The writer is a freelance columnist
and former newspaper editor
Why do we even wonder why sectarian violence is expanding in our country, claiming thousands of lives – mainly of Shias – over the past decade?
Why do we wonder why the peaceful Bohra community was attacked two days ago in Karachi, killing seven including a 12-year-old girl?There is nothing especially enigmatic about this process. Nor is it difficult to work out how to begin the process of stopping it.
The fact is that when we allow our most dangerous killers to walk free, knowing they will plan and organise other killings, there are bound to be more murders and more terrorist attacks. This is precisely what is happening. In July 2011 the Supreme Court of Pakistan granted bail to Malik Ishaq, perceived to be one of the most dangerous men in our country, on charges of plotting the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team – then visiting Lahore – from behind bars.
Ishaq, who had been in jail for 14 years, had already been acquitted in 37 cases and granted bail in eight others – the evidence no doubt blown away like fine dust as the years ticked along.
The fact that police believe Ishaq is involved in over 70 murders finally meant nothing; solid, irrefutable proof is of course required for life sentence or death penalty – as decreed under our country’s laws.
And through his long months in jail, it appears Ishaq was able to keep in touch with his men, and is thought to have orchestrated more deaths.During his incarceration, Ishaq, co-founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is said also to have studied and discussed how to expand it.
Following his release, when he was reported to have been greeted by some 15,000 people, mainly from the southern Punjab in his home town of Rahimyar Khan, he appears to have acted efficiently on this blue-print, helping to bring together and revitalise extremist forces in the south of his home province.
For this purpose he operated under the cover of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), formerly the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which was banned in 2001. The LeJ was an off-shoot of the SSP, founded in 1996 by the late Riaz Basra, along with Ishaq.
The outfit soon established itself as the country’s most dangerous extremist force. At the time Ishaq took shelter under the ASWJ umbrella, it remained within an undefined area since the legal loopholes concerning its status were negotiated.
It was finally banned in March this year by the government, but in a land where laws are rarely implemented, continues to operate – still known as the SSP to many.
After a brief detention, which raised hopes in some circles that he could be sentenced and locked away, Malik Ishaq walked away free from Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore only days after he was arrested.
Ishaq had been arrested at Lahore Airport at the end of August this year- on returning from Umrah, under the country’s anti-hate laws for delivering a highly provocative speech some weeks earlier at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat Conference.
He was granted bail by a district and sessions judge after less than a week behind bars, against surety bonds of Rs500,000. With no further cases against him, Ishaq was released.
Other alleged terrorists, no less menacing than him, also wander through our country – drawing others into the close-knit web of their terrifying ideology, rooted in blind, unshakeable prejudice.
Ishaq himself has been in touch with powerful military and civilian figures in the country, either to help provide information or reach ‘deals’.
He has received the treatment usually accorded to VIPs, complete with private aircrafts and negotiating terms in lavish drawing rooms. This adds to his power, his menace and sets a surreal scene where terrorists are honoured.
Others have shared the same interactions as Ishaq, and this perhaps is one reason why in our country criminals who kill on the basis of belief receive punishment so rarely.
The result of course is a growth in violence as sectarian leaders continue to spread their message, using networks that reach into madrassahs, mosques and even mainstream institutions.
The lack of genuine commitment to capturing and penalising sectarian or extremist killers under relevant laws simply adds to the difficulties in restoring some degree of communal harmony in a country within which it has already created havoc, seeping into widening spaces everywhere.
Can we really afford to just sit back and look as minds are poisoned – even children in regular schools made aware of sectarianism?
The answer is ‘no’. To end the fearsome reign of hatred, we must begin at the very beginning. This means locking terrorist leaders away.
They should have no place in society and no opportunity to spread their venom everywhere they go, planting evil ideas in minds and creating a situation where more and more people believe in a warped pattern of thought and action.
We see this clearly visible everywhere. It crops up not only in the form of sectarian killings but also in the fierce opposition sometimes put up to marriage between people of different sects and in the discrimination that minorities face.
Taking action against the many men of violence in our midst would be a first step towards rebuilding a society that is badly decayed and threatening to fall apart because of rot. Other action is also needed.
While considering how to rid ourselves of persons like Malik Ishaq, we must also look further. The poison has branched out into many places. Schools, madrassas, colleges, mosques and other institutions should rank at the top of the list of places to review.
Only if we manage to cleanse them in the coming years will we succeed in saving ourselves. Otherwise we can only envisage a nightmarish scenario where persons committed to murder walk along our streets, well aware that they cannot be reached by the law or any other force in society.
This nightmarish vision is one we must somzehow avoid. It would bring with it only a very dark future with extremist thought taking a firmer hold everywhere and ending what sense of sanity we have still been able to cling to through all these years of death and bigotry.