By Saad Hafiz
The sectarian schism, which leads to unending violence, is probably the most deadly of Pakistan’s list of self-inflicted problems. The historic manipulation of religion by the state for political purposes has sowed the seeds of hateful intra-religious sectarian division. Sectarian violence is not only pervasive, it also accentuates divisions within Pakistan and underlines the ineptness of the government and security services in stemming this phenomenon. During the last 35 years, thousands of people, mostly from minority sects, have been killed and thousands more maimed in attacks by zealots from rival sects in Pakistan. For hardline Sunni sectarian groups, Ahmedis, Shias and even fellow Sunnis are fair game. Their lethal attacks on Shia ulema (clerics) and professionals have generated a violent Shia backlash. The French political philosopher, Montesquieu said, “If a republic is small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it is large, it is destroyed by an internal vice.” Pakistan is at that crossroad as the purveyors of a contemptuous sectarianism ruthlessly sweep the land.
Religious slogans and symbolism were widely used during the campaign for Pakistan’s creation, and remain a potent rallying cry for religion-based politics. Sectarianism can also be attributed to the divergent forces that led to the creation of Pakistan. However, sectarianism in Pakistan today has very little to do with intrinsic religious differences or deeply rooted and irreconcilable cultural differences between groups or with 1,400 years of Islamic history. Contemporary sectarianism has more to do with the projection of majority power and achievement of political aims. It has been helped by the state taking upon itself the role to determine who is and who is not a true Muslim, which has raised religious identity and religious correctness to become larger issues in Pakistan’s political discourse. As the state has increasingly taken on an Islamic character, sectarian differences have become even more firmly embedded in society.
Past governments, particularly since the 1970s, have tolerated significant levels of intimidation and attacks on minorities. Some actively stoked the demonisation of minority religious sects to remain in power. It has been endlessly useful to ruling elites, demagogues and dictators to have some minority to blame for problems, to deflect outrage from their own failures and to bind an otherwise fractious community together against a common enemy. Even secular civilian and military leaders found it expedient to argue, from time to time, that the nation must mobilise to fend off threats to Islam or to Pakistan’s Islamic ideology. These leaders might or might not have truly believed in sectarian differences but they are perfectly happy to take advantage of them when it suits their goals. The painful reality is that sectarianism proved too useful to too many powerful actors, and too compelling a narrative in a violent, turbulent and uncertain time, to be avoided. Conditions for state failure — uncertainty, fear and economic hardship — have added to the toxic conditions for sectarianism to gain traction.
The proliferation and entrenchment of sectarian rhetoric over the previous decade have been especially destructive. The sectarian incitement, which pollutes sections of the media, and which floods through politicised mosques and religious networks, provides the master frame that increasingly makes sense to people who, a decade ago, would have angrily waved such rhetoric away. Televised slaughter, rumours of sectarian or ethnic targeting and the wide circulation of hostile rhetoric are a benefit, not an unfortunate side product of their efforts. This ratcheting effect is the reason for the deepest concern about the trends of the last few years. Sectarian promoters might think that they can turn the hatred on and off as it suits their interests but, at some point, these differences become self-sustaining and internalised. It is far easier to generate and mobilise sectarian animosities than it is to calm them down.
The way back from the abyss will require that deeply entrenched, divisive sectarian narratives change and find wide public circulation and resonance. It will also require the management of the social and political role of religion on numerous institutional levels. A factor that may assist in reversing sectarianism is that the sectarian militias, which were used and controlled by the military for strategic and ideological purposes, have turned against their former masters and bankrollers. The all-powerful military may now have a stake in taking up the serious challenge of rolling back extremist beliefs.
The counter-sectarian narrative could be built around the following argument: first, a modern state should be founded on the basis of democracy and secularism; second, politics and religion should be separable; third, religion is not a nation-building and state consolidation tool; fourth, majoritarianism cannot be the basis of tyranny and last, pluralism and political and cultural differences are essential in a democratic society. Perhaps Pakistan can redeem itself on this basis and crawl out of the sectarian mess it has put itself in. Otherwise, for the foreseeable future, sectarian Islamist militancy will remain a serious threat to Pakistan and regional stability.