Sectarianism in Quetta City


In my last blog post I wrote about some lighter aspects of life in Quetta City as some of us experienced and lived it in the early and mid-1980s—the motorcyclists and their sub-cultures. I hope the readers enjoyed reading about the people and the things they used to do then. This blog is also about the same period, a kind of continuation of the Quetta-in-the-80s story; however, it is anything but light. In fact, it is about a grave issue, about a curse, a blight, that has befallen the city of Quetta.

I think it was one of those February days when some of us were returning from Spizand after an adventurous day of racing in that bitter cold that we saw the first of the shocking and ugly graffiti, or wall-chalking as they were called, on the walls of the houses and shops on the famous Sariab Road. Those walls were often covered with the radical, left-leaning socialistic and nationalistic slogans of political organizations and their student wings like BSO (Baloch Students’Organization), PSF (Pashtun Students’ Federation), DSF (Democratic Students’ Federation) and so on. To get the political pulse of the city, and the province in general, one only needed to read and digest those slogans, often scrawled in the form of jingoistic rallying cries, screaming one-line mottos and manifestos, on the walls of Sariab Road.

“Kafir, kafir _ _ _ _kaffir!” said one toxic scribble. Another proclaimed with equal zealotry: “And those who don’t accept this fatwa are also infidels!” And, so on. Those noxious, bumper-stickers like screeches brimming with hatred and bigotry declared almost one-fifth of Muslims in the country, if not in the entire Muslim world, the Ummah, as infidels! That’s how it all began.

It was the start of a period of madness, really, a time of political repression and regression when a military dictator of this country was fighting a war of “freedom” in our neighboring country on behalf of the “free world”, meaning the capitalist West, but under the convenient cover of “jihad”. It was the sort of jihad that had the full sanction and especially the lavish financial sponsorship of Western imperialists. The leader of the so-called “free world”, RonaldReagan, that B-grade movie actor-turned-president of the USA, had even compared the Afghan mujahedeen as moral equivalents of the founding fathers of that country.  It was a period which was often best described by such popular slogans as, “Pakistan ka mathlab kya, phaansi, koray, martiakl law!” (Whatis the meaning of Pakistan? Nothing but public hangings, public lashes and dictatorship”). We witnessed that ugly piece of Pakistan’s history with our eyes during which the menace of sectarianism was being nurtured. And it was really sad.

As the malignant graffiti began to spread from Sariab Road to the other, inner parts of the city, the poison of sectarianism started to take root. It was a slow process, for sure, but it was systematic. The takfiri bile was being systematically pumped out during those years in the 1980s, from the pulpit and the pen in equal measure, and it all corrupted the entire societal air of this historical city of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis and others. The process of reducing a universal, complex and spiritual worldview toa mere ideology with worldly ends was underway then: Islam was being reduced to Islamism, in other words. What was to be done through a long, slow and difficult process of education and traditional preaching by the pious and the wise, which meant through both ilm or hikmat (wisdom) and amal (practice), taleem au tarbiat, was being imposed on society from above through a system of rigid and tyrannical legalism. One tragic outcome of all this was that religion took a back seat and religiosity came to the fore. They are not always the same thing. (more on this in a future blog). It was Zia ul Haq, the dictator, who instituted such short-sighted rampant legalism in Pakistan: Islam was to be spread, protected and strengthened with brutal state laws, which were exclusively informed by a particularly narrow interpretation of Islam.

A lot happened in that decade, but it was also a time when the architects of murderous sectarianism were busily and quite openly constructing the sewers of hatred that would eventually become the ideological habitats of the terrorist-takfiris. These violent ideologues would continue to spew their venom against all those who did not fit or conform to their narrow worldview and would go on to blow up and butcher hundreds of innocent people on the streets of Quetta and elsewhere in the country in the coming years. This descent into the hellish world of ethno-sectarian bloodshed started right then, in front of our eyes.

To analyze this menace in a more rigorous and satisfactory manner would require many blog posts like this one, if not books. Here, I am only recalling the more visible aspects of it, those early aspects of the rise of sectarianism that many of us witnessed in the Quetta of 1980s. Sectarianization is a complex process in which often both ethnic and sectarian identities are mobilized by certain powerful actors and agents to achieve certain political and economic ends.

It is often about politics more and religion less and these power agents clearly understand that there is political utility in these manipulative and divisive mobilizations. In this process, for example, one important aspect that is often missing in many otherwise excellent analyses is the business or financial interests, including the drug trade, that was then, and still are, deeply implicated in it. This is something that the scholar Vali Nasr has studied and written about. It is the instrumentalist aspect or the dimension of cost-benefit calculations by both the business and the political entrepreneurs and opportunists in this apparently religious-only problem that is important to understand. He writes in the context of Pakistan: “…criminal networks have…become deeply embedded in the politics of sectarianism, and their financial, political, and criminal interests in good measure control the ebbs and flows of sectarianism. The result is an Islamization of criminal activity and a criminalization of segments of Islamism in Pakistan.”  (2010, p.90, emphasis added)

Disclaimer: Viewsexpressed in this article are those of the author and Balochistan Voices not necessarily agrees with them.

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