Pakistan′s struggle with sectarianism

Enough is enough

In recent years, Pakistan, a country with a rich and varied multi-ethnic and multi-religious history, has become a hostile place for minorities. Aurangzeb Qureshi, writer and political commentator, examines how Pakistan might quell its burgeoning sectarianism

Two months ago, on 27 March, an attack in Lahore′s Gulshan-e-Iqbal park killed at least seventy people and wounded more than 300, most of them women and children. The targets of the attack were Christians celebrating Easter. In the wake of this and other similarly tragic events, many Pakistanis have been clamouring for initiatives, namely military intervention, to prevent attacks from taking place in the future.

Solving Pakistan′s intolerance problem requires more, however, than a reactive military fix. Two areas, in particular, must be addressed. The first is the Pakistani educational system, which is rife with discrimination and sectarian rhetoric. The second is the legal system, particularly the country′s blasphemy laws and discriminatory constitutional amendments.

Advocating change

After years of either ignoring or supporting terrorist activity in Pakistan, the military began to root out terrorist groups in a series of assaults, beginning around June 2014. Although military operations like Zarb-e-Azb, which mostly took place between June 2014 and April 2016, have been effective in killing terrorists, as we have seen, time and time again, terrorists rebuild and regroup, often re-emerging to commit even more barbaric atrocities.

Easter Sunday bombing in Lahore (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali)
Sectarianism borne of childhood alienation: "in Pakistani public schools, the curriculum is almost entirely in Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 8% of the population. Basing an entire educational system on a language that is native to so few people inevitably breeds alienation and resentment," writes Qureshi

To attack the intolerance that grounds terrorist activity in Pakistan at its roots, the country′s educational system must be reformed. Increasing the educational budget would be a meaningful first step toward countering misinformation and ignorance rampant in the underprivileged – and largely uneducated – parts of the country. With a larger budget, Pakistan would be able to hire more qualified teachers, build more schools and address transportation issues, which often make it difficult for students to attend school.

Part of the budget increase should be used to hire teachers who not only speak Urdu, one of Pakistan′s two official languages (the other is English), but also local dialects and languages. In Pakistani public schools, the curriculum is almost entirely in Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 8% of the population. Basing an entire educational system on a language that is native to so few people inevitably breeds alienation and resentment. Allowing regional languages, such as Punjabi and Sindhi, to be used in educational settings could, by contrast, serve to promote cultural tolerance and federal-provincial harmony.

Reforming the education system also requires rooting out those clerics and madrassas (Islamic seminaries) that preach intolerance and stoke sectarian tensions. To this end, the government should continue working with the Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP), an umbrella organisation of 35,337 registered madrassas hosting nearly 3.5 million students, to regulate and reform these seminaries through collaborative dialogue. These madrassas (many of which are funded by other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran) must be monitored closely and should only be allowed to operate if their curricula do not promote sectarianism.

Justice for religious minorities

Pakistani human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud who was murdered by gunmen in April 2015 (source: Twitter)
Sabeen Mahmud, human rights activist and founder of The Second Floor (T2F) attracted widespread attention by speaking out on behalf of Shias and other minorities. She was murdered by gunmen in April 2015, as she returned home from hosting a discussion evening entitled "Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2"

Coupled with these educational reforms, the government must address backward and regressive legislation that is used to target religious minorities in the country. This includes the country′s archaic blasphemy laws, which allow for anyone to accuse anyone else of blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. There are also various discriminatory constitutional amendments, the most damning of which declares Ahmadi Muslims to be non-Muslim.

Together, these laws have helped to fuel violence in Pakistan. Politicians and defenders of human rights, including the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both assassinated after defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was being held on flimsy charges of blasphemy.

In 2015, Sabeen Mahmud, a Karachi activist, was murdered on the streets of Karachi for creating a community haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists and thinkers. She was well-known for her efforts in challenging public discourse on various topics, including the disappearance of activists in Baluchistan and hate speech perpetuated by cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz. Speaking out on behalf of Shias and other minorities drew attention to Mahmud and is believed to have led to her murder.

These assassinations have only furthered Pakistan′s culture of fear. Those who have killed figures like Taseer, Bhatti and Mahmud have been celebrated, by some Pakistanis, as national heroes; these displays have only reinforced bigotry perpetuated towards minorities.

Signs of hope

Despite the many challenges detailed above, various people and groups in Pakistan are tirelessly working to address intolerance and extremism. One of these is Engage Pakistan, a non-profit research and advocacy organisation that recently launched a campaign using Islamic legal reasoning to advocate for an overhaul of the blasphemy laws. Efforts to regulate madrassas through the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board (PMEB), a state-run body that works under the Federal Ministry for Religious Affairs, are also underway, including projects to establish model madrassas.

Karachi is one of the cities in Pakistan that has seen anti-Shia violence
″It is a matter of great sorrow that, mainly through mistaken notions of zeal, the Muslims have…earned for themselves an unenviable reputation for intolerance. But that is not the fault of Islam. Islam has from the beginning proclaimed and inculcated the widest tolerance…,″ Pakistan′s Foreign Minister, Muhammad Zafarullah Khan, addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, 1949

In addition to this, the National Assembly, Pakistan′s federal and supreme legislative body, recently declared the Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi and the Christian festival of Easter as public holidays, a move that can only benefit Pakistan′s religious minorities. Last but not least, popular media personalities are routinely speaking out against terrorism and intolerance.

These initiatives and counter-narratives must continue. Those spreading terror in Pakistan may own the headlines after each bomb blast, suicide bombing, or shooting rampage, but we, the moderate majority, must take ownership over our country. The criminals may loudly proclaim their divine ambitions, but we must proclaim our humanity. The terrorists may take joy in claiming the lives of innocents, but we must claim the future.

This is a public relations battle as much as it is a political and military one. If we are to successfully counter those who impose warped interpretations of Islam on Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis alike, our message of peace and tolerance must echo louder than their messages of hatred and division.

Aurangzeb Qureshi & Evelyn Crunden

© Muftah.org 2016

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