Can Pakistan Do Anything to Protect Its Minorities?

A Lahore expert on the deeply embedded discrimination and extremism in Pakistan. 

A child is taken to the hospital after a suicide bomb ripped through a parking lot in Lahore, Pakistan on Sunday. 

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

On Easter Sunday, a suicide bomber apparently dispatched by a so-called “splinter faction” of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-e-Ahrar, detonated a bomb at a large, crowded park in the city of Lahore. At least 69 people were killed; many others were wounded. A spokesman for the group told the New York Times that Christians were the target of the attack.

Violent sectarianism is commonplace in Pakistan, which has many extremist groups. Much of the violence has been directed against religious minorities like Christians, and sects within Islam, such as Shias and Ahmadis, the latter a tiny sect deemed un-Islamic by many fundamentalists (and the Pakistani state).

Complicating any possibility of cracking down on violent extremism is the fact that Pakistan’s military, which exerts de facto control of the country, has long been in bed with violent jihadists, who have waged Pakistan’s wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. A so-called National Action Plan was initiated by the military in early 2015 to finally go after several of these groups, some of which have been seriously weakened, but it is far from clear whether protecting vulnerable religious minorities will become a priority for the state.

To discuss Sunday’s events, I spoke on the phone with Umair Javed, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, and an expert on Lahore. We talked about the ways in which different minority groups are treated in Pakistan, how the military has used extremism in the past, and why terrorist attacks are now finally being viewed with more widespread revulsion. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: Was this park known to be a place where Christians congregated?

Umair Javed: The park is located in a suburban township. It’s not a Christian neighborhood. It’s actually a lower middle class and middle class, predominately Muslim neighborhood. It automatically attracts a lot of people from around the city. People would make the commute from Christian majority neighborhoods. Because it was on Easter and it was a Sunday you had a lot more Christians there, which also explains why the attack took place today.

It appears that there wasn’t a lot of security, even though much of Lahore has become more militarized in the past decade. Would this generally be a place that was militarized and protected?

On a regular Sunday you don’t see the deployment of security personnel in any large numbers in these public places. In fact, over the past two years we’ve had a reduction in the amount of policemen that you would see guarding the park, for example. That would not have been the case back in 2010 or ’11, when Lahore was experiencing a lot more attacks and a greater number of incidents. It’s not unusual that this particular park didn’t have too much security.

What about protections for Christian communities or minority communities that have been targeted? Would the community seek out some sort of security arrangement?

There was an incident that happened in March of last year where two churches were bombed. Obviously when that happened there was a hue and cry about how Christian communities and churches weren’t given proper security. In response, the Punjab government decided to give out a greater assignment to police personnel as far as churches were concerned. On Sunday you do see policemen guarding churches. The Christian community has also created a security volunteer network from among the Christian youth in the city.

In the past 1½ years there has belatedly been more action taken against certain extremist groups, especially in the northwest of the country, by the military. But how do you think the military has done in terms of cracking down on sectarianism in the society generally?

The first stage specifically targeted organized militant groups in the northwest. Then it included religious organizations in different urban centers that were involved either directly or tangentially in military activity. There were a couple of instances of arresting individuals as well. But it has mostly been a piecemeal effort to rein in some of the actors who aren’t engaged in direct violence but contribute to the culture of discrimination against minority groups.

Again, just because the scale of the problem is so immense, and because the military is focused on fighting the organized insurgency in the northwest, you’re left with the police apparatus having to deal with the rest of this particular problem. The police have had some success in limiting sporadic incidents of violence or limiting some elements of hate speech, especially around the sectarian divide. By and large, I think, because the problem is so deeply embedded within the political and social processes in Pakistan, it becomes very difficult for a state that has very limited capacity in the first place to actually police what we would call cultural dominance or social discrimination that happens at more of an everyday level.

But for a long time the state nurtured extremism. Is that still going on to the same degree?

I don’t think the state often propagated sectarian discrimination as policy, but it realized it was a byproduct and they were more than comfortable with it because they wanted to recruit people for the Kashmir jihad and the Afghan jihad. I think over the past seven or eight years they realized that this particular arrangement was unsustainable. They realized that the byproduct that comes with these militant networks is something that they can’t possibly be comfortable with. They can’t possibly let them continue in the way that they are because they’re clearly causing a lot of problems for them domestically. That realization is here. But it doesn’t really mean anything unless they can actually, physically, do something about it.

Can you talk about the level of outrage in society in the Urdu-language media and elsewhere when things like this happen to minority groups, whether they are Shias or Christians or Ahmadis? Is there a real sense of society-wide outrage, or are these groups not looked at as Pakistani in the same way?

If there was an attack today on an Ahmadi mosque or a congregation, I don’t think it would incite the same level of outrage. The question is actually quite interesting with the Christian community because there’s a class sympathy angle that comes into it given the fact that the Christian community in Pakistan is largely working class. There is this element of, “oh, these poor Christians. Now they’re also being attacked for their religion.”

Generally I think over the past six to eight months, there has been a greater sense of outrage against overt violence. I think that’s where a greater degree of coherence within the political elite has had the greatest impact. There is a more general consensus that this thing can’t fly.

Does ISIS at all figure into the conversation about extremism in Pakistan, the way it does in the West and the Middle East and elsewhere? I am just wondering whether the group’s presence has in some way changed public consciousness about violent extremism.

They do figure into the conversation, but at a very limited level. I think most of it gets manipulated into larger conversations about Muslims dying in the Middle East, and western aggression in Syria. It’s usually very vague. I would think that it’s had a limited impact on the conversation around violence in general in Pakistan.