Spectre of sectarian war in Pakistan

The eight persons who were wounded in a bomb-attack inside a Peshawar imambargah on Monday testify to the sectarian philosophy of certain elements in the “Taliban” movement and Al Qaeda. The bombers penetrated one of the oldest quarters of the city, Hasht Nagri, and blew up the building. This is not the first time the Shia have been targeted in Peshawar, but so far lame excuses have been invented by certain elements in the media and in the political parties to avoid naming those who are responsible. In the NWFP, other cities have been more ferociously punished. Dera Ismail Khan has seen repeated massacres of the Shia community, and the scourge has swept across the nearby Bhakkar in Punjab too.

The Tribal Areas have not been spared either. Kurram Agency has been a seat of sectarian rivalry since Pakistan began indulging in jihad. The Sunni-Shia violence was revived there by the militias that fought the state’s proxy war. The sectarian war that was relocated from the Gulf to Pakistan after 1979, simmered in Parachinar, the headquarters of Kurram, and has become full-blown in 2008. The communities there are stranded. No supplies are allowed to pass to them, some essentials reaching there mostly through Afghanistan. Hundreds of people have died there and the Pakistani state, despite pledges, has not stirred to defend its citizens against violence.

Now sectarian mayhem is always round the corner in Pakistan. But it is the NWFP which is today the most endangered province because of the loss of the Tribal Areas to the Taliban and the “foreigners” of Al Qaeda. The road that goes from Peshawar to Kurram is studded with training camps of anti-Shia elements. Kohat, an important air force base and a cantonment, is the most endangered, along with Hangu where there are small Shia communities. These elements have a free run there, picking up funds through coercion and abducting people they don’t like. Along Darra Adam Khel, some anti-Shia militias have gravitated to their old patrons in the Punjab.

During the civil war in Afghanistan, the militias produced by Pakistan shifted their loyalties. They killed Shias in Pakistan, then absconded into Afghanistan. The Taliban government, recognised by Pakistan when the world abominated it, refused two requests from Pakistan: it refused to recognise the Durand Line and it refused to surrender the sectarian killers in their protection. Thus Pakistan could never properly deal with the rise of sectarian violence; and Iran, greatly disturbed by the killings, never really believed that the Pakistani state was uninvolved. Nor will it now, no matter how we try to dissuade them. The fact is that we are not greatly moved by the killings.

The Serbs in the Balkans used the state to expel its rubbish periodically through ethnic-cleansing. All states to some extent do this, but the danger in Pakistan is that this is a trend that might finally undo Pakistan. The minorities are already quaking in their shoes, but there are others like Ismailis, Zikris and Bahais who are potential victims of this “ethnic-cleansing”. Unfortunately, there is a modicum of public acceptance of this function of the state on the basis of the Second Amendment of 1974 which apostatised the Ahmedi community. Take the example of the politicisation of the threat of Talibanisation in Karachi. The MQM says the Taliban are moving their terrorist hierarchies into Karachi where Shias and Barelvis have been targeted in the past. The Sindh government thinks the MQM exaggerates the threat even though the Taliban in South Waziristan have publicly declared their intent to take over the city. The ANP is caught in the middle. It is threatened by the Taliban in Peshawar but its vote bank in Karachi — where there are more Pakhtuns than in Peshawar, Kabul or Kandahar — prevents it from closing ranks with the MQM and facing up to the challenge with the help of the Sindh government. Apart from ethnic-cleansing these elements will bring to Karachi their agenda of finishing off the sects they don’t like.

The Sindh government is reluctant even after a word of advice from President Zardari. The federal Interior Ministry, after receiving information from intelligence agencies, has informed Sindh that terrorists have planned to carry out suicide attacks on a number of prominent locations. This means that the coming war is not America’s war. We should stop thinking of “taking action” against America and concentrate more on what is coming at us from the inside. The Shia community, instead of listening to the anti-American propaganda emanating from Iran, should learn to protect itself against the sectarian mayhem that has made its latest appearance in Peshawar. The state is too weak to come to their help. (Daily Times)