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A New Wave of Sectarian Militancy

If the feeling had taken hold that the menace of sectarian violence had been contained, this perception has been rudely shattered by the latest bout of killings to shake the country. It started with the gunning down of a Shia leader in Dera Ismail Khan the other day. This was followed by the assassination of a leading Shia figure in Gujranwala. To top it all, however, is the attack on an Imambargah in Karachi which has left eight people dead and many more injured. Clearly, sectarian fanatics, after lying low for some time, have risen again to destroy the country's peace and raise fresh questions about where as a people we are headed. The level of intolerance in our society is growing, and far from anyone having an answer to this scourge, more and more adherents are flocking to the banner of organizations which specialize in the propagation of very narrow-minded creeds. However, if narrowmindedness was the only problem, it could still be dealt with. The problem in Pakistan is that religious bigotry and fanaticism have acquired militant overtones. Virulent hatred towards members of different sects is not only preached but glorified. Not surprisingly, those who distinguish themselves in acts of sectarian violence are revered as holy warriors and extolled as examples to be emulated. Thus an entire culture of religiously-inspired militancy has evolved which threatens the peace and security of the country.

If this is a fearsome challenge, the response of the authorities falls far short of what should have been expected. Some sectarian terrorists have been arrested but not all have been brought to trial or punished for their horrific acts. This sends the wrong kind of signal to everybody and further undermines confidence in the ability of the police and the courts to withstand this challenge. In fact, the inner circle of the more pronounced sectarian outfits which deal in murder and mayhem has not been cracked. Many of the prominent terrorists of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, for example - an organization which has been in the forefront of religious assassinations - remain at large even though they carry substantial amounts as head money. True, the hard core of these terrorist outfits is not large but this fact alone is of little comfort as long as these hitmen, for they are no better than that, remain free to strike where they will.

What the last few years have shown is that sectarian violence comes in waves and cycles. Gruesome incidents take place which capture and frighten the popular imagination and send the authorities into a frantic whirl of activity with solemn vows being uttered to bring the culprits to book. But as the memory of these incidents fades, the pace of the authorities also slackens and soon it is back to business as usual. At a time and place of their choosing the terrorists strike again and once more the familiar cycle repeats itself before the inevitable slowing down. Clearly this sterile approach must yield place to a more meaningful strategy to combat the menace. The fight against sectarian violence must never slacken and indeed must remain one of our leading national priorities if the walls of blind antagonism and hatred that have been raised between various sects are to be broken down and Pakistani society is to recapture the harmony and peace which it knew once upon a time.

While this is a testing time for all Pakistanis, it is more so for the Shiite community which has been the target of all three of the latest attacks. It is all too easy, and natural, for this community to be overcome and swept along by feelings of anger and revenge. But to give way to these feelings would be to play into the hands of the very evil forces which are behind these outrages. Since their mission is to spread discord and anarchy they would like nothing better than to see violence met by violence so that the fires of hatred spread across the country. Their evil designs must be defeated and for that it is essential that, tough though it may be, the Shiite community should show patience and forbearance. The leaders of this community must come forward and lay a restraining hand on their followers.

But counselling patience and restraint to one or the other side of the sectarian divide is not enough. A heavier responsibility lies on the shoulders of the government which must shake off its slumber and galvanize itself into action against the terrorist outfits whose identity is no secret and which are most likely to be responsible for these acts of violence. Only when such a demonstration of commitment and will is forthcoming will it sound reasonable to emphasise the need for tolerance and restraint in the face of grave provocations. If, on the other hand, there is not much that the government can show for itself, more and more young people will be encouraged to think that attack is the best form of defence. These are dangerous tendencies and bode ill for the future. It is the responsibility of all Pakistanis to resist these trends and to pray fervently that the scourge of sectarian violence is banished from this land forever.



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