The purpose behind sectarian violence


COMMENT: The purpose behind sectarian violence —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain

In many parts of Pakistan, the Taliban religious philosophy has sympathisers and supporters among the general public, politicians, bureaucracy at all levels, police forces and of course among the local religious establishments and mosques. As such the religious terrorists do not work in a vacuum but have local help and protection

Sectarian violence is as old as organised religion. However, sectarianism becomes a large scale problem only when it is taken over by a political group to obtain political advantage. There is no point in rehashing the long and violent history of all great religions. But it is time to step back and see what the recent flurry of sectarian violence in Pakistan is all about.

Most objective assessments of the modern history of the Muslims will probably point to the Khomeini revolution in Iran and its backlash among the hereditary Kingdoms and Sheikhdoms of the Arabian Peninsula as the point in time when sectarianism in Islam became politicised most recently.

The Iran-Iraq war of the 80s was the first Sunni salvo against Shia revivalism. It of course ended in a stalemate. The Arabian hereditary monarchies have never taken on the Shia theocracy of Iran directly but both sides have used proxies against each other. In such matters the proxies have a bad habit of wanting to run free.

The Taliban, an extremist Sunni proxy in Afghanistan caught the independence bug also and gave protection to Osama and his al Qaeda. For this they suffered a fate similar to that of Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. The Taliban in Afghanistan were removed from power after 9/11 but they were not destroyed completely. The Pakistani establishment protected the core leadership of the Taliban for its own ‘security’ purposes. The Sunni extremists protected them for religious reasons and today we are seeing a Taliban resurgence.

The Taliban might now be an indigenous Afghan resistance movement, but then who funds them, trains them and supports them? The answer as Alfred Hitchcock said, I leave to your vivid imagination! And that brings me to the rather interesting question: who are the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and are they related to the Taliban that are fighting US occupation in Afghanistan?

Most Pakistani and international analysts it would seem suggest that the TTP is a conglomerate of many disparate extremist groups and are supportive but not necessarily a part of the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. My purpose is not to try and figure out all the connections but rather to think about the increasing sectarian violence in Pakistan, which is often blamed on the TTP and what purpose might be behind it.

If we just look at the three major sectarian attacks in Lahore over the last few months, the targets were three different groups. First were the Ahmediyya community, and then came the attack on the shrine of Data Ali Hajvery and finally the most recent attack on the Shia community last week. Clearly it would then seem that the purpose is not to terrorise just one group but rather many different groups that are opposed by the Sunni extremists.

If these were just random efforts to terrorise different religious entities then that would be just that, but it is hard to accept that somebody would go through all this trouble just for that reason. Whatever one might have to say about the perpetrators of these atrocities, I do not think that they are ‘stupid’ and would waste all this firepower without a discrete and well thought out political motive.

Before I follow up on this train of thought any further, I think it is important to accept one basic reality. In many parts of Pakistan, the Taliban religious philosophy has sympathisers and supporters among the general public, politicians, bureaucracy at all levels, police forces and of course among the local religious establishments and mosques. As such the religious terrorists do not work in a vacuum but have local help and protection even in a city like Lahore.

That said, what exactly do the terrorists wish to accomplish? First to what they cannot accomplish under any conceivable circumstances and that is to ‘exterminate’ or ‘banish’ the Shia and the Hanafi-Barelvi Sunnis from Pakistan. That cannot happen for one simple reason: these two together form a majority of the population of this country.

The second thing is that they cannot take the country over and bring about a Taliban-style government in all of Pakistan. First, the Pakistan Army will not let it happen and the Taliban just do not have the firepower to overwhelm the army. And second, those that oppose Taliban-style Islam are in an overwhelming majority in the country. This majority also includes many of the devout Muslims who do not follow the Shia or the pro-sufi persuasions.

So then the best we can do is speculate about what the Taliban and their fellow travellers do expect to accomplish. Here I wish to iterate that in my opinion the terrorists do have a plan and there are political goals that they think they can achieve. The most obvious one is of course to create a serious law and order situation in the country and by doing so relieve the pressure applied on them by the Pakistan Army, and as a corollary to be allowed to pursue their anti-US activities in Afghanistan by using Pakistani territory as a safe haven.

However, I believe that the Taliban also have a socio-political agenda for within Pakistan. The first part of the agenda is of course to create an environment like the one that exists in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where all religious activity not approved by the religious leadership is essentially pushed out of the public sphere. For Pakistan this means a ban on all religious processions by the Shias as well as the Hanafi-Barelvis, no celebrations at the shrines of sufi saints, and of course no public ‘revelry’ of any sort.

The other aim they must have is to drive the Shias out of positions of power, not unlike the time in 1953 when the anti-Ahmediyya movement among other things demanded the removal of Chaudhry Sir Zafarullah Khan as the foreign minister of Pakistan. And yes they got their way with that.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at smhmbbs70@yahoo.com

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