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View Point: Confronting sectarian extremists

This year’s Eid Milad-un-Nabi celebrations brought along a pleasant surprise. Like in the good old times, the day passed off peacefully with the faithful taking out celebratory processions in different parts of the country, reciting ‘naats, ‘hamd’ and Quranic verses. The surprise event in the present violence ridden environment turned out to be the main procession in Rawalpindi-the scene of a recent major incident of sectarian violence- for being a joint Sunni and Shia affair. Leaders from both sides made inspiring speeches while the participants raised slogans of “Shia Sunni bhai bhai” in the spirit of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) message of peace and brotherhood. Similarly, a milad meeting organised by Minhajul Quran in Lahore included Shia scholars.

Yet a despairing reality lurked behind this show of unity. Ironic as it is, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, Muslims have to worry about security while celebrating the birth anniversary of the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam. Provincial governments took special security measures, issuing leave cancellation orders for the police personnel and members of rescue services. Hospitals were put on alert. KPK and Sindh governments banned cell phone services as well as pillion riding. At the back of all these measures, of course, was a fear of terrorist attacks by religious extremists, who for a time have been targeting people celebrating the Prophet’s(PBUH) birthday. Seeking to impose their brand of Islam on this country, they regard these events and some other popular practices, such as visiting and praying at Sufi shrines as ‘bid ‘at’ (an offensive innovation). Just a few days ago, they brutally murdered five keepers of a shrine in Karachi, leaving a note behind that said those people deserved to be killed for being ‘bit’ati.’ These extremists have also bombed some of the most revered shrines in other places, killing a number of devotees simply because their puritan version of Islam is intolerant of any religious practice at variance with their own belief system.

It is worthwhile to note that the majority of the Muslim population of this country is a follower of the more tolerant Barelvi School of religious thought. Yet things have regressed to a point where they can practice their beliefs only at the risk of life. Religious extremists, in their zeal to eliminate any digression from their own beliefs, are as willing to kill followers of the Barelvi line within the Sunni branch of Islam as believers from another sect.

It is common knowledge that seminaries, funded by interested outsiders, serve as nurseries for such violent extremists. Sectarian extremism and terrorism, in fact, are two sides of the same coin. So far there is little evidence of the government making meaningful efforts to address the problem.

Small wonder then that a just out Pew Research Centre report, based on statistics from 2007-2012, says “Pakistan had the highest level of social hostilities involving religion, and Egypt had the highest level of government restrictions on religion.” Considering that what Egypt is experiencing is government imposed restrictions on religion – motivated by a well thought-out policy to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from challenging the ouster of its elected president-which can be easily reversed, if and when the rulers so decide. But our situation is a lot grimmer. In view of the peculiar challenges facing this society Pew used social Hostilities Index, measuring acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society to discover that such hostilities are the highest in the world. In simple words, religious hatreds have polluted minds of our people at almost every level of social life. Which, we all know, is the result of systematic indoctrination of young minds in sectarian seminaries. And religious hatreds once learned cannot be easily unlearned.

Yet if the will to change is strong enough, minds can change too. Notably, the show of unity on display during Eid Miladun Nabi processions and meetings was made possible by leaders of some major Shia and Sunni organizations. They held a national peace convention in Islamabad two days before the event. Blaming the government for adopting a soft approach towards the Taliban- with whom sectarian terrorists have a nexus- they vowed to launch a joint struggle against what they called anti-Pakistan forces setting aside sectarian/ethnic divisions, and to forge “a joint platform for all moderate political, religious and social entities.” More to the point, the convention issued a joint declaration saying “this Rabi-ul-Awwal will witness exemplary association between Shias and Sunnis; and both will celebrate Eid Miland-un-Nabi together.” The result is before us.

The electronic media has also been playing a positive role in promoting religious tolerance and harmony hosting public discussions between moderate religious leaders from different sects. That should contribute to an enlightened understanding of the teachings of Islam that place a lot of emphasis on humanitarian values and sanctity of life. All such efforts should help improve the atmosphere. The government must encourage this trend, and use it for doing all that is necessary to take practical steps towards rooting out violent extremism.


Saida Fazal, "View Point: Confronting sectarian extremists," Business recorder. 2014-01-16.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social problems , Social values , Social crime , Religious events , Religious ethics , Sectarianism , Extremism , Violence , Religious parties , Shia , Sunni , Pakistan