By S. M. Hali

Pakistan is a country where different faiths dwelled in harmony and were free to practice and preach their religious beliefs but the last two decades have witnessed a frightening upsurge in the Shia-Sunni sectarian violence, both in terms of scope and intensity. It is still not clear whether the seeds of dissension were sown in the Zia era, where a religious upheaval by the Sunnis erupted or are the fallout of the Afghan jihad, which spilled over across the Durand Line into Pakistan or the divide was artificially created by external protagonists to destabilize Pakistan. President Zia-ul-Haq himself, who favoured a return to Islamic orthodoxy, reportedly became a target of the sectarian divide.  Various Islamic laws were promulgated in Pakistan during his regime but since most were only cosmetic changes or harsh extremist punitive measures like public flogging, chopping of limbs of thieves and stoning to death of those guilty of moral turpitude; they only deepened the chasm of differences rather than bridge them. The broad daylight assassination of Shia scholar and respected cleric Allama Allama Arif ul Al Hussaini, purportedly led to a vindictive plot to eliminate Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan-One, the Presidential C-130 carrying 39 other senior officers of the armed forces and the US Ambassador and defence Attaché accredited to Pakistan was brought down through sabotage and incapacitated by deliberate targeting, killing all on board.

The resultant religious bedlam has plagued the Pakistani milieu, which has been exploited by vested interests. There appears to be a method in the madness. Rallies, congregations and places of worship of both Shias and Sunnis may have been assailed by a third party, with each side blaming the other and retaliating with counterattacks, creating more chaos.   

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Frequent clashes between the two sects have left hundreds dead and thousands injured, including Iranian diplomats, senior state functionaries and important religious leaders on both sides. The recent sectarian strife has engulfed even those areas, which were previously unaffected, largely because of the interference of hostile agencies and emergence of organized terrorists group along sectarian lines. Besides target killings, these groups now hit even ordinary members of each other sects, whenever and wherever they find it operationally convenient. The multitude of attacks launched this holy month of Moharram, leaving a trail of death and destruction are not limited to isolated localities rather it has now become a national concern with serious implications for the state and society.

It is imperative that in order to tackle the roots of sectarian violence, the entire nation gears up because this demon will devour our society, already rendered fragile by terrorist attacks. The state organs for maintaining peace, law and order have to be more vigilant and go beyond banning pillion riding on motorbikes and shutting down cell phones. True vigilance involves preemptive action rather than retroactive steps after a series of attacks have taken a heavy toll of precious lives. They have been constantly laying the blame on external sources. Now is the time for exposing the true perpetrators and provide evidence of the interference by foreign elements that are fueling sectarian strife in our country due to their own vested interest.

Religious leaders must not only display tolerance and forbearance in the face of attacks on their community, but instill the same spirit in their followers to refrain from retaliatory attacks. Opinion builders including intellectuals, columnists, analysts and TV anchors must also play an active role in moulding public opinion. The Pakistani society, where illiteracy is rampant, the electronic media plays a major role in shaping attitudes, views and motivating people to act in a specific manner. The communications skills of the analysts and TV anchors can be best utilized in inculcating open-mindedness and shunning sectarian violence and extremism. If ever there was a need for the free and unbridled Pakistani media to contribute towards eradicating the menace of the fiend of sectarianism, it is now.

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The political leadership of Pakistan is headed towards the next general elections. It should be made clear by the constituent of voters that they would only elect those politicians to public office, who rid the Pakistani milieu of the abject syndrome of sectarianism, project that unity and brotherhood amongst various sects is the need of the hour especially at this moment when Pakistan is facing multi dimensional external as well as internal threats. Past rhetoric and sloganeering must give way to concrete action to make Pakistan a haven of peace and tranquility rather than terror and pandemonium.

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