Pakistan’s Failure To Stem Sectarian Violence


The attack on the Shrine of Lal Shahaz Qalandar at Sehwan, Sindh, claimed 80 lives. The bloody attack on a holy place exposed the perennial tussle between Sufism, that stands for love and piety and Salafism that wants to obliterate it in the name of Islam’s ‘purity’….writes Syed Shihabudhin

A protest rally turns violent in Peshwar (File)

The terror attack at the shrine of Lal Shahaz Qalandar at Sehwan, Sindh, coming in the wake of four recent attacks in Quetta and Peshawar, has exposed Pakistan’s multiple social and religious contradictions within. It has also exposed both civilian and military leadership to criticism.

In an oblique reference to the ongoing court battle over “Panamagate” in which the role of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family members is under scrutiny, Dawn newspaper has editorially asked that “first thing that should be determined is why the recent wave of bombings, whether deliberately coordinated or opportunistically coincidental, is taking place.”

The Sufi saint and his shrine are revered the world over, especially in South Asia. The attack in which over 80 people died and over 250 injured who were not treated on time has laid bare the perennial tussle between Sufism, that stands for love and piety and Salafism that wants to obliterate it in the name of Islam’s ‘purity’.

That a renowned shrine was attacked has caused concern and alarm in Pakistan, but not at the level and to extent of massacre of school children at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The anger was more because the children were involved in the school attack. It also means that the school massacre has taught little to the Pakistani authorities and people.

Policemen stand guard outside a mosque in northwest Pakistan’s Peshawar (Xinhua/Umar Qayyum)

The extent is less in the case of the Qalandar shrine because of the innate fear of annoying the Salafists and the Wahibis who dominate the discourse among the Islamist parties and groups and form the core of extremism, particularly of the Sunni variety.

Much of the public and media reaction of anger is at the army, for its perceived failure. People have openly said the chief, Gen. Bajwa has proved to be no match to his predecessor, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who was immensely popular, even though record was full of holes.
Now, Cyril Almeida writing in Dawn says that Raheel was keen on an honourable extension in the job and that Prime Minister Sharif demurred and preferred to let him go in favour of someone more pliable.  Almeida says Gen. Bajwa was neither recommended by Raheel, nor groomed for the tough job.

Bajwa and the army under him have further exposed themselves to incompetence by engaging in diplomacy, technically at least, outside of their domain. Bajwa demanded that Kabul hand over some 82 wanted militants hiding in Afghanistan. This job should have been left to the foreign office.

Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa

Bajwa and the army have tried to undo some of the damage by conducting their own version of “surgical strike” by targeting militants’ hideouts on Afghan territory. In the process, however, they have yet again walked into the diplomatic domain, leaving the foreign office to respond to Kabul’s protests.  It must be remembered that although Raheel had gone to Kabul immediately after the army school massacre, he had ordered nothing of the sort that Bajwa has with results that are unknown and may remain unknown.

Critics at home and abroad are asking how and why did the militants make it to Afghanistan in the first place? Has Afghan territory not used in the past as safe haven for the “good Taliban” and the “strategic assets”?

The government is also being criticised for mucking up relationship with Afghanistan, especially when President Ashraf Ghani was in a mood to reconcile. The government has been criticized for making the National Action Plan to fight extremism and terrorism “a running joke” and making tall claims about decline in militancy and making up figures to support these claims when the ground reality is quite the opposite.

Putting the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship in a broader perspective,  Najam Sethi says in his editorial in The Friday Times:   “For a long time, the Pakistani state dithered over definitions of good Taliban (Afghans) and bad Taliban (Pakistanis). Then, when alarm bells began to ring in Islamabad of the bad Taliban encroaching upon Swat and parts of KP, the military went into action, clearing Swat in 2007 under General Pervez Musharraf, South Waziristan in 2011-12 under General Ashfaq Kayani and finally North Waziristan in 2015-, 16 under General Raheel Sharif.

“Unfortunately, however, this strategy has rebounded on Pakistan. The bad Taliban of Pakistan have taken refuge in Afghanistan and joined forces with the good Taliban of Afghanistan.”