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Understanding Lahore: the Dynamics of Religious Minorities in Pakistan

by Laurent Glattli

Image source: Wasik Malif

On Sunday 28 March 2016, a suicide attack killed 70 people and wounded 300 in a Lahore park. Responsibility was claimed by a scission from the Pakistani Taliban Movement as an attack against the Christian community of Pakistan. On the same day, in Islamabad, 2,000 people from hard-line Islamist movements protested violently against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, hanged for assassinating a former Punjab governor who had spoken against the law criminalising blasphemy. Pakistan is a divided country, in which religious minorities (Shia Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians) are regularly the targets of attacks by Sunni extremists, and this state of affairs is the result of four decades of instrumentalisation of religion by the political power.

Although Pakistan was founded as a safe home for South Asian Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, father of the independence, envisioned a country where freedom of religion was guaranteed[1]. To him, Islam was to be understood as a cultural marker to distinguish Pakistanis from Indians, and be a source of national cohesion. Indeed, Pakistan regroups a vast diversity of ethnolinguistic groups. Local identities are strong and have hindered the construction of a national consciousness, even leading to separatist movements[2]. In addition, democracy remains fragile in the country: Pakistan has always oscillated between military and civilian democratic rule, the type of regime changing every decade with a remarkable regularity.

Internal tensions culminated in 1971, when the province of Bengal seceded from Pakistan to form Bangladesh. The trauma caused by the loss of Bengal prompted a revival of Pakistan’s definition as an Islamic country, with religion being a powerful instrument of mobilisation and national cohesion. Accepting demands from Islamic political parties, Prime Minister Bhutto enforced a new Constitution reflecting stricter observance of Islamic rules. On the international stage, he initiated a rapprochement with Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

The rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) was marked by a policy of islamisation of the society. 1979 marked a turning point, Pakistan feeling the shockwave of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Pakistani secret services (Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI) and the CIA funded, armed, and trained Afghan Mujahedeen in Pakistan’s North Western tribal areas, with the support of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom was also involved in ideological mobilisation by financing the construction of hundreds of madrasas to spread the Wahhabi school of thought. General Zia introduced a parallel justice system based on Sharia law, school books conform to conservative Sunni ideology and a law on blasphemy. All of this paved the way for a rise of Sunni militant groups and the gradual loss of control of Pakistani authorities over them.

The 1990s saw an increased radicalisation of society, and a multiplication of religious signs in public space. While public education lacks means, privately-funded madrasas became more attractive. A 2015 report by Karachi-based NGO HIVE found that the number of madrasas belonging to Deobandi sect (a South Asian Islamic school of thought close to Wahhabism) had risen from 1779 in 1988 to 7000 in 2002, while in the same period, the number of Barelvi madrasas (a sect associated with moderate Sufi Islam) had risen from 717 to only 1585[3].

The radicalisation of society on the religious issue has led to what researcher Mariam Abou Zahab[4] has called a movement “self-purification” of the Pakistani society. The “Land of the Pure” (the etymology of Pakistan in Persian) has put a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam as it state religion, at the expense of its religious minorities. Although no recent and reliable demographic statistics exist in Pakistan, it is estimated that 3 to 5 % of its population is not Muslim. After independence, the Hindu population that stayed gradually dwindled to 2 percent today[5]. Part of Pakistani nation-building has consisted in getting rid of Hindu influences in cultural practices, while affirming that Pakistan’s identity was Middle-Eastern rather than South Asian. But the definition of an “Other” did not stop at Hindus: it targeted Ahmadiyya Muslims with a law passed in 1974 declaring them as non-Muslims. Christians form 1.6 % of the population. Since the beginning of the 1980s, they have been increasingly victims of intimidation and harassment made possible by the controversial blasphemy law, and terror attacks target churches since 2009.

Within Islam itself, the term “minority” is used more and more to designate Shia Muslims who make up to 20 to 25 % of the population. Since 1979, Pakistan has been the site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that uses Shia and Sunni militant groups. These groups mobilised on existing socioeconomic divisions to exacerbate sectarian identities, leading to the radicalisation of the two sides, with Shia forces conducting a two-day siege of Islamabad in 1980 in a recreation of the Battle of Kerbala, involving multiple attacks claimed by Sunni militant groups against Shia mosques, shrines, or houses.

Using extremist militants as a foreign policy tool in Afghanistan and India, the army and the ISI and have been inefficient, if not reluctant, to curb extremist violence on Pakistani soil against minorities. After 9/11 and Pakistan’s decision to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, the Taliban turned against the state. It is finally in 2014, after an attack on Karachi airport claimed by TTP, that the army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militant stronghold in North Waziristan. After the Peshawar Army School attack, the operation was completed by a National Action Plan against terrorism.

The Lahore attack is but a reminder that the disastrous situation of Pakistani minorities is the result of four decades of political intrumentalisation of a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, both by civilian and military authorities. They are now innocent pawns caught in the middle of a deadly battle between the state and terrorists.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

[1] Speech at Constituent Assembly, 11 August 1947

[2] Christophe Jaffrelot, Le syndrome pakistanais, Fayard, 2013

[3] The Madrasa Conundrum — The state of religious education in Pakistan, Umair Khalil, Hive, 2015

[4] Conference « Islam et politique au Pakistan » by Mariam Abou Zahab, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, 12 November 2015

[5] Figures from the 2004 National Census

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