Pakistan’s sectarian problem

This is a cross-post from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)

According to alarming reports from Pakistan, coordinated sectarian attacks on mosques in Lahore have led to the deaths of approximately 70 people.  Earlier today, gunmen armed with grenades and automatic weapons attacked two mosques 15 kilometres apart in the city. It seems to have followed the fedayeen style of operation that have becoming increasingly popular with jihadist groups in the region, since the 2008 assault on Mumbai and 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team attacks.  Three attackers also blew themselves up as police entered the building to end the siege.

One eyewitness described how one of the attackers “reminded me of the people who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team, he was wearing similar clothes – the traditional Pakistani dress shalwar kameez and he looked like someone from a tribal area.” Early reports from Pakistan suggest that this was the work of the Punjabi wing of the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on which ICSR recently held a seminar.

The two mosques belong to the Ahmadiyya sect, a sizeable religious Muslim minority in Pakistan that have long been the targets of sectarian Islamist groups who consider them to represent a deviant sect of Islam.  For most Sunni Muslims, a central tenet of Islam is that Mohammed was the final prophet (rusool) of God, whereas the Ahmadiyya sect are followers of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Kadiani, who they believe succeeded Mohammed.   

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have been at the forefront of this persecution, inciting violence and hatred against the Ahmadiyya, referring to them as kafir (non-Muslims) and calling for the nationwide closure of all their mosques.  In 1984, under the patronage of President Zia ul-Haq, the JI successfully lobbied for Ahmadi practices to be outlawed under blasphemy laws, preventing, among other things, “an Ahmadi, calling himself a Muslim, or preaching or propagating his faith, or outraging the religious feelings of Muslims, or posing himself as a Muslim.”  In 2009, Amnesty international issued a press release appealing for the law to be reviewed, stating:

Attacks on religious minorities have been exacerbated by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws which have fostered a climate of religiously-motivated violence and persecution. Accusations of blasphemy have frequently resulted in the murder of both Muslims and members of religious minorities.

The blasphemy laws, while purporting to protect Islam and religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution of religious minorities.

Today’s attacks, though the worst in recent memory, are by no means the first of their kind and are probably not going to be the last.  Regular sectarian attacks on the Ahmadiyya rarely make the news in this country, overshadowed as they are by the conflict in the northern regions against the Taliban. The international community must take much more interest in these types of sectarian attacks. Those who persecute the Ahmadiyya are often the ideological partners of those who wish to attack targets in the West.

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