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Pakistan: Denying religious persecution has political consequences

Monday 2 May 2016, by siawi3


The same old story

April 03, 2016/

by Hassan Javid

Barely a week after yet more innocent Pakistanis – men, women, and children – were killed by terrorists in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park, it’s back to business as usual. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the group that claimed responsibility for the attack, explicitly said that it was aimed at Christians celebrating Easter; this has not stopped politicians, the media, and casual observers from claiming that this was not the case, and that the deaths of several dozen Muslims demonstrated that the bombing was not directed at the country’s already beleaguered Christian community. It goes without saying that all lives are important, but to deny the specific religious motivations that often inspire atrocities of the sort witnessed last week inadvertently reinforces two ultimately misguided narratives: Christians and other religious minorities do not experience persecution, discrimination, and violence on the basis of their faith, and that militancy and terrorism in Pakistan is perpetrated to weaken the state rather than spread and enforce a particularly parochial and millinerian version of Islamic ideology across the country.

The problems and implications of these positions should be self-evident, but are worth spelling out in light of events that have taken place in the days following the Gulshan-i-Iqbal attack. For one, even a cursory look at the headlines should illustrate how the news agenda, and the national focus, has shifted away to ‘weightier’ matters. The airwaves and print media have been dominated by discussion of the capture of an alleged Indian spy in Balochistan, with this being taken as proof of RAW’s involvement in stoking militancy and anti-Pakistan sentiment in that province and, indeed, in the rest of the country. It is not coincidental that this been accompanied by the loud and cacophonous crowing of the usual suspects claiming that Indian involvement in Balochistan is ‘obviously’ linked to incidents of terror in Lahore and elsewhere. As has often been the case before, introspection has been sacrificed at the altar of cynical political opportunism and expediency; Pakistan’s problem with terror, so the argument goes, stems not from its own strategic miscalculations, half-baked ideological machinations, and craven capitulation to the Religious Right, but from the involvement of the infamous ‘foreign hand’. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach simply suggests that if India and other foreign powers were to stop interfering in Pakistan’s affairs, violence and conflict in this country would come to an end. That many informed observers would see this argument as amounting to little more than lunacy and unconscionable denialism has not prevented it’s relentless propagation.

The Janus-faced nature of the state’s response to Islamic militancy is also illustrated by the triumphant, almost hysterically happy coverage of China’s decision to thwart Indian attempts to have the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Masood Azhar, banned by the United Nations. While China has argued that it’s position is borne out of concerns regarding the quality of the evidence against Masood Azhar, the truly troublesome aspect of this whole affair is the celebratory reception of this news in Pakistan. After all, independently of the facts surrounding his involvement in the Pathankot attack, it would not be stretching the truth to argue that Masood Azhar is a deeply unpleasant man espousing a radical militant ideology that flies in the face of the principles allegedly underpinning Pakistan’s National Action Plan and the fight against terrorism. Much like the way in which India’s defeat at the hands of the West Indies in the T20 Cricket semi-final prompted jubilant celebrations across Pakistan, the warm embrace being given to Masood Azhar might be seen as proof of the old cliché about the enemies of enemies being friends, but might also be indicative of a cognitive dissonance that renders acceptable any and all manner of criminal, miscreant, and bigot as long as they continue to make fiery speeches about the destruction of India.

This is not a trivial point because it also helps us understand precisely what happened in Islamabad when a frenzied mob comprised of thousands of ‘protestors’ descended on the capital in support of the recently executed murderer Mumtaz Qadri. By the time they were done, these protestors had caused an estimated Rs. 150 million worth of damage to public and private property, brought life to a standstill in the city for the better part of a week, and had also cheered as their leaders incited them to violence against politicians, the media, and the much-maligned ‘liberals’ who are apparently the source of all of Pakistan’s ills. After trying to talk tough for a few days, threatening to evict the protestors from Islamabad’s D Chowk and prosecuting them for their actions, the government did what it was always going to do: it surrendered, agreeing to seven of the ten demands being made by the protestors.

The government has defended its actions by saying that its conciliatory approach avoided bloodshed and violence. This is correct and even laudable except for the niggling feeling that the government’s desire for a negotiated settlement was borne more out of fear than principle.

Concern for the ‘sensitivities’ of the protestors did not stop the PML-N from presiding over the deaths of unarmed protestors in Model Town in 2014, nor has an interest in conciliation prevented the government from using force against protesting doctors, nurses, and blind people, or from deploying the Anti-Terrorism Act to incarcerate and prosecute trade unionists and other civil society activists. Indeed, just a month ago the Interior Minister informed parliament that no action could be taken against Abdul Aziz, the hate-mongering cleric of the Lal Masjid, due to a lack of cases registered against him (a ‘fact’ that was later revealed to blatantly untrue), and that the real problem lay with members of civil society attempting to create divides in society by repeatedly raising this issue! The very same state that goes on a righteous rampage when policing International NGOs, or silencing troublesome journalists, or ruthlessly suppressing anti-privatisation demonstrations, suddenly becomes meek and quiescent when confronted by the Religious Right.

Every terrorist outrage perpetrated in Pakistan is usually accompanied by the same old faces parroting the same old platitudes about ending the scourge of militancy once and for all. Two years after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, children are still being killed by monsters of our own creation. India is not forcing the Council of Islamic Ideology to push forward its agenda of misogyny. Shadowy foreign agencies are not responsible for the abuse of the blasphemy law or the epidemic of honour killings in Pakistan. Aliens from outer space have not imposed the hate and bigotry being propagated in the name of Islam in seminaries and schools across the country. ‘Banned’ organisations are not openly collecting money and calling for violence due to the machinations of unknowable supernatural beings. If all of this exists, it is because the Pakistani state and establishment has allowed it to do so.

As news spreads of an ‘Operation’ in Punjab, it is worth remembering that no plan to defeat terrorism can succeed as long as their continues to be acceptance for a broader political and societal framework within which religious extremism is tolerated, either out of a desire to exploit it for political advantage, or out of demonstrably misguided attempts to deploy it for strategic advantage in Kashmir and Afghanistan. If there is no will or resolve to address the structural roots of terror – both ideological and material – many more children will die as Pakistan descends further into a hell of its own making.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS