of operational spaces for violent sectarian groups to function within. Methods used in the recent sectarian violence incidents show that the groups operate with confidence and without fear of being caught. Targeting Shias on buses and other passenger vehicles, although not a new method, has become the favoured modus operandi of militant sectarian groups. Taking time to drag passengers out of the targeted vehicles, identifying Shias and shooting them differs significantly from targeted killings conducted swiftly by usually two gunmen on motorcycles from a safe distance, with the possibility of disappearing as soon as the shooting is over. Such ease of operations could have ensued from the fact that the police and the courts don’t have the capacity to investigate, prosecute and convict sectarian killers.

The groups perpetrating violence can also rely on the fact that before the upcoming general election next year no serious action will be taken against them. Instead, political parties are engaging with several sectarian leaders and reaching out to all possible constituencies for political support. The symbols of banned groups are openly displayed in political rallies, and party leaders are arguing over what actually constitutes the fine line between talking to and engaging with the leaders of the banned groups. Thus, as has become customary, the actions by the government and political parties are confined to ritual condemnations of sectarian killings and referring to international intelligence agencies and ‘foreign hands’ as being behind them. Sectarian violence would not be possible without such a permissive and enabling environment.

This increase in violence is also coupled with the strengthening of exclusivist sectarian discourse which exists and thrives in an environment where the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in 2011 by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri who believed Taseer had committed blasphemy. The reaction to the killing was highly polarised in Pakistan: on the one hand there was strong condemnation of the brutal-violent act, on the other hand it was celebrated, with rose petals showered on Qadri after the incident.

Sectarian discourse flourishes in an environment where an unknown malang (vagabond) was killed this July in Bahawalpur by a group of people unrelated to any militant group after they accused him of insulting the sanctity of the Quran. This discourse is not removed from but inherently linked to the idea of defending religion (as defined by the perpetrators of violence) and acting against the elements threatening the sanctity of what is considered true Islam. Who is considered a blasphemer in a particular case may vary, but the logic in these incidents is the same. It allows the use of instant justice by self-appointed judges and executioners against those who profess different interpretations of Islam or against those who are seen to threaten a particular interpretation of the religion. It is impossible to draw the line to separate these cases, permitting and justifying one without implicitly allowing others. Sectarian discourse – with sectarian violence – is thus an integral part of – as well as forcing – the ongoing debate of who is ‘really’ a Muslim and what their status is in Pakistani society.

The increase in sectarian violence perhaps has had the inadvertent effect of sectarianism being discussed and thought of in the context of ‘securing minorities’ in Pakistan. It is true that Shias make up perhaps 15 per cent of the Pakistani population (the exact percentage is unknown and debated) but the concept of ‘minority’ in this case is essentially different to ‘what is less in numbers’. In fact, Shias in Pakistan have fought against Sunni demands of labelling them as a (religious) minority, this is understandable in a country whose national identity is centred on religious majoritarianism.

Branding a community particularly as a religious minority in Pakistan carries with it the processes of exclusion from the Muslim majority, legal consequences, institutional segregation as well as stigma and marginalisation. The categorisation of Shias as a (religious) minority, often heard both in national and international media, can be seen as a step towards change in the perception of Shia communities and as a success of the sectarian exclusivist discourse.

Sectarian violence has also produced demands to protect the Shia communities. It is impossible, of course, to secure entire communities but the security measures recently announced because of the recent violent incidents (such as the extra funds reportedly allocated for the security of the Karakoram Highway, or the police and the Frontier Corps escorts for buses in Quetta) are nevertheless showing that some concrete measures are being taken to improve the situation, however limited their factual effect would be.

These new security measures, though, should be looked at in the context of those already in place. It is astounding to realise that providing security for the Muharram processions and gatherings is the largest annual police operation in Pakistan, requiring substantial amounts of resources every year. Incidents of sectarian violence through the years have resulted in systematising and institutionalising the practice of securing certain religious places and practices and most worryingly this is now normalised in the Pakistani society. It highlights the damaging effect of sectarian discourse enforced with protracted violence and underscores how public spaces are increasingly used for contesting and limiting religious plurality of Pakistani society. Rather than eliminating Shias, sectarian violence has managed to limit the public space for them to practice their religion and function as a community. This must seem like a success for those who perpetrate sectarian violence, encouraging that violence to continue.

With political will to limit the operational spaces for violent sectarian groups to function, it is possible to change the trend of increasing sectarian violence. But it needs a parallel change in appreciating and valuing religious plurality in Pakistan, both at the national and local levels, and particularly in public spaces. This would make the exclusivist sectarian discourse much harder to find resonance and survive in the Pakistani society. n

— Katja Riikonen is a PhD candidate and an associate in Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU) at the University of Bradford, UK. Her PhD research focuses on sectarian violence in Pakistan

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