Rising sectarianism is the biggest threat to Pakistan’s stability
What happened in Punjab’s Jaranwala district last week was a grim reminder of rising extremism tearing apart Pakistani state and society. A mob, incited by an announcement from a local mosque, alleging a Christian man of desecration of the Quran ransacked homes of the community and burned down churches with impunity in full sight of law enforcement agencies. The terrified inhabitants of the Christian colony fled for their safety.
It was yet another shameful incident of violence against the Christian community that has marked a steep rise in the last few years with the growing influence of extremist sectarian religious groups in the country. What happened in Jaranwala may have been one of the worst incidents of religiously motivated mob violence but not the only one targeting the Christian community.
Just a few years ago a mob attacked a Christian neighborhood in Gojra town in Punjab province that resulted in the deaths of eight people including a child. These attacks came less than a month after a mob destroyed scores of houses belonging to Christians in Kasur District after a blasphemy allegation. In another incident not long ago, a Christian couple was thrown alive into a furnace on baseless charges of blasphemy.
The state’s policy of appeasement and in some cases, using religion for political expediency, has contributed hugely to the rise of faith-based violence.
Christians which make up 1.6% of Pakistan's predominantly Muslim population of 240 million people may have been the main target of the zealots but other religious minorities including Hindus and members of the Ahmadiya community have also faced persecution because of their faith. The country has been increasingly witnessing killings in the name of faith. The issue of blasphemy comes in handy for zealots and criminals.
Most such incidents have taken place in Pakistan’s biggest and most powerful province of Punjab, which has become a base of extremist groups. There have been several incidents of mob lynching in the name of faith. The most gruesome incidents took place at the end of 2021 in Sialkot, one of the country’s main industrial centers when the Sri Lankan manager of a factory was lynched by a mob accusing him of blasphemy. No one in the crowd showed any sense of shock at the bestiality taking place.
It may have been a most horrific incident, but the country has been increasingly witnessing such incidents of lynching. A few years ago, the country witnessed the gruesome murder of a young university student by his classmates on campus. Falsely accused of blasphemy, Mashal Khan a student of Mardan University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was beaten and shot to death because of his views. Even some university administration members were among those inciting the students.
The footprints of most of these attacks lead to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right sectarian political party which has seen a massive rise in popularity in the last few years. Reportedly, there were chants of TLP slogans in both Jaranwala and Sialkot incidents. The little-known group saw its rise after its first siege of the capital in 2017. It was the capitulation and not its popular mass support, that turned it into a force to be reckoned with. Now with the mainstreaming of the group, the danger of youth, particularly those less educated and coming from marginalised ranks, turning to extremism is growing.
It’s the weaponisation of faith that has been the main reason for the spread of such brutality in society. This culture of violence and rising religious intolerance is also caused by growing youth population with little education and job opportunities becoming easy recruits to extremist groups like TLP. This extremism is now entrenched so deeply that it threatens to rip apart the entire social fabric.
A weak state, unable to stop the spread of a retrogressive mindset has turned the country into a breeding ground for violent extremism. The state’s policy of appeasement and in many cases, using religion for political expediency has contributed hugely to the rise of faith-based violence.
Notwithstanding its pledge to punish the perpetrators of the crime, the state still doesn’t seem willing to address the main issue of the ideology the TLP represents, which results in incidents like Jaranwala and the Sialkot tragedy. The oft-repeated mantra of ‘establishing the writ of the state’ becomes a joke when these incidents keep occurring.
Pakistan had the world's highest increase of threats against minorities and is ranked the sixth most dangerous country for minorities overall. It’s a frightening situation indeed and there is an urgent need to build a national narrative for fighting this menace before it is too late.
- Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain