Last month’s attack on a Pakistani Christian community by a mob of Sunni Muslims is a worrying development in a country that purports to fight extremism, writes Mustafa Qadri
“Make mincemeat of the Christians” blared the mosque loudspeakers.
This was not the Taliban speaking, nor was it in the frontier of Pakistan along the Afghan border. The setting was the Christian Colony of Gojra in rural Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province.
In the early period of the industrial era, Pakistan’s Islamic preachers used to denounce megaphones as a modern aberration on their ancient faith. Today they have fully embraced the devices, although the loud din of the muezzins rarely call out in unison.
Yet in early August, with terrifying coordination, a large mob of Sunni Muslims stormed towards Gojra’s Christian community, burning down around 100 houses and killing nine. Most of the dead perished in their homes as they were gutted by flames
The mob gathered after rumours spread that one of Gojra’s Christians had desecrated a copy of the Quran. Government authorities later discovered that the rumours were false.
Vulnerable minorities are often targeted over petty grievances or property disputes, and Christian Colony residents believe the attack was sponsored by a local businessman keen to expropriate their land. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan concurs, saying their interviews with victims suggested the attack was premeditated: “Witnesses said the attackers went about destroying Christians’ houses in a very professional manner and seemed to be trained for carrying out such activities.”
An outlawed Sunni extremist group known as of Sipa-e-Sahaba, which is also known to target Shiites and Sunnis it considers apostate, is thought to have masterminded the attack. Sipa-e-Sahaba’s leader, Allama Ali Sher Hyderi, was himself shot dead last month in his home town of Khairpur, northern Sindh, in what appears to be a reprisal killing.
Technically, Sipa-e-Sahaba is an outlawed organisation. But the ban must be viewed sceptically given that the Pakistan Ullema Council — a powerful mainstream religious body that is hostile to Christians, Shiites and some Sunni sects — condemned Hyderi’s assassination. There have been only muted protests for the Christians of Gojra, however, and even self-confessed champions of the marginalised like Imran Khan have remained silent.
Ever since the forced “Islamisation” of Pakistan under former dictator Zia ul Haq, fanatical Sunni religious groups have loudly and aggressively championed an intolerant brand of Islam. Although they have consistently fared poorly in elections, they are a powerful lobby greatly feared by governments, the public and even the judiciary.
It would be unfair, however, to only blame religious groups for the spreading intolerance.
“Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and marginalisation of secular democratic forces,” concludes an International Crisis Group report on the state of sectarianism in Pakistan.
Under General Zia, school textbooks were purged of any positive reference to minorities and any Muslim traditions that were considered too pagan. Students were taught that Pakistan was a global vanguard of Sunni Islam forever threatened by Hindus, Jews and Western imperialists. Pakistan’s penal code was amended to make blasphemy against Islam, including desecration of the Quran, a crime with strict penalties including life imprisonment to death. The Hudood Ordinance left millions of victims of rape exposed to the new crime of adultery while the testimony of non-Muslims was judged to be half the value of a Muslim.
Well after Zia’s death, the Pakistan Army has continued to support militancy inspired by a chauvinist and xenophobic interpretation of Islam. Although the current war with the Taliban represents the army’s most dramatic shift away from such militancy, whether it will categorically end support for all extremist outfits considered strategically useful remains to be seen.
A much bigger issue is the extent to which extremism has infiltrated mainstream Pakistani politics.
The Gojra attack occurred in the heartland of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Even the clerics here pledge allegiance to the Sharif brothers. Elder sibling Nawaz is, according to the polls, the most popular leader in the country. Shabaz, the younger Sharif, is Punjab’s Chief Minister and a noted bureaucrat.
According to one source, federal intelligence agencies had warned the PML-N controlled Punjab Government that a militant group was expected to carry out an attack on minority communities but it was ignored.
The Christians of Gojra don’t vote for the PML-N but conservative middle class Muslims do. For years the party has been a bridge between politicised mainstream religious leaders and the formal political set up. That linkage has its origins in the sweeping Islamisation project of Zia ul Haq.
But amid this sobering tale there are glimpses of hope. Most of Gojra’s Christians were given refuge from the mob by their Muslim neighbours, and — perhaps more opportunistically — the ardently secular Muttahida Quami Movement was quick to provide relief and call for the assailants to be punished.
Pressed by the adverse publicity, both the Pakistan and Punjab governments have promised justice to the victims too. Islamabad says it will hold a judicial inquiry into the incident and push for reforms to the blasphemy laws.
But any significant repeal of these laws will be a daunting task.
“Any government that takes on the project of amending these exploitative laws will have to confront this political Islamist lobby,” noted former federal information minister and leading progressive politician Sherry Rehman.
The Punjab Government says it will provide up to AU$7,100 in compensation but victims say this is not sufficient recompense for the loss of lives and property.
There were no Pakistan flags fluttering in Gojra on Independence Day last month, only black ones hoisted on any structure that was lucky enough to survive the attack. “We’re still waiting for our freedom, if this was our country this would not have happened,” one Gojra resident told a news crew.
The violence against Christians proves that the Taliban are not the only extremist threat to Pakistan. Unless there is a concerted effort to roll back the Islamisation of the state that began under Zia, extremism will continue to unravel the communal cohesion of the entire country.