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Pushback against sectarianism

Pushback against sectarianism

At long last, it seems the state is prepared to confront the evil that is sectarianism, one that has spawned religious violence in various forms over three decades in this country and laid waste to tens of thousands of lives.

The government’s newfound resolve emerged during Monday’s news conference addressed by Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan after a two-round meeting with religious scholars belonging to an umbrella body representing madressahs from different schools of thought.

The second round of the meeting, at which the army chief and DG ISI were present, was chaired by the prime minister. The interior minister in his news conference said there will be no tolerance for hate speech against any faith or for statements declaring any sect as non-Muslim or its adherents as infidels.

Also read: Govt won’t spare errant seminaries, ulema told

In taking this step, the state is effecting no less than a policy change, and a very welcome one. As is now well known, the religious triumphalism that underpins faith-based violence in Pakistan was from the ’80s onwards deliberately nurtured by the state to further its strategic regional objectives.

Patronage was extended to groups/organisations espousing jihadist ideologies; in the process, purveyors of bigotry and divisiveness acquired the space to freely propagate their views.

As the extreme right, through the pulpit and the media, intimidated society into submission, the repercussions of this ruinous policy became manifest in sectarian killings, bombing of religious processions and places of worship, lynching of blasphemy suspects, desecration of graves, etc.

Turning back the tide will be a difficult though not impossible task. Some practical measures at the outset will demonstrate the government’s sincerity of purpose.

Where hate speech is concerned it has, to its credit, already begun taking action. A number of clerics have been sentenced to prison — some for several years — for inciting violence, and individuals found distributing hate literature have also been convicted.

Graffiti or banners glorifying religious violence or inflaming sectarian sentiments should also be removed. However, the government’s apparent resolve to discard the use of some extremists as tools of statecraft will be tested in other, more telling ways.

For example, will there be a clampdown on banned groups who, despite their overt sectarian agendas, have hitherto been allowed to serve as ‘cheerleaders’ of state policies?

Will religious extremist groups in Balochistan be put out of business or will they continue to serve as proxies to counter the insurgency in the province?

Ultimately, the battle is about changing a mindset, not only that of a people, but also of those who lead them. Long-term measures will determine our future course.

For instance, curricula must emphasise humanity’s shared values rather than religious differences, the blasphemy law should be revisited so it cannot be used as a tool of persecution, and so on. The way ahead is clear, if we choose to take it.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2015

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