The headlines have become so commonplace that sometimes they go unnoticed. “Shrine attack kills 41”. “Suicide bomber attacks Sufi shrine”. “Deadly attack on religious procession”. “Suicide attack targets Shia marchers”. Innocent Pakistanis being killed by extremist militants allegedly because they are practising some religious acts that the extremists do not approve or according to some it is because of drone attacks or some other event that has resulted in retaliation. Actually, both of these are incorrect. These attacks are part of a carefully crafted strategy to weaken Pakistan internally by creating divisions that can be exploited to undermine the cohesiveness of the state.
This is the same strategy that was used by Abu al-Zarqawi against the people of Iraq. Zarqawi’s evil idea was to commit acts of terror against religious sects so that the people would become divided on sectarian lines.
The targeting of sacred sites was condemned by Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s Kurdish President, as a deliberate attempt to foment sectarian unrest as talks continue to form a functioning coalition government.
“We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq’s unity,” Mr Talabani said. “This new ugly crime comes as a warning that there is a conspiracy against the Iraqi people to spark a war among brothers. We should all stand hand-in-hand to prevent the danger of a civil war.”
According to former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan Tanvir Ahmad Khan this same al Qaeda strategy is being used by TTP and other militant groups as a strategy to undermine the state and divide the people against each other by creating fear, suspicion, and resentment among the masses.
The insurgents have shown great ingenuity in opening new fronts and in developing new tactics to exacerbate and exploit differences. One of the relatively new frontlines is the series of attacks on Sufi shrines, a tactic with precedents in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. The South Asian Muslim shrines always attract large crowds of festive devotees on special occasions, and in Pakistan’s case, the attacks have led to horrific loss of life. The latest suicide bombing of a Sufi shrine in Central Punjab on April 4 took over 50 lives.
It should also be noted that these attacks have nothing to do with drone attacks. Whether or not drone attacks are counterproductive as leaders from all political parties have said, we must not assign everything to the same root cause. Ending or limiting drone attacks may have some positive effects, but it will not end terrorism once and for all. That is because these attacks against shrines are not retaliation for drones – no shrine is responsible for launching drone strikes – actually they are a calculated attack meant to weaken Pakistani national cultural identity.
Pakistan is dotted with shrines. Doctrinal arguments apart, they bring comfort to millions and their cultural ethos binds communities, usually cutting across the Shiite-Sunnii divide. In the present greatly stressed times, they invest people with resilience and hope. Such has been the reverence for them over the centuries that many Pakistanis are in denial about the culpability of TTP terrorists and seek refuge in far-fetched conspiracy theories. A deadly attack on a major shrine in 2005 signalled this new dimension of the terrorist’s war against Pakistan. Since then, some of the most revered shrines, where dedicated missionaries from the Arab-Islamic world with historical profiles, often very simple, sleep eternally, have been bombed. In killing people in these sanctuaries, the terrorist is not only shattering the devotees’ identities but uprooting the substratum of a 1,000-year-long history of what is today Pakistan. Destroying a shrine hallowed by time drives a deep hole in the cultural security of communities devoted to it.
Just as the Iraqis refused to be divided by this nefarious scheme and instead banded together to defeat Zarqawi and his militants to defend their own nation and culture, we must also not allow ourselves to fall prey to this same strategy of divide and conquer. Attacks against shrines and other cultural monuments are an attack on the very idea of Pakistan itself. We cannot stand by and allow this to happen.