Battling Sectarianism in Pakistan–Is Imran Khan the New Hope?

Pakistan was created out of a dream for a separate state for the Muslims where the Muslim ideology could be preserved but where, in Jinnah’s words, any religion, caste or creed would have nothing to do with the business of the state. However, soon after Jinnah’s death and the transformation of a republic Pakistan to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the country ceased being the utopia it was meant to be for Muslims. Along the way it not only ceased being the liberal democratic state envisioned by its biggest champion but also a sanctuary for all Muslims irrespective of their sect.

Sectarian violence is a form of communal conflict between different sects of the same religion or ideology and the strife between the Shia and Sunnis is ancient. The schism emerged soon after the death of Prophet Mohammad over disputes of who would be elected the new leader. While a large group of the Muslims supported Abu Bakr, close friend and father-in-law of the Prophet another faction supported the leadership of Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. The former called themselves the Sunnis and the later came to be known as the Shias. Shias account for 15-20% of Pakistan’s population making it a Sunni dominant country and leaving them at the receiving end of many forms of sectarian violence. South Asia Terrorism Portal reported that in 2017 nearly 938 people were killed or injured due to sectarian violence.

The leaders of the country have played a significant role in determining the extent of Islaminsation of the nation. For instance, Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s 2nd President, took steps to bring Islam under the state control. He considered that religion was only the foundation for national unity and ought to be separated from the temporal spheres. On the contrary, the successive leaders, Yayaha Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and General Zia resorted to Islam to legitimise their rule and to form alliances. During the 1974 amendment to the Constitution which declared the Ahmadi community as non-muslims, Z. A. Bhutto was initially reluctant to participate in it however he soon made political capital out of the situation. Under Muhammad Zia ul-Haq military regime and his Islamisation policy, sectarianism became a major problem.

The question of interest now is the role of the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan. Will he be able to curb the growing extremism and would minorities find relief under his regime? Or will he buckle under pressure and acquiesce with the deeply conservative views?

Prior to coming to power of Imran Khan, to bank on politics, Khan had echoed on several occasions hard-line opinions. He justified the TTP’s insurgency saying that they were responding to the drone strikes by United States and that Pakistan must distance itself from the war in Afghanistan which is “not our war”. During his election campaign Khan pledged support for the country’s blasphemy law which carried a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics of the law b    elieve that the laws have been used to prosecute the religious minorities. He also made comments that caused deep concern for the Pakistani Ahmadi community.

Post coming into power as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Khan was afforded another chance to change his stance on radical views. It was in the form of one Asia Bibi, a Christian who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy and the Supreme Court verdict of acquitting her. The acquittal saw massive protest from conservative Pakistanis, especially the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline political party that took to streets in violent protests and destruction of property. In an unprecedented move, Imran Khan, in a national television speech, hit out against the protests. He called the actions of the protesters contrary to Pakistan’s interests and asserted that his government will take actions if necessary.

In his 100 day agenda, under National Security, Khan lists implementing of counter-terrorism and a comprehensive internal security policy. To give him the benefit of doubt, while he has in the past justified the motives of the Taliban, he has condemned killing of the innocent. Unlike Pakistan’s previous leaders, Imran Khan is not seen seeking support of sectarian militant organisations and has iterated his strategy to tackle extremism in the FATA through peace negotiations over military operations.

In 2018, the international community observed International Day of Remembrance of, and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism on August 21st. Speaking on the occasion, Khan said that Pakistan’s resolve to combat terrorism remains steadfast and that hate, intolerance and violence will not be permitted to divide the nation. While his predecessors had made similar commitments to curb terrorism and sectarianism in Pakistan, they have so far failed to bring fruit.

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