In Pakistan, Cooler Heads May Yet Prevail

4 MINS READMar 29, 2016 | 02:54 GMT
The site of a March 27 suicide bombing that targeted Christians in Lahore, Pakistan.
(ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Christians constitute just 1 percent of Pakistan's population, and like so many minority populations the world over, sometimes they suffer for their beliefs. Yesterday, a suicide bomber in Pakistan killed at least 72 people, the most deadly attack in the South Asian nation in 15 months. The attack took place at Lahore's Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, where families had gathered to celebrate Easter. Among the dead were 29 children. A spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a militant faction formerly allied with the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility, adding that the group had specifically targeted Christians. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar's involvement would be in keeping with its past behavior: Last year, it attacked two churches, resulting in 14 deaths.

Sunday's attack is emblematic of an intensifying clash of ideologies between Pakistan's liberal and conservative institutions over the rights of religious minorities. On Feb. 29, Islamabad took a bold step toward reform by executing the man responsible for the death of Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab. A progressive Muslim, Taseer had criticized the country's long-standing blasphemy laws, and his outspokenness so angered his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, that Qadri killed Taseer, only to be sentenced to death for his crime. Large crowds of people protested his execution. Likewise, some 2,000 protesters are currently camped outside the National Assembly building in Islamabad, their presence a reminder of the deep-rooted emotions tied to religion and blasphemy in Pakistan and the challenges politicians face when pushing for reform.

The explanation behind Pakistan's uneasy relationship with religion and extremism is complex, partly because of the unfinished legacy of the country's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Historians continue to debate the intentions of Jinnah's vision for Pakistan. Many claim he foresaw a nation not fashioned around the principles of religion, but one built upon the ideals of secularism, in which the rights of minorities would be protected — even if Muslims formed the majority. Jinnah did not live long enough to bring his vision, such as it was, to life, and his successors had the unenviable task of constructing a coherent national identity in a geographically contested state.

Still, Pakistan was born in the shadow of the Cold War, and its proximity to the pro-India Soviet Union helped to undermine the secular vision of the founder. For a variety of reasons, the military general staff were elevated above civilian leaders, who in turn foisted an Islamic identity upon Pakistan to unite the country's disparate ethnic groups under the banner of religion. It's worth mentioning that these generals were empowered by the United States, which, along with Saudi Arabia, funneled more than $6 billion to Pakistan's president, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. In turn, Pakistan's most zealous religious leader went on to train, arm and dispatch an army of mujahideen to fight America's most vehement foe: the Communists.

A consequence of empowering the military was the strengthening of the country's extremist elements. Jihadist proxies were used to gain influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Islamabad wanted to manage the extremists so that they would serve only the military's purposes. Instead, radicals who had long gnawed away at the fringes of the Muslim faith were finally validated for their beliefs. Meanwhile, the Manichean logic of the Cold War meant that Washington's strategic concerns trumped the notion of separating church and state, so U.S. dollars continued to flow into the coffers of a ruler who explicitly sought to meld religion with politics. The Soviet Union may be gone, but the politicization of religion in Pakistan remains, and it has turned a faith that was once soft and tolerant into something harder and intransigent, something conducive to the rise of today's extremists.

Yet, cooler heads are attempting to prevail. In February, the province of Sindh passed a bill that would enable its minority Hindu population to register their marriages with the state for the first time ever. Earlier this month Islamabad passed a resolution recognizing Easter as well as the Hindu holidays of Diwali and Holi as public holidays. Ironically, attacks such as the one in Lahore empower the one institution most capable of addressing them: the military. On Monday, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif authorized the Pakistani army to launch a fresh wave of operations into Punjab, expanding the military's powers to conduct raids and interrogations. This expansion follows the beginning of the final phase of the anti-militant Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched Feb. 15 in the country's restive western region. The attack in Lahore, however, shows just how much work remains.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has work to do too. Seeking to apply a nimble touch, guided by prudence and caution, Sharif is playing the long game. But until the work is finished, attacks on minorities will periodically rattle the conscience of a complex and divided nation in which both insurgent and reformer are Pakistani and Muslim. 

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