Another high profile political personality belonging to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has fallen victim to a violent attack on March 2 by hard line Islamic activists who targeted him for publicly dissenting from their select religious beliefs and notions. The underlying motive is not Islamic but an ambition to dominate the state and society by creating fear that nobody is beyond their destructive reach. The escalating terrorism also exposes the incapacity of the state machinery, especially the civilian governments, to stop these groups from implementing their agenda through violence. They have sent a clear message to the political leaders and the civil society that the cost is going to be very high for neglecting their religio-cultural sensitivities.
The President and the Prime Minister expressed sorrow and grief on the incident and vowed to fight terrorism. The National Assembly took up the assassination and observed two minutes silence, rather reluctantly. It did not pass a resolution condemning the assassination. The Prime Minister made a delayed announcement of three days national mourning with the national flag flying at half-mast.
As a matter of principle no one supports terrorism and violence. However, this consensus in principle breaks down when one gets deeper into the problem of terrorism in Pakistan. There is a divergence on what can be described as terrorism; and how do you distinguish between terrorism and liberation struggle? Are the Pakistani Taliban or other militant Islamic groups engaged in violent killings and suicide bombings or these activities are being undertaken by the agents of adversaries of Pakistan? There are people who explain rather than justify terrorism and suicide bombings. Others justify killings with reference to the blasphemy law.
The main components of the federal government, i.e., the PPP, the ANP and the MQM, are supportive of army-led counter terrorism efforts and they view the militant groups and movements as a threat to Pakistans internal harmony and stability. However, the federal government appears to be weak and confused since the assassination of Salmaan Taseer. How should the federal government stem the growing capacity of Islamic parties and groups for street mobilisation and violence? It is quite possible that the security-intelligence apparatus is unable or unwilling to go all the way against different militant groups based in the Punjab.
The federal governments options against militant Islamic groups are constrained by three major factors. First, religious conservatism and orthodoxy has seeped deep into the society because of the state-sponsored socialisation and education processes in the past and the proliferation of madrassahs and Islamic movements since the 1980s. This influence has also penetrated the lower and middle level of the state system, including the security apparatus. The federal government is not sure if its machinery will be forthcoming in its policy of confrontation with hard line Islamic groups and militants outfits.
Second, most Pakistani militant groups are based in the Punjab but the Punjab government is neither interested in dealing with these militant and sectarian groups in a tough manner nor is it offering the requisite cooperation to the federal government for dealing with these groups.
Third, the activists of militant Islamic groups melt easily among the people. A vast network of madrassahs, mosques and Islamic movements provides militants with space and contacts to hide themselves among ordinary people. As they live in the communities, it is not an easy job to launch a security operation against them.
The mainstream political parties have not helped the federal coalition led by the PPP to counter terrorism. Most of the political parties, especially the PML(N), avoids criticising any militant organisation even the Pakistani Taliban by name, although they criticise terrorism in principle and mourn the deaths of people. The PML(N) and other opposition parties do not want to risk losing support and vote among the right of centre and Islamist votes by taking a tough line towards militant and sectarian groups. They invoke terrorist incidents to condemn the federal government for its failure to provide security. They also want the federal government to control these groups but would not extend any support to the federal government for that purpose.
The Islamic parties and groups pursuing the Wahabi, Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith Islamic traditions extend varying degrees of support to militant and sectarian movements and, either justify or condone their violent activities. The people subscribing to the Barelvi Islamic traditions are critical of the Taliban and others engaged in suicide attacks but share the other sects notions of Islamic orthodoxy and hard line on the blasphemy law, threatening to disrupt civic life and functioning of the government for protecting this law.
Almost all Islamic parties and groups hold foreign adversaries of Pakistan, especially the United States, responsible for violence and suicide bombings. The Jamaat-i-Islami chief blamed the American CIA for the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti and other violent incidents in Pakistan. The chief of Markazi Jamiat-i-Ahle Hadith, Professor Sajid Mir claimed that the US wanted to use the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti to divert attention from the Raymond Davis case. The leader of an Islamic movement, Tanzim-i-Islami, claimed that the assassination was engineered by those who wanted to get Raymond Davis freed and that American terrorists were located in the residential areas of Islamabad who wanted to destabilise Pakistan. The external conspiracy narrative is hardly challenged by Pakistans official circles. At times, their statements strengthen this perspective.
The civil society is amorphous and divided. If there are groups that categorically condemn terrorism in all its manifestations, there are also Islamic orthodox and conservative groups that support hard line Islamic outfits and the Taliban. Those seeking tough action against militant Islamic groups do not have much clout with the state system that is already under siege by the militants.
The militant and sectarian groups and their breakaway factions as well as the Pakistani Taliban have gained greater confidence and dare-devil disposition in view of the federal governments lack of clear-headed policy for countering terrorism and the short-sighted policies of the mainstream political parties that refuse to acknowledge the threat of religious extremism to the society as a whole. Islamic parties and movements are the mainstay of religious orthodoxy and intolerance; a number of them operate as a political front for the militant groups. Pakistan appears overwhelmed psychologically by militant Islamic groups. If these trends are not firmly checked, Pakistan will drift towards anarchy.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.