Cell phone services shut. Motorbikes off roads. Public offices and schools closed for one day extra than the usual Muharram 9 and 10 holidays. And the Army standing on full alert. That is how Pakistanis observed the Yaum-e-Ashur this year. These precautionary measures did help. The day passed off without violence, but not the entire 10-day mourning period.
A day earlier in DI Khan, an attack on a procession near an imambargah left 9 people dead, including four children aged between 6 and 11, and 30 others wounded, four of them critically. Although the cell phones did not work, terrorists had found a way around the measure, using a TV remote control to detonate a bomb hidden in a roadside garbage dump. Before the DI Khan butchery, 23 people were killed in a suicide bombing on a Shia procession in Rawalpindi.
This is happening in the same country where until about 10, 15 years ago, it was common for non-Shias to go watch Muharram processions just out of interest. True, sometime tensions ran high during 'majalis', occasionally erupting into small incidents of violence; but by and large spirit of toleration dominated the atmosphere. Even now, general population lives and works in amity. The society is not divided along sectarian lines. So, who are these violent men killing innocent people on either side?
One such group, of course, is the self-styled Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which claimed credit for both the DI Khan and Rawalpindi attacks. Its spokesman threw a challenge at the government saying, "the government can make whatever security arrangements it wants, but it cannot stop our attacks." The police though said they would still carry out proper investigations into the two incidents, apparently because in the past, the TTP has been claiming responsibility for acts of terrorism not only in Pakistan but also in Western countries which were later found to be the deeds of home-grown extremists. The statements of responsibility may be ascribable to a desire to present an overblown image of TTP's capabilities.
The TTP is made up of men whose creed has no room for divergent views even within the Sunni school of thought. They have been desecrating Sufi tombs revered by the Sunni Brailvis. They have also been targeting, though unsuccessfully, Sunni leaders of religious parties like the former Amir of Jamaat-i-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmad, even JUI chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman who, like the Taliban, is of Deobandi persuasion. Yet there is a method to their madness, which is to target anyone critical of their tactics and objectives. Indeed, the TTP has a nexus with anti-Shia sectarian outfits active all over the country but it seems to be focused, at least at this point in time, on its tribal home ground.
The main source of trouble is sectarian outfits; and their driving force, outside interests. Sectarian organisations run foreign-funded seminaries in different parts of the country, recruiting young people from poor families to serve as foot soldiers and suicide bombers. This country has become a battleground of foreign contentions for influence. If the Taliban have a linkage with the US' war in Afghanistan, violent sectarian extremists draw their sustenance from the Gulf countries' tussle for regional influence. They give huge sums of money as 'donations' to sectarian groups on their respective sides to weaken the other's influence. Pakistanis dying in violence are not only ordinary adherents of one or the other sect, but also sectarian leaders. Yet the lure of money is so great that such organisations continue to grow in number.
While discussing the issue in a TV discussion, MNA and (until Monday) head of the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahibzada Fazal Karim, put his finger on the problem when he offered a solution, he said, could end the sectarian violence within three months: stop foreign funding of sectarian clerics. Anyone thinking it was a baseless attempt on his part to malign other religious groups since followers of a certain sectarian school of thought - inimical to his Brailvi persuasion - have been targeting Sufi shrines and attacking Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi processions, needs to take a look at the WikiLeaks cables sent, not too long ago, by American diplomats from Lahore and some Gulf states to Washington. According to a cable from Lahore, some $100 million are sent annually from Saudi Arabia and the UAE "ostensibly with the direct support of those governments" to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in south Punjab. The money, the cable explained, is used to recruit children from poor families and to prepare them for 'martyrdom' in exchange for an average price of Rs 500,000 paid to the parents. This should explain also why the previously Brailvi dominated south Punjab is now known as a 'Punjabi Taliban' base. Another cable from a Middle Eastern post talks of the Gulf states being very strict in dealing with extremists within their own societies but casting a blind eye to donations made by organisations and individuals to extremist causes abroad.
What these details show is that the identity of the violent extremists killing innocent people and undermining the peace and security of this society is well-known. What is missing is the government willingness to take them on. The tendency among the ruling parties - PML-N in Punjab and PPP at the centre as well as in Sindh and Balochistan - has been to accuse one another of fraternising with sectarian extremists. Which only benefits the latter. It is about time they took courage in both hands and confronted the people directly or indirectly responsible for the spread of violent sectarian extremism in this country. Towards that end, at least three steps are in order: First, frank conversations with Gulf governments to stop money supply to sectarian clerics; second, strict implementation of the law pertaining to publication and distribution of hate propaganda. And thirdly, an anti-terrorism bill that has been sitting unattended in Parliament for over four years needs to be urgently placed before the legislators for debate and approval so that terrorists apprehended by security agencies cannot wriggle out of their hands using legal loopholes to win release orders from courts.