Another shrine attack. The last major one was in early July in Lahore. This time, in Karachi. Regular readers will have by now heard me talking about the dangers of sectarian war in Pakistan a good few times. So instead of hearing me go on, I thought it would be worth hearing someone else's take on the theme
A news article in the Tribune newspaper reports that the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility and that security forces are expecting more such attacks.
"(Interior Minister) Malik said that by attacking places associated with mystic Barelvi Islam; these groups want to trigger a Deobandi-Barelvi war similar to the Shia-Sunni conflict... He said that the government law enforcement and intelligence agencies were capable enough to foil their plots."
There are all sorts of studies written by people much cleverer than me that will tell you violence in this type of conflict aims to do a lot more than just kill its immediate victims. In Pakistan, right now, it also aims to push people into ideological camps (for or against) so that the perpetrators can claim they defend a constituency and create an ideological cover for their actions. In that sense, the attacks were aimed at forcing people to think about the "who is Muslim and who is not" argument.
I would add just raising this argument where once it wouldn't be entertained at all is an achievement for extremists because, well.. if you are arguing about whether Muslims are really Muslims, whether people agree or not, you have already radicalised on the sly the discourse concerning non-Muslims, or Shia.
For example, have a look at the comments section of another Tribune article, this time a blog on the shrine that was attacked.
"...If Taleban are poisoning Islam by blowing the mosques off some Sufi followers are also indulging in evil innovations at shrines. I don't endorse neither Talibani nor Barelvi kind of Islam..."
But even though there are some Pakistanis, like "Tanzeel", who think that there is some sort of equivilancy between visiting a shrine and killing Muslims at worship, there are still others ready to push back.
"@Tanzeel Well sufi followers dont blow up mosques, they dont make it compulsory for others to follow their innovations. Comparison between taliban terrorists and sufis is just ridiculous. Its shocking that people still try to justify this mass murder by refering to the "true islam" which only they have the right to interprate and practice."
But what worries me is that Ali Khan (no relation) and the others who made similar points are on the cusp of being irrelevant to the conversation. Keep in mind that those who read an English-language newspaper online and then post replies in good English are likely to be more exposed and critical than the average member of the public. Tanzeel's point is reflective of a wider (and often more forceful) argument, and in the public arena (not just in Pakistan) an argument with any hint of nuance usually loses out to a "You are with us or against us" or "You are Muslim or you aren't" line of rhetoric.
So, I totally agree with what the interior minister says back in the first article:
"These are hard times; we are facing internal and external challenges and need national cohesion."
I wonder if a counter extremism policy and strategy would be a good place to start. Pity his government hasn't got round to formulating one.
The BBC is reporting 42 people died at the attack on Data Durbar shrine in Lahore last night.
During the last few months, everyone in Lahore would tell you it's just a matter of time before the place was bombed. The sufi Brehlvis who revere the place have been targeted before. And the Taliban spares no effort making the point that it doesn't approve of "shrine worship". The Taliban have hit shrines before. But they were smaller and in the northern Pashtun areas. Data Durbar on the other hand is a huge complex right in the middle of Lahore. It's a national icon. It is also difficult to police a place thronging with that many people at all hours of the day and night.
The attack comes less than a month after the Taliban attacked mosques in Lahore belonging to minority community that is seen as non-Muslim by he vast majority of Pakistanis. The attack on Data Durbar is a big step up the scale. This is a big, big deal. I would agree with the various respected analysts I have spoken to while in Pakistan who would say that the Taliban is trying to provoke sectarian warfare in Pakistan and then set themselves up as the protectors of the Sunnis.
But I wonder, if the Taliban are being prevented from realising their aims by the same thing that normally works for them; the Pakistani rumour mill. I have watched some Pakistani news channels on line. The line of questioning by the presenters seems to suggest, predictably, that the Indians/Israelis/CIA/Blackwater are being touted as the puppet masters as "obviously" they want to break up the country and that's what this kind of attack threatens to achieve. If the "real" perpetrators aren't Muslims, then that lessens the potential for communities turning on each other. But that's no reason to feel complacent. The communities being attacked have expressed anger that the section of Pakistan's religio political community sympathetic to the Taliban turn a blind eye when their people die. And I have heard leaders of these communities, in private conversation, talk about arming for "self defence".
I went to a very interesting conference earlier this week called Information Operations Europe. More than one speaker reminded the audience that al Qaeda's genius in part has been the placement of information and communication considerations at the heart of its activities. This is something other extremist outfits are learning too. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. My feeling is that the Taliban will hold back from doing so until they know whether confirmation will serve or damage their overall aims.
This would be a good time for the Pakistani state, or someone, to press home the point that this attack killed and maimed over a hundred Muslims, was carried out by people who claim to serve Islam and are Pakistanis (ie not Indians, Israelis etc) and targeted a site of worship, a national icon and somewhere that draws positive international attention to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the TV news I've seen has officials still repeating the "hidden hand" insinuation, which feeds into a sense of hostility, victimisation and tacit support for extremism.
UPDATE: It killed and maimed over a hundred people rather than hundreds of people.
As militant violence continues to claim lives throughout Pakistan, the job of finding answers is made impossible by the near-total inability of public opinion to arrive at some common understanding of its root causes.
In recent weeks, suicide bombs and attacks have claimed between a couple and dozens of lives nearly everyday. The smaller death tolls hardly make it onto the front pages of the local newspapers let alone the international press. The ones most people hear about are the audacious Rawalpindi mosque style suicide-commando attacks or the large bombs like the one today near Waziristan that is reported to have killed nearly 90 people watching a local sporting event.
If the first step to finding a solution to any given problem involves understanding what you face, Pakistan is no where near figuring out how to deal with the spiraling conflict inside the country. This blog has visited the issue of conspiracy theories before. But Londonstani found himself reading a Guardian article on the same issue in Iran that he felt made points that are even more salient in the context of Pakistan. If conspiracy theories cripple Iranians' ability to unravel their politics, in Pakistan they cripple the country's ability to deal with the forces tearing it apart.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that follows Pakistani affairs to hear that popular perception holds India/the United States/Israel ultimately responsible for extremist violence. Some even claim the army and the government carry out attacks to further their own political aims. The Guardian article makes the point that although Iranians have historical reasons for suspecting foreign interference in their affairs, those interventions could not have taken place without a certain level of support or approval from large sections of Iranian society. Basically, foreign intelligence services were not making facts on the ground out of thin air, they were manipulating factors which already existed to try to affect an outcome that was desirable to their own policy aims.
Just as Iranians weren't purely passive bystanders in their history, Pakistan is home to very real factors that feed into what is happening in the country. The conspiracy theories running rampent in Iran and Pakistan, have one thing in common, they allow the audience to believe they have no say, no effect and ultimately no responsibility for what happens to them.
Pakistan has an extremism problem. This is not just limited to the estimated few thousand fighters in FATA (whether they are foreign or Pakistani). The language of extremism is slowly permeating society. This was starkly illustrated to Londonstani when he had dinner with a middle class professional Pakistani friend who told him while drinking a beer that his relatives who observed full veiling and had thrown out their televisions, computers and hi-fi systems were the kind of people who had the strength and moral authority to "fix Pakistan".
However, there are people from all walks of life who recognise that what's happening is a problem.
"The common belief in Pakistan is that Islamic radicalism is a problem only in FATA, and that madrassas are the only institutions serving as jihad factories. This is a serious misconception. Extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities," said writer and academic Pervez Hoodbhoy in an article from last year.
The problem is that the immense mistrust of Western motives means anyone expressing such views risks being labelled a traitor and becoming a target. Even religious leaders are not immune from being singled out.
The authorities say that today's attack was probably motivated by the stand locals took against militants in their area. Londonstani suspects though that this was more about the effect militants were having on local political structures rather than a difference in ideology. In a country beset by economic and political catastrophe, the extremist narrative and world view provides easy answers. It asks people who have little control over their surroundings to amend the only thing they still have the power to change - their personal behaviour. By doing this, they earn the intervention of the only actor with the power to improve their reality - God.
Conspiracy theories are born when people have little knowledge of the workings of the powers that control their lives. In Pakistan, anyone looking to enact change - a foreign actor or the government itself - has to overcome conspiracy theories. Without this, money and effort spent by government and organisations will be wasted and probably counterproductive. The answer will involve improving transparency in political processes and persuading politicians and army officers not to stoke the conspiracy pot for short term political expediency... which is, of course, easy to say.
A suicide bomber killed around 30 people in Karachi today during traditional Shia Muharram ceremonies. It's not clear at this point whether the attack was part of Karachi's long-simmering sectarian problems, a statement of intent by the Pakistani Taliban to expand into the country's biggest city, or some sort of mixture of the two.
Over the past few weeks, suicide bombs and attacks in Pakistan have slipped from the news agenda. News coverage pays a decreasing amount of attention to events the more often they occur. Even though the loss of innocent life is equally tragic whether it is happening in the first attack of its type or the 100th, the Karachi attack deserves special attention because of its location and timing.
The Muharram ceremonies mark one of the main events in the Shia religious calender. Millions of Shia Muslims across the world mark the death of the Prophet's grandson Hussein in a one-sided battle as emblematic of the eternal struggle for truth and justice against overwhelming odds. Many non-Muslims will recognise Muharram ceremonies from images of bare-chested men flaying themselves in symbolic remorse for not coming to Hussein's aid.
An eyewitness told local channel Geo News that the suicide bomber detonated himself away from the main procession, which limited the number of casualties. Five security personnel died in the attack as well as a number of children. The explosion happened near a group of scouts who had been taking part in the procession.
Londonstani heard about the attack shortly after meeting a member of the Pakistani military. Predictably, the conversation revolved around the nature of Pakistan's security threat. Who was it exactly the army was fighting? Well, India of course, said the officer. Londonstani's arguments about India's own national interest in Pakistan's stability as well as the international community's stake in Pakistan's wellbeing and prosperity were all brushed aside. The army had proof of India's involvement, said the army man. Pakistanis fighting for the insurgency were illiterate young men led astray by foreigners bent on Pakistan's destruction. Many Pakistani officials Londonstani has met do not connect the country's present conflict to the internal tensions that exist within the country.
It's these tensions that are in danger of being further fanned by the attack in Karachi. Even though the official mindset refuses to accept that Pakistan's very serious social problems might underpin terrorism, many people were expecting the Shia ceremonies to be targeted. The only question was when, where and how bad. Londonstani's money was on Lahore, where a huge procession winds through very narrow streets. Shia leaders in they city's old quarter had told Londonstani that they had received direct threats from militants. Karachi, Londonstani thought, was too risky for the Taliban to target. Karachi is presently thought to be home to more Pashtuns than any other city in Pakistan. At the same time, the movement uses the city to raise funds and move supplies - alongside material moving to Afghanistan for ISAF. It's safe to assume whoever organised the attack had a larger aim.
A suicide attack suggests Taliban-style militants were behind the incident rather than Karachi's local Sunni thugs. Following the attack, enraged Shia worshippers set fire to nearby buildings and cars. As Londonstani writes, Geo News is reporting that fires are still raging in Karachi's commercial areas.
A Karachi resident told Londonstani over the phone; "What you are seeing in Karachi now with all the anger, rioting and burning of buildings is just a taste of what could happen. Karachi is more of a tinderbox than pretty much anywhere else in Pakistan and if someone wants to ignite a Baghdad-type inter-Muslim war in Pakistan, Karachi is the place to do it."
Shia leader Hasan Zafar Naqwi came on a number of the news channels denouncing the attacks. In the clips on the following news bulletins, the editors decided to repeat his comments that the terrorists who talk about countering America are only killing Muslims and damaging Pakistan. However, this was only a small part of what he said. His wider comments were much more telling of Shia reaction to the attacks.
"We have been killed in the hundreds for years. How long are we supposed to tolerate this?...I want to say to the nation, what have we done to deserve this? Lahore, Peshawar and now Karachi have become our Karbala," he said referring to the battleground where Hussein was killed. "We are mistreated yet where is the voice of the nation? When Shia die, no one says anything. The silent support that the terrorists enjoy has to end."
Karachi leaders, Shia as well as Sunni and representatives of various ethnic-based parties are appealing for calm. But Londonstani thinks the Naqwi's expression of anger at what he sees as Pakistan's Sunnis majority's disregard for Shia suffering will more accurately reflect the conversations that go on behind closed doors over the coming days.
Big time attack in Rawalpindi today, where Londonstani went for eid prayers a couple of days ago. The BBC is reporting 32 dead in an attack on a mosque. People are calling relatives frantically. The mobile network is creaking under the strain of the extra calls.
After the eid holidays, militants seem to have decided to let everyone know they are still a force to be reckoned with. Maybe they had a point to prove after recent comments by government officials that they had scored major successes in the Waziristan operation, which were then repeated by senior US and British officials.
Pakistani TV station Geo News is saying that at least two attackers entered a mosque used by army officers during Friday prayers and started firing on worshippers and throwing hand grenades.
More details and analysis to come, but initially it looks like a message from militants that the army's efforts haven't dimmed their capacity to carry out the sort of well executed and professional attacks they used in the storming of GHQ in the same city in October.
Interior Ministry Rehman Malik has just given a press conference where he reitered bland statements along the lines of "We are going after the people responsible".. "these people aren't Muslims. They attacked a mosque!! etc etc" It looks like he failed to answer the urgent concerns of journalists who asked about whether this is related to Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.
The journalists also wondered whether Shia processions to mark Muharram in the next few weeks will be targeted by militants. Londonstani is in Lahore today, a big Muharram procession takes place here every year. Local people in the old city, where thousands of Shia mark the occassion in narrow streets were saying they have received drect threats.
Is anyone else thinking Algeria 1990s?
UPDATE: Geo is reporting a general is among the dead. It's worth keeping in mind that Geo has a habit of reporting first and checking later.