Afrah Jamal |

Pakistan’s Bold Response to Sectarianism?

A few days before Muharram, grand proclamations advocating peace and calm that suggested people shun their religious, sectarian and ethnic biases “to promote the great characteristics of sacrifice, unity, and discipline” served as a prologue to bridging the ultimate divide. Then came the promises. The clergy reconstituted the ‘National Reconciliatory Council’ in a bid to propel the vision of a united front. An awakening followed.

Religion is a matter between a person & his creator? 

How does Pakistan overcome decades of dissension to realize its dreams of interfaith harmony? Such sentiments while admirable face roadblocks. But then there was a declaration – that religion is a matter between a person and his creator. That no one has to prove they are Muslims.

The state also needs to remove the ambiguity from its own cadres. It must set the tone for its future generations and safeguard impressionable minds from falling prey to despotic ideologies

It was a surprisingly candid admission – one that perhaps did not need to be spelled out yet the statement coming from the DG ISPR at a time when a minority group was in the crosshairs of a few rigid minded folks with uncompromising viewpoints set the bar and raised the stakes. But such attitudes need to be reflected in every segment of civil society not just the armed forces.

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It is unlikely that an EU style Arab world could ever come to pass and Qatar is the most visible proof of that discord.
Confrontation with Inner Demons is inevitable

Though bridging the sectarian divide and vying for co-existence is imperative for the sake of domestic stability, economic prosperity and to some extent, global security, the terrain, in its present condition, presents significant challenges. While steps have been taken recently to roll back the narrative to a more tolerant version, such a tangled web cannot be unfurled without addressing the hotspots that fan the flames of resentment and reshaping the ecosystem that allows hostilities to fester.

The armed forces media wing taking a clear stance on minority rights and throwing down the gauntlet to false prophets and hardliner sects has set an interesting precedent.

It is important to understand that a society that has become unusually receptive to violent ideologies and is easily incited will not yield its outrage to feeble attempts made at preaching tolerance and pipedreams of a united Ummah or a benign Caliphate. It is unlikely that an EU style Arab world could ever come to pass and Qatar is the most visible proof of that discord. The urge to assemble a model society from the ashes and forge that united front given how minority rights were threatened in Parliament shows how deep the rot lies. A confrontation with inner demons is inevitable.

Sectarian Divisions are more than Iranian & Saudi Agendas

Sectarianism / ethnic tensions serve more than Iranian or Saudi backed interests and can be wielded as a tool in the hands of ideologies bent on reshaping societies in their own image. It will always be a weapon for hostile powers to ferment unrest. It remains an instrument of power in the hands of the clergy to manipulate the flock.

Despite all efforts, it continues to simmer and anyone can come along with an incendiary idea to start a conflagration. The schism between Shia-Sunni has only exacerbated over time. The sectarian divide cannot be seen in isolation and all travesties grouped under faith based discrimination need to be addressed and toxic ideas purged.

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Locating the Sectarian Hotspots

Tracing the roots of growing intolerance that run deep often lead to foreign funded Madrassahs, past pulpits of uneducated mullahs left unsupervised and dark corners of the cyber world. Cleaning house is finally on the cards. It has been long overdue and just might deter other nations from outsourcing their wars.

Keeping a vigilant eye to prevent the blasphemy clause from getting weaponized will require an authoritative structure capable of navigating religious minefields safely.

It goes hand in hand with cutting off foreign funding and tracing the money trail, monitoring seminaries, and supervising sermons to ensure firebrand mullahs used to propagating vigilante justice and eternal damnation do not stray from the script of peaceful co-existence and compassion for mankind. The marked improvement in security – blueprints of economic stability, and a justice system now attempting to reestablish the writ of law illuminate the way.

LEA’s hoping to involve the clergy in safeguarding religious processions also indicate a sea change in attitudes. But if the highest offices entrusted with defending basic freedoms fail to uphold the values and bicker over curtailing minority rights based on their faith then it opens the floodgates – and allows discrimination to become policy locking the state in a near permanent state of confrontation.

And when an uncompromising faction demonizes one segment of society based on a belief system, classifies random sects as inferior – it will not have to look far for sympathizers for its hardliner agenda, vigilantes to deliver its brand of justice or find pretexts to create fresh fault lines.

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Unity in the Age of ISIS

In the age of ISIS, it is now all connected. Sectarian rifts left to fester – spurts of violence against minorities, the label of heretic conferred on any person or sect and misuse of archaic laws that have made every citizen vulnerable. And it makes a hash of all claims of human rights and religious freedoms. All this has to go for the true spirit of Pakistan to take root.

Traversing a Religious Minefield

To address the deepening fault-lines caution is advised. Given how vigilantes sometimes seek constitutional cover, the clergy commands substantial street power and that many in power can be often found cultivating radical elements for political gain. How at least one PM has been at the receiving end of the blasphemy brigade for just attempting an interfaith reconciliation – a governor has fallen and countless lives have been claimed.

A Parameter has to be Drawn to Establish the Baseline

Curbing the unchecked spread of vitriol without allowing freedom of speech to become collateral damage will be a real test. Keeping a vigilant eye to prevent the blasphemy clause from getting weaponized will require an authoritative structure capable of navigating religious minefields safely.

When an uncompromising faction demonizes one segment of society based on a belief system, classifies random sects as inferior – it will not have to look far for sympathizers for its hardliner agenda.

Perhaps when institutions charged with dispensing justice have been strengthened, judges gave protection, instances of vigilantism or political patronage of banned groups, if any, deal with an iron hand and victims protected – the national trajectory will course correct.

In that backdrop, the death sentence issued against the governor’s murderer by Anti Terrorism Courts sent a strong message. It took the ATC to take steps and indict the 57 culprits who used blasphemy to lynch an innocent student in Mardan, and an avowal to safeguard the founding father’s vision to reassure the people.

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Fault-lines

Having neared critical mass, nations with a social fabric scarred by sectarian conflicts and ethnic tensions will require engagement at every level of society. While radical forces successfully exploited a void left by lack of education and access to basic civic amenities to cement their power base, educationists, moderate-minded religious scholars, LEA’s, propped up as indispensable pillars of the nations reformist agenda would serve as deterrence.

Tracing the roots of growing intolerance that run deep often lead to foreign funded Madrassahs, past pulpits of uneducated mullahs left unsupervised and dark corners of the cyber world.

A functioning government body capable of taking over once the military has cleared restive regions would inspire confidence in the system. The armed forces media wing taking a clear stance on minority rights and throwing down the gauntlet to false prophets and hardliner sects has set an interesting precedent.

But the state also needs to remove the ambiguity from its own cadres. It must set the tone for its future generations and safeguard impressionable minds from falling prey to despotic ideologies. Such fault lines are now an existential threat; because in the age of ISIS, they are all connected.

Afrah Jamal is a freelance writer. She is the editor of “In Conversation with Legends – History in Session”. She had also been writing for Daily Times, Lahore, and was the editor of Social Pages, Karachi. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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