THE phrase ‘sectarian tensions’ used to describe events over the last few weeks, and trends stretching back a few months, is highly misleading. It depicts a situation of contention between two groups, with no indication of their respective demographic and political heft. In essence, it masks the fact that the various organisations (and the societal segments they claim to speak for) purportedly engaged in creating this tension are extremely unequal. A better term in this instance, as in nearly every instance of ‘sectarian tension’ in Pakistan’s political history, is ‘majoritarian assertion’ — ie the dangerous politics that emerges from the combination of misplaced insecurity on part of a majority, ideological absolutism, and furthering of individual and/ or institutional ambition. In this case, that of hard-right Barelvi and Deobandi leaders and organisations.
While writing this, one can pre-empt the scepticism bound to emerge over the use of the term ‘majoritarianism’. Many argue that the vast majority of those who belong to dominant sects have no such desire for absolutism fuelled by insecurity; that inter-sect relations are, even today, largely stable, if not cordial; and that what was seen in Islamabad this past week is merely the workings of a lunatic fringe.
The unfortunate part of these well-intentioned arguments is that they miss out on how conflict is often loosely related to mass sentiment. Conflict, or violent assertion in this case, can emerge simply on the ‘claim’ of representing public sentiment, regardless of the accuracy of that claim. So when people point out that those labelling others as heretics or worse are simply a lunatic fringe, they ignore the historical damage caused by such fringes in Pakistan’s own past.
It is worth remembering that the movement to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims under law was championed by relatively small, tightly organised Islamist groups, who pushed public and political discourse towards their stated goals. And with a PPP government eager to burnish its own credentials and appease them for expedient purposes, the actual numbers mattered far less in the final reckoning.
This chapter from Pakistan’s history, and the Islamisation of the Penal Code that followed in the subsequent decade (again for expedient purposes championed by the state) should serve as a constant reminder that mass sentiment is an extremely imprecise gauge of political possibilities.
There is also a concurrent need to interrogate the roots of this current upsurge in violent assertion. What are the factors behind it, and what aspects of the current political dispensation continue to enable it?
Given the sordid history of state involvement in using religious groups for political purposes, the possibly orchestrated nature of this current trend cannot be ruled out. However, unlike say the Faizabad dharna in the past, there is little to suggest (so far) that there are clear-cut political goals that could be achieved by an orchestration of this nature. This premise also ascribes limited autonomy to religious groups and endless agency to the state, both of which we know to be untrue in the recent past.
Other standard explanations seem to work better in this case. For many decades, and increasingly more so in the last two, competition within the majority sect between adherents of Deobandi and Barelvi organisations has become far more active. This is partly because of the reinvention of the Barelvi movement from a historically rural shrine elite-led phenomenon to a new mass urban madressah-based one, with a proliferation of associated organisations. The most obvious example of this is the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, but in most urban centres, one can encounter any number of smaller neighbourhood-based organisations of a similar nature competing with others for followers and donations.
This showcasing of their ‘brand’ in competition within the larger field of Islamist organisations has come at the cost of minority sects, who are propped up as the conspiring enemy to engender identity formation, polarisation, and entrenched feelings of victimhood. If one pays attention to the abhorrent rhetoric on display in recent days, the process of framing identity as one of a majority under attack by a minority remains extremely prevalent.
This competition to claim more resources, power, greater ‘prestige’ within the field of Islamist politics, and appear ‘truer’ to the faith is not going away anytime soon. These organisations are reasonably well-rooted and have cultivated sustained followings, even if they constitute a relatively small segment of the population. Any prescriptive policy that wants to limit the potential damage here would need a strategy beyond just wishing them away. Such a strategy would have to put the role of mainstream political parties front and centre.
Unfortunately, the three major parties, the PPP, PML-N, and PTI, have been more than happy to draw on such groups for expedient gain. All three have cultivated electoral alliances with hard-line Sunni groups, they’ve shared political stages with their leaders to burnish their own pious credentials, and instrumentalised their rhetoric to damage their opponents. In recent days, the ruling party’s coalition partner in Punjab, the PML-Q, played an immensely negative role in the current wave of violent assertion by championing divisive legislation in the province. Through it, its leaders have been able to further resuscitate their political careers, while bearing no punishment for the societal radicalisation it is contributing towards.
The dispiriting bit is that mainstream political parties are also, theoretically speaking, the only force that can prevent these issues from spiralling out of control — not just because they control the levers of government at various tiers, but also because as organisations they’re the only ones with possible reach in society. The dangerous nature of recent events demands that the three major mainstream parties close ranks on this particular issue, limit the escalation of violent rhetoric, and enforce the constitutional protections offered to all citizens. Failure to do so will only lead to further violence, as has so often been the case in the past.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2020