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Pakistan’s Punjab: Fundamentalist Asphyxiation
By:Mubashir, Canada
Date: Saturday, 25 February 2012, 3:35 pm

Pakistan’s Punjab: Fundamentalist Asphyxiation

By Ambreen Agha

Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

At least 18 Shias were killed and 30 others wounded when a bomb exploded near a procession marking the Arbain or the Chehlum (40th day of Hazrat Imam Hussain's martyrdom), in Khanpur city of Rahim Yar Khan District on January 15, 2012. However, no militant outfit has so far claimed responsibility for the attack.

Meanwhile, according to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, a total of 137 persons, including 110 civilians, 19 Security Force (SF) personnel and eight militants were killed, in total 20 separate incidents in 2011, as compared to 316 persons killed in 2010, and 422 killed in 2009, reflecting a significant attenuation in fatalities. While the Province registered a 56.64 per cent decline in overall fatalities in 2011, the possibility of escalation of violence cannot be ruled out as a result of the considerable and increasing presence of religious zealots, actively pursuing their mission of radicalizing the population on religious lines and recruiting them into armed “Allah’s squads”. Partial data compiled by SATP recorded three suicide attacks in Punjab, which claimed a total of 63 lives, in 2011. 2010 had witnessed six such incidents, with 264 people killed. In addition to the suicide attacks were at least 13 bomb blasts in the Province, which claimed 94 lives and left 281 injured. In 2010, the number of bomb blasts stood at 20 with 275 fatalities.

The Province registered eight major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) in 2011, as compared to 12 such incidents in 2010. Prominent among the major incidents in 2011 were:

April 3: At least 41 persons were killed and more than were 100 injured, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the shrine of Sufi saint Ahmed Sultan, popularly known as Sakhi Sarwar, in Dera Ghazi Khan District.

March 8: At least 32 people were killed and were 125 injured in a car bomb explosion at a gas station in Faisalabad District, adjacent to an office of the Inter Service Intelligence Agency (ISI).

January 25: A suicide bomber struck at the Ghora Chowk in the Urdu Bazaar area of Lahore District, killing at least 10 people, including a woman and three Policemen, and injuring at least another 85.

An overwhelming structure of religious fundamentalist formations, with their anti-India and anti-West agendas, and the circulation of anti-minorities and sectarian hate literature, remained a commonplace in Punjab through 2011. ‘Public gatherings’ led by religious ideologues in Punjab have become the major source of potential militant recruits. Extremist organizations recruit cadre, including potential suicide cadre, at such rallies. In one significant incident, on November 29, 2011, the Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), on a false pretext of a ‘science exhibition’, mobilized young students, aged between 10-15 years, from the Jhumra Sandal Islamic School in Faisalabad District, and the Tameer-i-Seerat Model School Sharaqpur in Sheikhupura District, for a rally at Lahore, where JuD leaders vowed to convert Pakistan into a ‘Taliban State’ and to train young people to wage jihad (holy war) against America and India. Addressing the rally at the Press Club, JuD leader Maulana Ameer Hamza declared that the Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani should know that he had the full support of JuD, which would turn its followers into skilled fighters. One student from Sandal Islamic School gave a copy of the form, titled ‘Field Trip Permission’, duly ‘signed’ by his mother, to a correspondent of the Express Tribune. The form read:

Dear Parent or Guardian, Your child is going on a field trip. Please read the information at the top of this form, then sign and return the permission slip at the bottom of this form. The students are being taken to a science exhibition at Al-Mizan School in Faisalabad District.

2011 began with the assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, by his own bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the Punjab Elite Force. Qadri had shared his intentions with other members of the security detail, but the latter failed both, to prevent him from carrying out the assassination or to react during the incident. Qadri was reportedly incensed by the Governor’s denunciation of the controversial blasphemy law and his advocacy for Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for alleged blasphemy. Currently, Aasia Bibi’s husband, Aashiq Masih, who is guilty of no crime, is on the run with his five children, while Bibi remains on a death row, with her mercy petition pending with President Asif Ali Zardari. Islamic clerics, meanwhile, have offered a bounty of about USD 8,000 to anyone who would kill her. When Qadri was taken to court on January 5, 2011, lawyers showered him with rose petals, and there has been significant expression of support for the assassin from a number of religious leaders and groups. A gathering of at least a thousand people at Data Darbar in Lahore expressed support for Qadri on January 4, 2012, and called for his release. Supporters of various religious parties that form the Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Rasalat Mahaz (TNSM) also staged protests at the Lahore Press Club at Minar-e-Pakistan. Participants in the rally, mostly Barelvi Muslims, held up portraits of Qadri and chanted slogans in his honor. A resolution was adopted at the end of the rally asking President Asif Ali Zardari to declare clemency for Mumtaz Qadri and punishment for Asia Bibi.

On October 1, 2011, however, a Special Anti-terrorist Court pronounced a death sentence against Qadri. The magistrate, Pervez Ali Shah, who pronounced the sentence, fled the country under extremist threat on October 24, 2011. On August 26, 2011, Taseer’s son, Shahbaz Taseer, was abducted from Lahore District and his whereabouts remain unknown. Analysts suggest that the abduction is intended to serve as a bargaining chip against Qadri’s execution.

Even before the dust could settle on Taseer’s assassination, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in broad daylight in Islamabad on March 2, 2011, for his open opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Pamphlets from two self-styled Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions, Fidayeen-e-Muhammad and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, were found from the incident site. The pamphlets declared, "Anyone who criticizes the blasphemy law has no right to live". Bhatti had earlier disclosed that he had received threats from the TTP and al Qaeda, but would not stop "speaking for the oppressed and marginalized Christians and other minorities".

According to official reports 131 people have been arrested across Punjab on blasphemy charges. 11 of them have been sentenced to death. 35 people, including Taseer and Bhatti, have been killed between 1990 and 2011, for either ‘committing’ blasphemy or defending those charged with blasphemy. Taseer’s and Bhatti’s assassinations are only a dramatic instance of the fanatical violence that has come to afflict Punjab. Worse, the ever-feuding Deobandi and Barelvi sects appear to have joined forces in the Province, further amplifying the threat to minorities and sects regarded as ‘deviant’ by these Sunni formations. Religious hardliners based in Punjab also appear to have moved towards greater radicalization, and have strengthened their mutual ties. In a January 12, 2012, US Embassy report, it was revealed that the US had given financial aid to the Sunni Ittehada Council (SIC), a Pakistani Barelvi Muslim religious group formed in 2009, which had initially organized anti-TTP rallies. The SIC received USD 36,607 from Washington in 2009. The SIC subsequently demonstrated support for Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. The SIC’s turnaround highlights Washington’s difficulties in identifying partners to support religious moderation in Pakistan.

On February 3, 2011, Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sherry Rehman dropped her proposed amendment to the blasphemy law, accusing her party of pressuring her in order to appease the militants. She made her decision after the Government ruled out changing the law. Protesting her party’s decision, Rehman declared, "Appeasement of extremism is a policy that will have its blow-back." Regrettably, on March 11, 2011, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said, “If someone insulted Prophet Muhammad, I, too, would shoot him.” However, he subsequently claimed, “I was misinterpreted in that particular statement. I said the ‘bullet of law’ should be utilized for such actions.”

The media has also faced the brunt of extreme violence in Punjab. The brutal murder of Asia Times Online Pakistan Bureau Chief, Syed Saleem Shahzad, on June 1, 2011, in the Mandi Bahauddin District brought the media’s plight sharply into focus. Shahzad was widely suspected to have been abducted, tortured and killed by the ISI after exposing linkages between Islamist terrorist formations and serving Navy officers and personnel. A Commission of Inquiry has, however, now declared that there was no evidence of an ISI role in Shahzad’s killing, though it has failed to shed any further light on the identity of his assassins. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), on January 9, 2012, voiced concern over reports of a number of journalists facing threats, and asked the authorities to ensure that such threats end. A statement issued in Lahore District by HRCP said, “A Government committed to media freedom must neither remain a spectator in the circumstances nor wait to be implored into action.”

Amidst these developments, the JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, during a rally in Lahore District on January 1, 2012 boasted that Pakistan was ‘unmatched’ in the freedom it allows for the pursuit of jihad and for the spread of Islam, and that this was a ‘great blessing from Allah’. Non-Muslims, he claimed, were conspiring against Pakistan, both internally and externally, and could only be defeated by “acting upon the methodology of the state of Medina.” United States (US) allies, India and Israel, he said, feared Pakistan because “they know very well” that when Muslims are ready to sacrifice themselves for their cause, no power in the world could stand in their way. US, India and Israel had “evil and sinister” designs all over the world, “But all those traps and nets are breaking down as a result of the sacrifices of Muslims.

In addition to JuD, several militant outfits with headquarters in Punjab work in close collaboration with TTP and al Qaeda. These include prominent sectarian and terrorist groupings, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Harkat-ul Jihad-ul-Islami (HuJI). Adding to this extremist landscape is the anti-Ahmadi formation, the All Pakistan Students Khatm-e-Nubuwat (End of Prophethood) Federation, with its lethal pamphleteering and hate propaganda.

Amidst rapid radicalization, the Pakistan Government imposed bans on radical formations in Punjab, but, these bans have been far from effective. Banned Deobandi anti-Shia outfits like the SSP and the LeJ have a stronghold in the southern part of the province. On occasion, these groups have sought to circumvent these bans by operating openly under a new banner. For instance, the banned SSP resurfaced as Ahl-e- Sunnah wal Jamaah (ASWJ), while LeT continues to work openly under the banner of JuD and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation.

Limited legal action against terrorists has been far from effective. On July 14, 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the release of Malik Ishaq – the former operational chief of LeJ, who was involved in 44 cases involving the killing of at least 70 people, mostly belonging to the Shia sect – on bail from Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat prison because of insufficient evidence produced by the prosecution. According to an internal document, prepared by the Law Enforcement Department, titled, ‘Highly objectionable activities of Malik Ishaq’, Malik resumed his subversive activities soon after his release, preaching hatred and violence in the name of Islam. The “independent” judiciary is haunted by the constant fear of retaliatory action by the militants. A US report in August 2011 noted that most terror suspects in Pakistan escaped conviction due to ineffective laws and prosecution. A report prepared by the Punjab Government, noting that at least 65 extremists were released in 2011, stated that most of the released extremists were back to their old ways, engaging in sectarian violence and terrorist activities again.

Islamabad has evidently failed to devise a unified strategy against the mounting intimidation and violence of terrorist groups in Punjab, and no alternative voice can, today, find expression in the Province. The terrorists in Punjab have demonstrated, in the past year, that no high office is beyond the sweep of their lethal reprisals, and even the smallest voices of dissent against their extremist creed will be stifled with exemplary brutality.

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review