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Thursday, April 12, 2012

From the wreckage of sectarianism


From the Newspaper | 



DESPITE the virtual media blackout of Gilgit-Baltistan it is becoming increasingly clear that sectarian violence in the entire region is spiralling out of control.

Meanwhile, the systematic attacks on the Hazaras of Quetta continue unabated. It is hardly surprising then that Shias everywhere are talking conspiracy even as militant Sunnis of all varieties are doing everything in their power to prove the conspiracy theorists right.

A conspiracy is that which is hidden from the public eye, a plan hatched by unknown elements hell-bent on causing maximum possible harm to the adversary. By this definition, organised attacks such as those that have been carried out in recent times are a conspiracy only in the sense that immeasurable harm has been caused to the community being targeted. Who is doing the killing is hardly a secret.

In Quetta, a couple of ‘banned’ and ‘defunct’ organisations have taken responsibility for most of the attacks. It scarcely matters that the killers have not been as forthcoming in Gilgit-Baltistan (or the media willing to break with the ‘greater national interest’ in its adhering to the terms of the blackout).

The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), after all, is just another name for a nexus of social forces and state institutions that has unapologetically transformed Pakistan’s social and political landscape since the dark years of Ziaul Haq.

Madressahs, a retrogressive public educational curriculum, a pro-jihadi media discourse — these and many other dimensions of Pakistan’s love affair with millenarianism have been in and out of the news for years, in the English press at least.

Commentators, myself included, have emphasised the continuing refusal of our holy guardians to give up on hare-brained schemes such as strategic depth that have shredded the innards of this society.

But there has been, till now, not enough focus on arguably the most dangerous trend of all: that otherwise forward-thinking people spread out across the length and breadth of this country, almost despite themselves, are starting to conform to the exclusivist discourse that the militants on all sides are championing.

Beyond the alarmism that afflicts the chattering classes the objective evidence is relatively conclusive; most Pakistanis are not bigots, even if many are cowed into silence by the issuers of the proverbial fatwas.

At best most of us are hypocrites who have imbibed the Ziaist imperative of demonstrating religiosity in public and otherwise engaging in distinctly ‘un-Islamic’ practices — as far as the mullahs are concerned — in the comfort of our own homes.

Minority communities that have been victimised consistently over a period of time — some even before the 1980s — have understandably looked within themselves to cope with the tyranny of the majority. This tendency has, however, not necessarily given rise to reaction. In fact, there have been many notable progressive outcomes, including a marked desire of more affluent members of the community to look after those endowed with much less.

Where some form of reaction has come to light, as in the case of Shia militancy in the 1990s, a significant part of the community has rejected it. Many young, educated Shia who have, for one reason or the other, been taken in by the appeal of Shia militancy, subsequently recanted and generally espouse a principled politics of non-violence and promote inter-faith harmony.

But it is now important to ask whether or not there may be countervailing trends emerging. Individuals hailing from minority communities active in the social media are starting to evince more alienation than might have been the case even a few years ago. Anger and resentment are becoming more common as the perception of perennial victimhood becomes more pronounced.

Balochistan is the best example of how systematic brutalisation can precipitate extremely dangerous social conflicts between relatively disempowered communities. Ethnic Baloch have long felt victimised by the Pakistani state, but xenophobic trends within the Baloch nationalist movement have historically remained relatively muted.

The Shia Hazara community settled mostly in Quetta has, for the most part, coexisted with Baloch and Pakhtuns and integrated itself into the wider society. Pakhtuns are probably the most upwardly mobile of the three major communities, but this is not to suggest that they constitute a dominant ethnic group per se.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that tensions between all three communities have intensified greatly in recent times. Hazaras and Baloch in particular have become less likely to express any measure of empathy for one another, and it is noticeable that otherwise eloquent progressives on both sides are now in the business of competing over which community faces more systematic and structural violence.

The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan has been on knife-edge for much longer. Sectarian clashes which were a minor speck on the social landscape before the Zia years erupt in all their fury at almost regular intervals, radicalising otherwise ordinary people and arousing suspicions that persist long after the particular phase of violence has passed.

Of course, it matters that those charged with protecting the public peace are heavily implicated in destroying it, and that our holy guardians and their sycophants jealously guard the ideological apparatuses that produce hate and violence.

But simply reiterating that the state is culpable will not force it to change its historical posture. The fact of the matter is that too many people in society are starting to believe they have to take sides in a manner that makes it more difficult in the long-term to build an alternative consensus. It is necessary to face up to this growing polarisation and then do something about it.

In particular, as many of us as possible need to speak up not only for our own but for all those who are victims of wanton violence and systematic exclusion. The biggest burden must be owned by majorities, especially religious and ethnic ones. But the sane voices within minority communities have a role to play too, as they have in the past.

If all those who believe that there is still something to be salvaged from the wreckage of sectarian and all other forms of organised violence do come together and say what needs to be said, there is hope yet that all the blood that has been spilt will not have been in vain.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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