The state is losing its capacity to function
The extreme violence in several cities of Pakistan on September 21, 2012, negated the spirit of the officially announced Day for Love of the Prophet and undermined the cause of highlighting the evil designs of the US-based makers of the controversial 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 petrol pumps and cinema houses in Karachi and Peshawar, assaults on media teams, and pitched battles with the police. In Mardan, a church was 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.
On the mooring of 21st, the prime minister addressed a specially convened meeting of select people in Islamabad on the issue of the objectionable YouTube film. He repeatedly condemned the film and asked the people to protest against it in a peaceful and orderly manner. His speech, broadcasted live on TV and radio networks, had a lot of similarities with what different religious leaders said on the issue.
Major political parties and religious groups participated in the protest on September 21 which began in a peaceful manner. However, with the passage of time the mainstream political parties were pushed to the sideline or they withdrew and the initiative was wrested by the activists of hard line religious groups who mobilized the people for violence. The most violent incidents took place in Islamabad/Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar that housed US embassies and consulates. The leaderless violent mob was out to destroy anything and everything that came in its way. At least 23 people were killed, most of them in Karachi.
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 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 gained strength since then.
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 was seen in the street protest. This left the field to the activists of hard line militant groups who created violent mob hysteria.
The violent protest 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 madrassah students were also visible in several places. 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. The experience suggests that some criminal elements also join such agitation to pursue their own agendas.
The mix of the above people constitutes the most serious threat to peace and stability and these people are likely to increase as the Pakistan state is unable and unwilling to address this challenge as a multi-dimensional social, economic and political problem. Most of these people are socialized into a hard line, sectarian and violence prone purely religious worldview. They have no appreciation of Pakistan as a state, their 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 madrassah 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. It relates to changing the mindset of these groups and people. The state functionaries should not ignore these troubles by attributing all this to “some miscreants”. It is important to recognize that Pakistani state is losing the capacity to function as an over-riding and coherent authority, surrendering a lot of space to violent religious groups.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.