The run-up to Moharram is always predictable. There are official vows to “crush sectarian terrorism” and ulema of all stripes are loud in denouncing firqawariat. But this year, the main sectarian organizations are conspicuous by their deadly silence. In fact, the fear is that the Sunni sectarian terrorists may rampage during Moharram in protest against the recent hanging of their hero, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, and the incarceration of their firebrand leader, Maulana Azam Tariq.
Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, it may be recalled, assassinated the Iranian Consul, Sadiq Ganji, in 1990 but could not be sentenced because at least a dozen judges of the Lahore High Court were afraid or reluctant to convict him. Last year, however, the supreme court was nudged to do the needful by the military regime following an Iranian outcry at his acquittal by the Lahore High Court. But the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a banned offshoot of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, avenged the hanging of its leader by killing dozens of Shias in Sheikhupura two weeks ago. A week ago, the Shias went on a killing spree by targeting SS activists and sympathizers in Nishat Colony, Lahore. Meanwhile, Riaz Basra, a companion of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, is still at large, having inexplicably “escaped” from police custody many years ago to subsequently sow terror in the heart of various civil administrations by successfully targeting top Shia civil servants and police officers in the Punjab.
Now General Pervez Musharraf has expressed his determination to tackle the scourge of sectarian violence in this country. His words ring truer than those of the politicians he has deposed because he is not obliged to horsetrade. In fact, he is averse to sectarian violence because it hurts his government’s drive to portray itself as a “no-nonsense” regime keen on stability and reform. So we may expect the current ban on weapons-display to be followed by a ban on certain avowedly sectarian organizations, followed by the formal tasking of the military’s intelligence agencies to bring the worst offenders to book. But are such administrative measures, however welcome, a case of too little, too late?
To answer this question, we need to remind ourselves that sporadic sectarian disagreement was institutionalized into continuing sectarian violence in this country during the time of General Zia ul Haq when the constitution was formally stripped of its informal secular garb, and sectarian ideas and leaders were allowed entry into the organs of state and government. From then onwards, it has been downhill all the way. Today, at least three Shia-majority cities — Parachinar, Gilgit and Jhang — are in a permanent state of siege while even Karachi, once a sparkling cosmopolitan city, is acutely vulnerable to the sectarian menace.
Some people say that there is not much that the state can do about a religious disagreement that is embedded in Islam’s early history. True. But when a state in a country overwhelmingly dominated by one sect makes it its business to promote so-called Islamic ideas, beliefs and practices, why should one expect the state to remain neutral in passionate schismatic disagreements between the two sects, however well-intentioned any particular organs of the state may be? Surely, isn’t it inevitable under the circumstances that the weight of the ideas and beliefs of the majority sect will be far greater than that of the minority sect and lead to a potentially discriminatory and divisive situation in the country? Indeed, one reason why the state has not been able to curb sectarian warfare in this country is that powerful sections of the state either secretly agree with some of the prejudices of the dominant sectarian ideology as espoused by its violent practitioners or condone it for opportunist strategic external policies.
The state’s reluctance to uproot the aggressive sectarianism of the majority sect is also related to its administrative weakness. The police, for instance, is far less motivated than its adversaries, not merely because of insufficient material incentives and resources but also because of its majoritarian-sect beliefs which find an echo in those of its leading foe. Certainly, it is not as well armed.
The proliferation of small arms since the Afghan campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s has led to the use of weapons for offence rather than defence, to fuel civil war at home and insurgency abroad. But it is no consolation to say that jehad is being waged outside one’s territory because the mind-set nurtured by a proliferating arms culture is consolidated at home and not abroad. The problem becomes even more intractable if external wars are not fought by professional soldiers but by jehadis from the majority sect who periodically return to the home country as heroes in civil society. Thus, open borders facilitate the inflow of all sorts of sophisticated weapons from all over the world. Indeed, Afghanistan alone has sufficient Afghan-war leftovers to arm the majority-sect warriors for another twenty years.
If it is futile to try and resolve old religious differences, it is downright dangerous in a predominantly two-sect nation to de-neutralize or de-secularise the state by allowing majority-sect versions of Islam to dominate its civil and security discourse. Until we stop doing that, we are fated to bite the bullet and be savaged by the warriors of “true faith”.