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Religious extremism in Pakistan: Corroding state’s legitimacy
  • Abdul Rehman Makki
    Abdul Rehman Makki
On April 13, a student from the Khan Abdul Wali Khan University in city of Mardan in Khyber Pakhutnkhwa province of Pakistan was killed by an angry mob of students, which had accused him of posting blasphemous content on Facebook. Most of the students who attacked the victim belonged to the ruling right-wing political groups in the province. Unfortunately, the tragedy for the victim did not end there as the local imam refused to read the last rites for him and the person who did so was confronted by several locals afterwards. This incident has once again brought to fore the stranglehold of the religious extremists on Pakistan’s socio-political life. And also see the latest incident in Sialkot where three women shot a person spot dead who just returned from abroad after several years. The three women reportedly rejoiced after the killing that they has ultimately eliminated a ‘blasphemer’. 


In an another instance, the front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jamaat-ud-Daawa’s acting chief Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki last month accused the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of celebrating the festival of ‘Holi’ to please the Indian government. Sharif had participated in a function in Karachi to celebrate Holi festival with the Hindu community. In making his insinuations against PM Sharif, Makki said that Pakistani rulers must realise that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations.


Makki’s outbursts cannot be seen as an isolated issue to be overlooked as the attitude of an extremist group. In another instance, some students of the Sindh University in Hyderabad were asked by the university administration to submit apologies for playing Holi. In order to avoid embarrassment, the action against the students was justified on the ground of maintaining discipline, rather than religious discrimination. 


This attitude towards the religious minorities is evident in the state administration also, which has created further concerns on the growing Islamisation of Pakistan. Last month, in another instance of religious discrimination, a group of 42 Christians accused of lynching two Muslims was reportedly told that they will be acquitted if they convert to Islam. The group was charged with murdering two men after suicide blasts targeted two churches in Youhanabad, Lahore in March 2015. The offer to convert came from a public prosecutor who told them that their acquittal was guaranteed if they renounced Christianity.


While religious minorities such as Christians and the Hindus are at the receiving end of religious persecution in Pakistan, the Shias and the Ahmadis too have faced the violent backlash of these groups.  Shia intellectuals and professionals have become the most targeted individuals in the latest cycle of sectarian killings in Pakistan.    


Just last month, a blast targeted the Friday prayer gathering at a Shia mosque in the north-western town of Parachinar in Kurram Agency killing 24 people and injuring 90 others. The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Before that in February, the Islamic State Khorasan launched an attack targeting the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi shrine in the town of Sehwan in Sindh province killing as many as 70 people. The ability of the militants to launch an attack in such populated urban centres has cast a doubt on the claims by the Pakistan Army that it has been able to neturalise terrorist networks which are hitting out at the Pakistani society and the state. 


While the Pak security establishment continues to blame Afghanistan for nurturing the militant elements, it will do well for Pakistan to do a little introspection on why these extremist groups and elements continue to flourish on the Pakistani territory. Not only the security establishment but also the state should also introspect why a very narrow and parochial attitude towards religious minorities has percolated generations after generations.   


That introspection should point out to the unmistakable stranglehold of the religious extremists on Pakistan’s socio-political life. Guided by the fantasies of creating a land ruled by puritanical version of Islam, these elements have consistently sought to make life difficult for the religious minorities and different sects within Islam which are not in conformity with the Sunni sect. Farahnaz Isphahani, the leading Pakistani intellectual, in her recent book, ‘Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities’, has chronicled the state’s experience so far with its religious minorities since its inception.    


Consider this recent trend also: a survey in 2012 done by the Pew Research Centre had brought out the sectarian faultlines in the Pakistani society over acceptance of Shias as Muslims. Just more than half of the Pakistani (53%) society considered Shias as Muslims, revealing that the extremist views on religion in Pakistan were part and parcel of the mainstream. It is attitudes like these as a result of which the Pakistani society nowadays is full of religious bigotry and instances of majoritarianism. 


The use of religion and exploitation of religious sentiments mastered skillfully by the Pakistan’s rulers, particularly by the General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, ostensibly for nation-building has brought Pakistan at this stage. The loss of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 should have convinced the Pakistani rulers the inadequacy of religion in binding a nation together. Unfortunately, Pakistan and its establishment live in a denial mode. On the eve of Bangladesh’s Independence Day, the Pakistani High Commission sent out ‘gifts’ to the friends in Dhaka which contained a book dismissing any human rights violations by Pakistan during  Bangladesh’s Liberation War and ranting about the myth of creation of Bangladesh.


If Pakistan does not mend its ways sooner, the religious extremism and the fundamentalist groups that it has nurtured will soon eat away at the legitimacy – whatever left of it - of the state institutions, putting it on the irreversible path of violence and destruction.
Daniel Hunter