A day after Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for the US to attend a meeting at the UN, the killers struck at home. This time, the target was the Christian community in Peshawar, resulting in more than 80 dead. The Deobandi group Jundullah, which is an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), claimed responsibility. On the other hand, Hakimullah Mehsud’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) distanced itself from the attack. Analysts close to Pakistan military’s bosom believe that since the TTP is engaged in a dialogue with the military, it has no reason to launch such an attack.
Sadly, while some hold Jundullah responsible, there are others like Imran Khan who smell a conspiracy in the attack — a nefarious plan to subvert and sabotage the peace talks with the TTP. Reading between the lines, Khan and a few others of his ilk blame foreign intelligence agencies for such barbarism. The underlying concept is that the enemies of the State don’t want to see peace return to Pakistan or that the country’s security must be severely challenged to find a way to take control of its nuclear weapons.
There seems to be no ray of hope as far as minimising differences over internal sources of threat are concerned. The national myth-building exercise tends to encourage a “looking outside” approach rather than see the factors that may have propelled the misfortune from inside. To begin with, it is critical to understand the bias against the Christian community.
Unfortunately, the bulk of Christians, be it in India or Pakistan, belong to the lowest income group. This is the dispossessed class of people who had initially converted to Christianity to escape their socio-economic plight. However, the conversion did not change their status. The Alienation of Land Act, 1900, created a difference between the agriculturist and the non-agriculturist castes/clans/ classes. Since the majority of Christians were non-agriculturists, they could not buy agricultural land. This naturally developed into a social stigma in an agrarian society. This continued even after the subcontinent won Independence.
The Christian community seems to suffer all over the subcontinent due to the pre-1947 bias. They are considered as naturally attached to the former colonial masters and their extended family of nations. In Pakistan, such bias takes many shapes, including the fact that in civil and military bureaucracy, Christians are not promoted beyond a certain point.
The gradual increase in Islamisation of the society has further added to the prejudice, which often translates into accusing these people of blasphemy. The case of Asiya Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy in 2009, revolves around a fight that broke out when some Muslim women objected to the fact that a Christian woman had drawn water from a well. There are many more instances when members of the society behave in a Brahminical way towards the Christians.
The attack in Peshawar is not the first one. A church was attacked in 2001 in Bahawalpur by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), which has its HQ in the city. In 2002, JeM attacked another church in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave. Although Jundullah has claimed responsibility, the attack cannot be delinked from the overall ideological messaging by groups such as JeM or the Lashkar-e- Toiba, which are considered safe by the establishment’s standards. The JeM is responsible for producing an ideological justification for bias against Jews and Christians, which could translate into an attack at any time. The thesis is similar to another produced by a Saudi cleric.
More important, these jihadi groups have an issue with Pakistan’s linkage with the West. It would not want Sharif to give the US the same concessions as was done by Gen Pervez Musharraf. An attack on Christians could just be one of the many signals. The bigger question, however, is that will the State take the signal and respond to this and many other attacks by the militant mafia? Many believe that the army has too many ideological divisions within and the generals too busy with their own interests to generate a consolidated and firm response to the attacks.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc