By C Uday Bhaskar*
February has been a particularly bloody month by way of the innocents killed across south Asia by religious zealots wedded to the ideology of terrorism. This pre-meditated cycle of bloodshed, often perpetrated by suicide-bombers, was done ostensibly to purify Islam and punish those deemed to have deviated from the puritanical path prescribed by the virulent Sunni-led ‘true believers’.
An attack on a major Sufi shrine in Sehwan in the Sindh province of Pakistan on Thursday (February 16) resulted in the death of 88 innocent people and injuries to more than 200. The Islamic State (IS) and its ideological affiliate in Pakistan, the Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JA), claimed responsibility for this attack and threatened that this is only the beginning of such an anti-Sufi/Shia campaign to exterminate the apostate –- or ‘non-believers’.
On the same day, a car bomb killed 55 people and injured scores more in a Shia-dominated locality of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The attack was claimed by the IS and this was the third attack during that week in battle-scarred Iraq.
In Pakistan, the Sindh suicide bomber attack was preceded by a major terror attack in Lahore, Punjab, on Monday (February 13) and this was followed by similar attacks in the other two provinces of Pakistan on Tuesday and Wednesday. In both cases, the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan), an anti-Shia terror group, claimed responsibility.
It may be recalled that the same group had carried out the attack on an army school in Peshawar in December 2014 that resulted in the death of more than 140 innocents — of whom 132 were children. At the time, it was believed that Peshawar represented a tipping-point in the domestic Pakistani resolve to eliminate terror groups and the radical ideology that enabled such violence.
The root of the current pattern of terror-related bloodshed in Pakistan can be traced to the cynical political manipulation of intra-Islamic sectarian identity and related practice that prioritises the dominant Sunni faction at the expense of the other sects. This political ploy goes back to the early 1950s and has been exacerbated by the special status accorded to the Saudi form of Wahabi-Salafi Islam.
The IS and the virulent anti-Sunni ideology associated with it is currently under increasing military pressure in West Asia (Syria-Iraq) and being forced to re-group and assert its appeal and credibility. Pakistan is fertile ground for this kind of sectarian violence for it has deliberately nurtured an arid, anti-minority eco-system wherein all non-Sunni denominations within the Islamic faith have been either ex-communicated (for example, the Ahmediyas) and declared apostate — or larger constituencies such as the Shia have become targets of organised killings.
The current pattern of intense terror-triggered violence targeting the Sufi-Shia combine in Pakistan and Iraq is a manifestation of this undercurrent. Alas, this is not the end of this internal contestation and Pakistan, in particular, has to objectively and courageously resolve its internal political contradictions of stoking hatred and selectively supporting the ‘good’ terrorist.
After the Sindh carnage, the Nawaz Sharif government launched a crackdown and claims to have killed over 100 militants. It is also trying to rein in some of the more high profile terror leaders — and the current restrictions imposed on Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is a small step.
In an unusual departure, the Pakistani government has described Saeed as a ‘serious threat’ to the country — and this may trigger a backlash from the right-wing clergy that may pose a challenge to the Nawaz Sharif government. Over the last few years, the religious right in Pakistan that subscribes to the ideology of the Islamic State (IS) has made deep inroads into the fabric of the state apparatus. The assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January 2011 by his own bodyguard is illustrative of this indoctrination.
The challenge for the Pakistani state and society is to embark on a socio-political de-radicalisation programme and the persecution of any one religion or sect must cease. One can only hope that notwithstanding the daunting nature of this internal challenge, the mass appeal of Lal Qalandar (the Sufi saint who is venerated in Sehwan) can bring about a change of mind-set in Pakistan that the enormity of Peshawar could not.
*The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]