October 09, 2010

Karachi shrine attack

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."

Ali Khan

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.