Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pakistan’s minorities under attack

By Sana Ashraf 

On 16 February, a suicide bomb ripped through the shrine of 12th century Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan — a town in Sindh, Pakistan — while the traditional Sufi whirling dance and meditation called Dhamaal was being performed. The bomb came after a series of attacks throughout Pakistan in the same week and was the deadliest of all.

Pakistan has few sites of tolerance and inclusivity open to the middle and lower classes. The shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was one of them. The shrine is also frequented by people from across Pakistan’s religious denominations: both Sunni and Shia Muslims worship there, as do Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis. Despite increased regulation and enforced segregation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan since the 1970s, the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine has continued to host diverse crowds of Pakistanis throughout the year.
Pluralism and inclusivity is at the heart of Muslim Sufi practice, which has been branded as ‘divergent’ by both Saudi-funded Wahhabi groups and the so-called Islamic State (IS), who claimed to be behind the attack. It is the most recent in a spate of attacks on Sufi temples and Sufi adherents over the past few years. The attack was a message that extremists will not tolerate any pluralistic practice of religion in Pakistan.
Following the Sehwan attack, major Sufi shrines across the country were closed for security purposes, although many worshippers at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar were not deterred. The Dhamaal was performed, as usual, the very next day, with an outpouring of public support from many Pakistanis including public figures and activists who joined the daily ritual. Yet, despite the rage and disgust expressed by many Pakistanis in response to the slaughter, criticism of Sufi practice poured in from popular religious scholars and their urban middle-class followers. Many in these conservative religious communities see Sufi shrine culture as a corruption of ‘pure’ Islam.
The past few decades have seen the space for religious expression shrink for Pakistan’s religious minorities. Since 2006 there has been an increase in violent attacks on not only Sufi shrines, but Ahmedi mosquesChristian churchesHindu temples and Shia mosques. Behind the violence are organised militant groups such as IS, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and other factions of the Pakistani Taliban as well as mobs of self-proclaimed moderate Sunni Muslims who are otherwise non-militant. While there are different — and often rival — groups behind the attacks, the common aim seems to be the elimination of religious minorities.
In the aftermath of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar massacre the military establishment has rushed to place the blame on Afghanistan, arguing the terrorists are Afghanis and operating with the tacit support of the Afghan state.
Within hours of the Sehwan Sharif blast the Pakistan army had boasted of killing over 100 terrorists. There has been no explanation as to how these people were located within a few hours of the blast, or why were they not found earlier. More disturbing is why the military or the government felt justified in performing on-the-spot executions without investigation.
The government is now seeking constitutional support to reintroduce the recently expired military courts. The efficacy of these courts in eliminating terrorism through swift and unmonitored hearings is highly questionable. They also operate in direct contradiction of the legal right to an independent and impartial trial enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution.
Promises of a renewed resolve to fight the terrorists and of immediate retaliation by the Army and Rangers are all too familiar to Pakistanis. After every such incident, increased security measures are taken to appease the infuriated masses. Until recently, the military crackdown on terrorists had appeared to have worked: Terrorist attacks were sharply reduced, and security appeared to have improved. The strategy has also worked on other fronts: the military enjoys high levels of public support for their strong stance and prompt efforts against terrorism. Yet in light of the latest attack, many are now questioning the effectiveness of the broader National Action Plan in combatting terrorist activity in Pakistan.
But the government and military’s public responses gloss over their selective fight against the terrorists and their support of certain extremist groups for their own political gains. The government has been negligent of the religious scholars spreading hatred through various forums despite the National Action Plan’s aim to address the issue of hate speech. Known extremist religious leaders such as Molana Abdul Aziz, who has openly praised IS, and many others continue to preach freely. There have been several incidents in which government authorities have failed to provide security to minority communities despite blatant threats of attacks directed towards them.
So long as the military establishment, government officials and political leaders continue to pursue their own political interests at the cost of Pakistan’s religious minorities, peace, tolerance and co-existence will be hard to achieve.

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