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Between Extremism and Justice—The hard choice for Pakistan

The hard choice for Pakistan

the economist

The country is threatened not just by terrorism, but by widespread religious extremism

THE suicide-bombing of a busy park in Lahore on Easter Sunday, which killed more than 70 people, most of them women and children, was not only more lethal than the terrorist attack in Brussels a few days earlier. It also represented a different order of threat to the country in which it happened. Pakistan is engaged in a belated struggle against religious extremism that will determine what sort of country it becomes.

That threat is plain in the bomber’s choice of location and timing (see article). Lahore is the capital of Punjab, the provincial power base of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Although most of the victims in Gulshan-e-Iqbal park were Muslim, one aim was to kill Christians. The attack happened to come just a few weeks after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police bodyguard who in 2011 murdered Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Over 100,000 people attended Qadri’s funeral in Rawalpindi on March 1st. On the same day that the Lahore bomber struck, riot police in the capital, Islamabad, were trying to control a 10,000-strong demonstration against Qadri’s execution.

The bombing in Lahore was carried out by Jammat-ul-Ahrar, which splintered from the Pakistani Taliban. The religious hatred it represents has been assiduously cultivated in Pakistan for many years. Saudi money for the building of madrassas (religious seminaries) began to flood into Pakistan during the 1980s with the encouragement of the president at that time, General Zia ul Haq, who saw the country’s Islamisation as his main mission. There are now some 24,000 madrassas in Pakistan, attended by at least 2m boys. Nearly all adhere to the highly conservative Deobandi sect, whose beliefs are similar to Saudi Wahhabism. Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group, reckons that 60% of the pupils at madrassas were “not involved in any training or terrorist activities”. He declines to expand on what the other 40% might be up to.

At least some members of Pakistan’s intelligence service and other parts of the “deep state” still regard certain violent and intolerant jihadist groups as useful weapons against India and Afghanistan. But the distinction they attempt to draw between outfits such as the Haqqani network in North Waziristan and the mainly Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carry out their atrocities abroad, and those, such as the Pakistani Taliban, which concentrate on the homeland, fatally undermines Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.

To do justice to Mr Sharif’s government and the army’s powerful chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif (no relation), they seem to understand the scale of the problem and are trying to tackle it. A turning-point was the massacre by the Pakistani Taliban of 148 children and teachers at an army school in Peshawar at the end of 2014. It was followed quickly by a national action plan to combat domestic terrorism, which is being implemented with some success. The army claims that its anti-terrorist operations have killed 3,400 terrorists and destroyed 837 of their hideouts and much of their infrastructure.

A start, at least

The ultra-violence that saw the deaths of 60,000 civilians over the past decade has abated somewhat. There have been attempts to clamp down on hate speech. The execution of Qadri required political backbone. But there is little to show for the action plan’s commitment to “stop religious extremism” and “regularise and reform” madrassas. Moreover, many state-run schools are hardly less toxic. The long-standing addiction to using militant groups as proxies in Pakistan’s disputes with its neighbours is far from broken. And the country should repeal its vicious blasphemy laws, which are used to attack religious minorities. The horror of Lahore shows that the road ahead is long and hard. But only if Pakistan chooses to follow it will the future hold much promise.

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