Sectarian Violence & Social Group Identity in Pakistan

Pakistan_Sectarian_ViolenceBy Isaac Kfir

(Re-Published from Conflict & Terrorism, 37:5 (2014) The modern nation-state is composed of two elements: it is a juridical, physical territory, which is the state aspect, whereas the nation part refers to a community of people sharing common values, norms, and characteristics. There are two additional elements in understanding the modern nation-state, which are psychological and ideational, often understood through the rubric of nationalism.

In accepting the nation-state and many of the limitations and demands it places on individuals, citizens in return expect and demand certain services, such as personal security, welfare, and representation. One explanation as to why the Pakistani state fails to fulfill its basic duties is that three main groups—the Army, the Islamists, and Feudal Lords—control the Pakistani State, extracting what they can from the state. These groups, which are “social groups,” a term defined below, depend on Pakistan being a weak state, such as by not being able to offer basic services. Individuals must ensure that they have ties or links to at least one of the three aforementioned groups.

In other words, in Pakistan individuals must create social bonds that lead to membership of a group, which means that in return for the allegiance to the group they receive basic services. The Army is a classic example of this, as those that become members of the Army must first embrace its traditions and values: they becoming socialized. In return, they—and their families—receive tangible benefits such as attending Army schools, Army hospitals, and even working for Army-controlled business when they retire.

In understanding this system, it is important to recognize first that Pakistan suffers institutional weakness and a historical failure to build common narratives. Thus, individuals who are unable or unwilling to join the aforementioned groups need to form their own social group so as to acquire concessions from the State. The second pillar in the system is the willingness of established groups to build alliances with potential competitors or those that threaten the status quo too much. In return, for entertaining some of the demands (concessions), the status quo is sustained in that the elites maintain their authority. The obvious disadvantage with this system is that it encourages potential groups to make enough “noise”—threaten the existing state of affairs; and, second, that a social group can extract concessions.

Notably, over the last few years, some traditional sectarian groups have aligned themselves with or follow tactics used by traditional terrorist groups, specifically jihadi groups, whose tactics attract tremendous attention. The shift has led to an increase in sectarian-based violence, which is also penetrating areas where such things had not previously existed. Drawing on Murphy’s observations that in Pakistan terrorism is a political tool used by elites as a way to maintain a hold on Pakistan, it becomes clear that terrorism—understood as the use of violence to promote a political agenda or as a tool to extract concessions from the established elites—prevails in Pakistan because political leaders accept support from or make concessions to fringe or new groups as a way to protect their positions.

Thus, over the last few years, terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have shifted their focus to religious minorities or secular actors. The article offers three reasons for the shift: First, attacking Shi’a or Christians allows the Pakistan Taliban, its affiliates and associates to remind the ruling elites that the Taliban is an important actor that must be taken seriously because of the violence it causes. Second, sectarian violence serves to further polarize and fragment Pakistani society, encouraging the demise of central authority and the creation of unregulated zones where the Islamists can establish their fiefdom from which they can harass the State actors, demand concessions and impose their value systems. Third, attacking minorities in Pakistan is less likely to bring about heavy retribution from the State.

Accordingly, sectarian violence, which is incredibly difficult to defeat, poses a real threat to Pakistan State, which is why the rise in sectarian violence demands immediate action by State actors, even though the country seeks to deal with such issues as economic dislocation, energy shortages, poor infrastructure, widespread poverty, socioeconomic tensions and globalization. Thus, using open sources, the article seeks to serve as a gateway to further empirical studies as to why sectarian violence has increased in Pakistan in addition to highlighting that sectarianism in Pakistan is not driven by simply theological reason but rather political and economic reasons. Moreover, a subsidiary aim is to encourage the Pakistani government to adopt policies that would undermine the reason why people turn to these sectarian groups for identity, especially as it appears that no serious efforts are being developed in response to the sectarian violence …

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