(Editorial in Dawn on Shia-Sunni Conflict in Pakistan, March 5, 2013)


We can go on talking about the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi till we`re blue in the face. Or about the specific forms that sectarian violence takes in flashpoints such as Quetta and Karachi. But as long as we continue to pretend that Pakistan`s militancy problem is that limited in scope, innocent civilians will continue to die.


The real challenge has to do with the way in which the state is approaching the issue as if it is simply an inconvenience for the public in certain parts of the country, a series of minor and isolated problems to be addressed in a piecemeal and localized way. As if the relentless campaign of sectarian violence is the equivalent of load shedding in Quetta or traffic congestion in Karachi or any of the other local hassles Pakistanis suffer on a daily basis. In reality, it is a national emergency, and what is missing is an acknowledgement that the problem is far broader than just the LJ or other blatantly violent organizations. Focusing on them will be pointless without a crackdown on all the various faces of sectarianism that are tolerated and in some cases actively fostered by the state, from politicians and sections of the media to law enforcement and the military.


What, for example, does it mean for there to be an interior ministry `ban` on Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a reincarnation of the proscribed Sipah-i-Sahaba? The ASWJ has also lost members in reprisal killings of late. Unfortunate as that is, the police believe it has close links with the more overtly militant LJ. Despite this, the organization`s president is invited by the JUI-F to attend, alongside the country`s major political parties, a conference on what to do about militancy. He has led funeral prayers for slain policemen attended by some of Karachi`s senior-most police officers, appeared on television naming politicians from the country`s biggest parties who have courted him for votes in their constituencies, and been used by the state to bargain with militants. And the ASWJ is not the only example. It has held public rallies alongside Jamaatud Dawa, the not-banned face of Lashkar-e-Taiba, that are also attended by the mainstream Jamaat-i-Islami.


No wonder we can`t control those responsible for spreading hatred. We are pretending we don`t know who they are.


Along with turning a blind eye to the dubious links of certain renamed or banned organizations there is also, for example, increasing talk of talking to the Taliban. Except that groups like the LJ and the TTP don`t exist in isolation from each other or from Al Qaeda, or the Afghan Taliban, or other foreign militants in the tribal areas. So while all these groups may not have common agendas, their support for each other means cracking down on them selectively is a strategy that has already failed to prevent violence and will continue to.  The Pakistani Taliban and the LJ are not one and the same. But their links are obvious enough to demand a serious rethink of the plan to hold effectively unconditional talks with the TTP, particularly from the position of weakness the state is clearly in today.


Perhaps the only aspect of the current situation to be relieved about is that the sectarian attacks haven`t yet turned into a communal conflict.


The Shia community has shown restraint, and both Shias and Sunnis recognize that these extreme beliefs are limited to a small group of violent radicals. And reprisal killings have so far been restricted to militants or members of banned organizations. But Sunday`s attack in Karachi also set a worrying precedent with the potential to aggravate the conflict. Following the Feb 16 attack on Hazara Shias in Quetta, it was one of the first instances of a residential locality being bombed. In a way, this means the anti-Shia campaign is only growing more callous attacking Shias in markets or on pilgrimage targeted them in the public sphere, but these incidents have reached them in their homes. And for Karachi, where most sectarian conflicts take the form of target killings or attacks on Muharram-related processions, Sunday marked a new and even more disturbing tactic. This is an increasingly inhuman campaign. And yet the state continues to behave as if arresting a few dozen alleged LJ members after a public outcry will solve the problem. Without a broader, braver and more honest effort, matters will only get worse from here.

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