Blind eye forward

Will 2015 be one of the deadliest years of sectarian violence in Pakistan?

Blind eye forward
In the first six weeks of 2015 alone, there have been 104 deaths as a direct result of sectarian violence. The most devastating of these attacks was on an imambargah in the Lakhi Dar areas of Shikarpur district in Sindh, on January 20, 2015, which left 61 dead and another 50 injured. Smaller attacks, such as the one on the Chittian Hattian imambargah in Rawalpindi on January 9, 2015 resulted in 8 deaths, and 25 injuries, whereas another imambargah in Peshawar was bombed on February 13, 2015, killing 24 and injuring another 50. Isolated incidents in Orakzai Agency, Rawalpindi and Karachi have contributed to this sudden surge in sectarian violence.

As may be evident from the graph on this page, sectarian violence seemed to be on the decline in Pakistan in the latter half of the year, with November and December seeing the lowest respective number of sectarian violence related deaths. This spiked sharply in January 2015, which is also a 32% increase from the same month in the previous year.

This is especially troubling because in 2014, sectarian violence claimed the lives of 440 victims over the course of 52 weeks, while in 2015, the numbers, comparatively, are substantially higher. It is also worth noting that in 2014, 51% of all sectarian killings were against Shias, with the remaining targets were Sunnis (32%) and other minorities. The scale of violence has climbed drastically in 2015, and the Shia community continues to be the primary target

Taha Siddiqui, an investigative journalist focusing on terrorism, minority rights and politics in Pakistan, believes this is because the state response has traditionally been weak against sectarian violence. “The state will not feel the same level of public or media pressure as it does when the military or mainstream Pakistanis get attacked. So in a way the Pakistani Taliban can carry on with such calibrated attacks and stay relevant while also avoid state crackdown.”
"The public is being engineered to believe the Iranians are trying to overthrow the Sunni majority in Pakistan"

On December 24, 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a 20-point National Action Plan. While action on several of these points has already begun, the two points that were immediately implemented have to do with the military, which reinforces the perception that the state takes matters affecting the armed forces much more seriously than violence against minority communities. These points include the lifting of the moratorium on the execution of convicted terrorists – and thus far the bulk of the 18 hangings have been individuals that targeted the military directly – as well as the legal cover given to the establishment of military courts through the 21st Constitutional Amendment passed on January 6, 2015.

No major action seems to have emerged from the major sectarian attacks, beyond condolences, lamentations, and an endless barrage of promises to hunt down and eliminate terrorism; rhetoric the public has witnessed all too often.

Since the horrendous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the bulk of the backlash has been against sectarian targets. Siddiqui believes that major cause of this anti-Shia sentiment is rooted in Saudi Arabia. “So because the state is in line with the Saudi ideology, the anti-Shia sentiment prevails in the public too,” he says. “Through media and religious clerics, the public is being engineered to believe the Iranians are trying to overthrow the Sunni majority in Pakistan. This is been happening since the 1979 revolution when then military dictator Gen Zia sponsored the rise of ASWJ, known as SSP back then.”

Sectarian Violence in Pakistan
Sectarian Violence in Pakistan

The organizations he is referring to are Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), originally launched in the 1980s with the goal of deterring Shia influence in Pakistan, and was subsequently banned under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 by General (r) Pervaiz Musharraf in 2002. Previously, SSP splintered into Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, another proscribed organization involved in dozens of attacks, and a post-ban reformed Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ). The BBC reported in March 2012 that the government had also issued a ban on ASWJ over ‘concerns in terrorism’. Ahmed Ludhianvi, ASWJ’s head, called the ban preposterous and was quoted as saying: “It’s taken us so long to rein in our activists - it will become very difficult to control their emotions if the ban is enforced.” ASWJ currently operates openly, and has recently come under a lot of criticism and scrutiny through civil society protests, especially over being provided state patronage and security.

Siddiqui believes that Saudi influence influenced the rise of these groups, but the relationship has changed in recent years. “This relationship [has] morphed itself into an ideological one since there is no such thing as a free lunch, and Saudis need Wahabized population around the world to maintain their dictatorial control. So as the Pakistani state becomes closer to Saudi Arabia, its population also follows suit, and hence the apathy in response [to sectarian attacks] too.”

Irrespective of these factors, there seems to be an abdication of duty on part of the state towards its citizens. The state’s primary responsibility is to provide a secure, safe environment to citizens, and to surgically, methodically excise elements that create conflict, hatred and wanton destruction. Ultimately, the state must act equally in response to its citizens being targeted, be they military targets or members of a minority community. Without this impetus from the state, early data suggests that 2015 will continue to be one of the bloodiest years of sectarian violence in Pakistan.

The author is a journalist and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He holds a Master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY.

Email: zeeshan[dot]salahuddin[at]
Twitter: @zeesalahuddin