What a yearning for sectarian harmony that a relatively peaceful Ashura is a source of great relief to the people of Pakistan. That the number of killings of mourners was much less than everyone had feared is a development that has earned security managers praise; they rightfully deserve it because the impending threat of a large-scale massacre of devotees of Hazrat Imam Hussain (RA) at the hands of any misguided assassins was indeed profound.
In Iraq, the one other country where too over the last few years murderous violence against the mourners had gone up by many notches, this past Ashura passed peacefully. But this is not because the killers have undergone some metamorphic change of heart and have decided to let the holy month of Muharram pass without violence; the relatively peaceful commemoration is exclusive courtesy of the forbiddingly stringent measures adopted by authorities in the two countries. Over 30,000-strong four-layer security cordon protected the mourners in the city of Karbala where some two million devotees had come. In Pakistan, the entire country was in a complete lockdown, as heavy contingents of security forces provided protection to Muharram processions and Imambargahs. In over four dozen cities and towns, pillion riding was banned, mobile phone services were snapped and some parts of major cities turned into no-go zones, etc. Even an extra day, Friday, was added to the two-day weekly holidays. All this was done to obtain conditions for violence-free Ashura; and this is no mean effort on the part of authorities.
The question is for how long such fire-fighting arrangements can be put in place to ensure a violence-free Ashura. Over the last week or so not only had almost everything come to a standstill, the relief now being felt is not very different from the kind of calm that tends to obtain in the eye of the storm. Timely detection of a huge cache of arms and ammunition at Manghopir, in Karachi, should leave no one in peace that threat to sectarian peace and harmony is over now. Neither the agents of death have been defeated nor do their sources of supply seem to be drying up. Except for Yemen, no other country is so dangerously infested with illegal arms as Pakistan where some three hundred arms manufacturing units are in production in plain sight of everyone, government issues licences of prohibited-bore guns as political favour and there is no worthwhile check on its international borders.
Add to this, the jihadi-passion-obsessed volunteer/rented manpower and we have this all-encompassing mortal threat. Not only this has won the country a negative image, eroding outsiders' confidence in our economic viability and making life of expatriate Pakistanis a difficult proposition, it weakens our foreign policy assertion that some foreign hands are working to destabilise the country. Yes, there may be a few outsiders who would like to harm Pakistan and may be bankrolling sectarian violence in our country, but that's not the whole truth. The whole truth is that we as a society have failed to forge religious and sectarian harmony and tolerance. The sword that hangs over our head is of our own making. We are besieged from within. Our religious leadership is deeply divided and it appears to be incapable of rising above the challenge of sectarian divide. That violence during Muharram is Pakistan-specific and all other Muslim-majority countries observed Muharram peacefully - Iraqi strife is understandable given its lingering instability caused by the foreign invasion - our religious leaders need to move out of their narrow grooves and fixed mindsets. Unfortunately, their response, both in terms of quality and quantity, falls short of the challenge. They need to understand that at the end of the day their survival is contingent upon the survival of Pakistan.