Bigotry was an unlikely trigger
“How can anyone blame a Muslim,” the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked rhetorically in a landmark 1993 judgement, “if he loses control of himself on hearing, reading or seeing such blasphemous material as has been produced (by the Ahmadis).”
Initial reactions to the terrorist attack on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore yesterday have focused on the official and popular bigotry against the heterodox sect in Pakistan. Intolerance towards the Ahmadi community is being seen as the explanation behind the massacre of worshippers, allegedly and by their own admission, by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the ‘Punjab wing of al-Qaeda’.
While that narrative explains why the Ahmadis were targeted at all, it does not answer the important question of “why now?” Ahmadis have been victims of official discrimination, political violence and popular invective for as long as Pakistan has existed. ‘Sectarian’ terrorist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have not only been in existence for a long time but are political allies of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the party that is in power in Punjab province.
Organisations like these had the capability and the motives to massacre Ahmadis all this while, but until yesterday, the violence was ‘below the radar’.
There is a need, therefore, to look beyond religious bigotry as the immediate cause of yesterday’s violence.
Tthe attacks could have been triggered by the allegation—by Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir—that the controversial Khaled Khawaja was, among others, working for the Ahmadis. Because Mr Mir’s words were widely publicised it is possible that hotheads in one or more of the militant groups decided to deliver a violent response. While this has happened in the past—as when a television personality’s anti-Ahmadi vitriol triggered a lynching—it was never on this scale.
If the Lahore attacks indicate that reactionary violence has escalated to this scale, then Pakistan is closer to the precipice that many people think. It is also unlikely. Instead, the scale of the attacks and the choice of the targets suggests that the Pakistani military establishment has once again, used terrorism to change the dynamics of its current situation. The large number of casualties will grab international attention. That the targets were Ahmadis will not play too badly with the domestic audience. But why?
The Pakistani military establishment uses terrorism essentially to create conditions that are favourable to its leadership and interests.
First, Taliban violence in Afghanistan primarily rises and falls with Washington’s moves away and towards Pakistan’s proxies there.
Second, terrorist attacks in Pakistan primarily rise and fall with Washington’s moves away and towards the Pakistani military establishment. Scaring the United States with the bogey of jihadis getting hold of nuclear weapons is an old, time-tested way for the army chief to be anointed with sash of indispensability. Escalating violence or triggering political crises also allow the military establishment to fend off US pressure to do things that it does not want to do.
Third, terrorist attacks in India primarily rise and fall with the Pakistani army’s need for an alibi to avoid fighting along the Durand Line. They are also connected with ensuring that the Pakistan army remains the real power in the country, regardless of what the civilian government wishes.
For the last several months, it appeared that General Kayani was having his way with the United States—with the London conference, strategic dialogue with the Obama administration, inflow of funds and so on. Compared to the violence of the previous year, things were relatively quiet in Pakistan…until Faisal Shahzad turned up and rocked the military establishment’s boat. Suddenly, not only was Hillary Clinton warning of dire consequences, but the US national security advisor and CIA chief personally put the Pakistan army on notice to move against militants in Waziristan. Meanwhile General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is looking for ways not to retire on schedule.
As long as the United States keeps the pressure on the army to move into North Waziristan, there is a higher risk of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The risk increases to the extent that there is a lack of clarity as to whether General Kayani will stay on.