Attack on Pakistani Christians revives Punjab worries

August 4, 2009

The mob violence against Christians in central Pakistan at the weekend appears to have hit a particularly raw nerve in a country already jittery about the spreading influence of Islamist militants. The deaths of eight Christians in the town of Gojra following unsubstantiated allegations that a Christian had desecrated the Koran has both revived debate about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and renewed worries about the potential for instability in its heartland Punjab province.

According to Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah, the violence may have been orchestrated by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim sectarian group, and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). He said that masked men had come from the nearby district of Jhang, birthplace of both SSP and LeJ, to incite the anti-Christian rioting, and that the government had received an intelligence report two months ago suggesting that militants were switching from suicide bombings to inciting sectarian strife.

Dawn newspaper called in an editorial for the repeal of blasphemy laws imposing severe punishment on those accused of insulting Islam.

“These laws have become a ticket in the hands of the majority to persecute and victimise the minority communities if they don’t easily submit to their inferior status in society,” it said. “In not being blind to the faith of each individual, the state is supporting bias and bigotry against non-Muslims. The narrow-minded who spew venom through their sermons against religious minorities are only the loudest and most abominable symbols of such discrimination and their growing following is an unmistakable sign of the frightening future that we are heading towards.”

Pakistani bloggers made the same demand – Sana Saleem at Mystified Justice and Kalsoom at Changing Up Pakistan both have excellent round-ups on the laws and the treatment of minorities in Pakistan.

Looking more broadly at the potential for instability in Punjab, former foreign secretary Nadmuddin A Shaikh wrote in an op-ed in the Daily Times that the Gojra violence highlighted the power of Islamist militant groups based in the province – of which the biggest is the Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of organising last November’s attack on Mumbai.

“This was a brute display of the strength that the extremist organisations, be it the Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, can continue to muster and the extent to which they can play upon the emotions of local residents who may in this case, as in previous such incidents, also have had the ulterior motive of wanting to seize the properties of the minority community,” he said.

“Such emotions and such ulterior motives will be easily mobilised were the government to stir up the hornet’s nest that the LeT and its sister organisations have become. Public opinion has now turned against some extremist organisations but it would be highly optimistic to suggest that this applies to the LeT just yet. Were action against the LeT to be contemplated, an extensive public relations campaign would have to be launched to change the current ambivalent attitude of the man in the street.”

As discussed in an earlier post, the conventional wisdom is that no matter how bad the situation might get in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the real worries in terms of Pakistan’s stability would start if Punjab began to slip out of control. If it turns out to be correct that Islamist militant groups deliberately stirred up the mob violence in Gojra to encourage sectarian strife in the country’s heartland, then the government has just had another problem added to its already long list.

(Photo: A couple sit outside their destroyed home in Gojra/Mohsin Raza)

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