Dr Hasan Askari
Pakistan experienced extreme violence on September 21, 2012, when religious and political groups and parties decided to launch a nationwide protest against the controversial Youtube film.
Violence manifested in various forms like damage to public and private property, looting of shops, stores and banks and setting them on fire, burning down of four cinema houses in Karachi and petrol pumps, assaults on media teams, and pitched battles with the Police. In Mardan, a church was attacked and damaged. A day earlier, September 20, there were violent protests in Islamabad and the Army was called out to protect the diplomatic enclave that housed most embassies.
September 21 was a Friday and it was expected that Islamic and opposition parties would engage in public protest after the Friday prayer. The Prime Minister designated the day as the official protest day and declared it a public holiday in order to make sure that the government gets the credit for practical identification with a widely shared cause.
The protest started in a peaceful manner on September 21 and some groups maintained orderly disposition throughout the day. However, a large number of people gradually turned to violence. The most violent incidents took place in Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar that housed U.S. embassy and consulates. A leaderless violent mob was out to destroy anything and everything that came in its way.
What happened on September 20 and 21, needs to be examined thoroughly because it offers insights into the kind of domestic socio-economic landscape is going to become a routine affair in Pakistan and how the state of Pakistan can descend into chaos.
These developments manifested once again the polarization in the religious sections of population into those advocating peaceful and moderate approach and those pursuing an aggressive, intolerant and often violent approach for pursuing their religio-political agendas.
This is not the first time that religiously charged groups used violence to protest for their grievances. The protest against the cartoons six years ago also turned violent in Lahore and some other cities. However, this time violence was more intense because hard line and militant religious groups have become stronger than ever.
The leaders who called for protest were either totally absent from the streets or they delivered hard-hitting speeches at the beginning of the protest and then returned to their safe hideouts. The Prime Minister who made an appeal for protest should have advised his parliamentarians to be vigilant in their constituencies to keep the protest under limit. None of the influential leaders were seen in the street protest. This left the field to hard line militant groups who created violent mob hysteria.
The agitation and violence was dominated by the activists of Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Ahle Sunnet-wal-Jamaat (formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba), two factions of the JUI and a host of small groups working under the rubric of the Defa-e-Pakistan Council. Some Afghan refugees were found to be active in Peshawar and Islamabad. The madrassa students were also visible in violence. All these groups are sympathizers and supporters of the Taliban. The Sunni Tehrik and its affiliates were also active in the protest but their activists were not seen engaged in violence. Some Shia groups participated in the protest on that day and earlier but their activists were not visible in violence.
Most violent people were young, between the ages of fifteen to thirty years, influenced by narrow, sectarian and hard line religious discourse. This must also include youth with no regular jobs, no clear hope for their personal future and those looking for some fun and adventure. It is believed that some criminal elements also join such agitation and resort to looting of public and private property.
Most of these people are socialized into a hard line, narrow sectarian and violence prone purely religious worldview. They have no appreciation of Pakistan as a state, the rights and duties as a citizen and how to interact non-violently with those do not share their worldview. A perceptible hostility towards the outside world, especially the West, is noticeable with a strong notion of persecution of Muslims by non-Muslims.
Their socio-political and religious identification ladder runs from an individual to Islamic denominational group or Islamic movement to Islamic Ummah. The state and government do not directly figure in it. The relevance of the state and government depends on the extent to which these facilitate the interests and agendas of their Islamic group or movement. Whatever happens around them, including world politics, is a function of religion. Therefore, the state and government are secondary to their religious-sectarian agendas and they can use violence against those who are seen as a threat to their vision of Islam. At times, violence is used to assert their group identity and power. These groups also compete with each other for building support and getting new recruits and they rely on madrassa and mosque networks.
If the Pakistani state authorities want to save Pakistan from descending into chaos, they will have to identify the hardline and violent groups, their parent religious organizations, their networks and how do they recruit people. If these are separated from the relatively peaceful groups, their role can be contained. It is going to be a difficult task. A sustained effort is needed to change the mindset of these groups and to make sure that they do not recruit more young people to their worldview. Pakistan’s state authorities should examine carefully the signs of more trouble in Pakistan and that the state is losing the capacity to function as an over-riding and coherent authority, surrendering a lot of space to violent religious group.