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Lahore Bombings and the Future of Pakistan

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LAHORE, Pakistan

Last night, either two or three suicide bombers attacked a Sufi shrine here in Lahore. The toll is presently estimated at 40 dead and 170 injured, and those numbers are likely to rise. The attack took place at the Data Ganjh Baksh Hajveri shrine, which is famous for its performances of Sufi devotional singing. Pilgrims come from all over to visit this holy site, which also used to be a popular tourist attraction in the days where there were more tourists. This attack follows the May attacks on Ahmedi shrines in Lahore that killed 70 people. The Ahmedis are a minority Islamic sect founded in the late 1890s who believe that their founder was a prophet, causing orthodox Sunni Muslims to consider their beliefs to be blasphemous.

These attacks cannot be called entirely unexpected. Just last weekend there were two small bombs that went off in a CD market on Lahore's main commercial street, injuring seven. And for months there have been warnings of an increase in extremist activities in the Punjab.

The Punjab is almost always referred to as the "heartland" of Pakistan, a large, populous, prosperous province whose capital, Lahore, is the cultural heart of the nation. Punjabis are the dominant segment of the Pakistani population, occupying the majority of leadership positions in all segments of the society including the military. This is a source of resentment in other areas -- one of the sources of resentment in Balochistan, for example, has been the influx of Punjabi professionals into the province, leading to targeted killings of Punjabi teachers and other professionals by tribal separatists. The spread of Taliban-like groups in this province (the "Punjabi Taliban" is used as an umbrella term to refer to q combination of once-separate sectarian and jihadi organizations who have now found common cause) is deeply alarming. Violence in the frontiers -- the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or the Northwest Frontier Provinces -- does not threaten the basic stability of the national polity. Violence in the Punjab strikes at the very heart of the national consciousness. One can meaningfully speak of "Pakistan" and separate Balochistan, or talk about North Waziristan as not really part of Pakistan. But "Pakistan" without the Punjab is meaningless.

That may be one reason the national government has been reluctant to recognize the fact that the the Punjab is now the base for an array of terrorist groups. Another reason may be the fact that the Punjab has also historically been the home to extremist groups operating in Kashmir, with the tacit or direct support of the national government. As Ahmed Rashid explains, to a great extent, the rise in Punjabi terrorism represents a resurgence of these groups -- a particularly brutal case of chickens coming home to roost. (For other commentary, go here and here.

Which brings us to the far more disturbing element of the story. In may 2009, when Tehrik-i-Taliaban claimed credit for a suicide attack i Lahore that killed 26 people, security personnel responded by insisting that the attackers had come from Waziristan, since the group "does not have an organizational structure" in Punjab. But denial is the least of the worries. Over the past year, the provincial government of Punjab has not only demonstrated reluctance to crack down on extremist groups, it has at times given indications of encouraging them. The provincial government is led by Nawaz Sharif Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the runners-up to Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party in the last national election and -- given Zardari's almost incredible level of unpopularity -- the party most likely to form the next government barring a military coup. Following the attacks on the Ahmedi shrines, Sharif declared that "the war on terrorism must be won," and called for the formation of a new counterterrorism agency and the formation of a special committee to investigate security conditions in Punjab. Which might sound great, except for the fact of Section 295-C of Pakistan's Penal Code, which defines blasphemy as a capital crime -- it carries the death penalty -- and specifically identifies Ahmedi's beliefs as blasphemous. Ahmedis are legally proscribed from "indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim," building mosques, or publicly propagating their faith. According to Human Rights Watch more than 50 Ahmedis were charged and convicted of the crime of blasphemy under this provision, and many of them remain in prison. Between the introduction of the law in 1986 (under General Zia ul-Haq's military regime) and 2007, 761 individuals were charged under the law, 49% of them non-Muslims. 26% of all cases were brought against Ahmedis and 21% against Christians, with more than two thirds of cases originating in the Punjab.

Moreover, the PML-N is the governing party in Punjab. That provincial government is universally seen as unwilling to crack down on militants for fear of jeopardizing its political base, a stance exemplified by law minister's Rahan Sanaullah's decision to campaigin in the company of the alleged leader of a banned group. Sanaullah's explanation was that he was trying to draw moderate members of the community away from what he called the 20% of the population who are extremists. As quoted in the Washington Post, his theory seemed to be that a distinction can be made between sectarian hatreds and extremist violence. "Spreading hatred among different sects, this is the practice of our cities in Pakistan. Sectarian hatred is not allowed by law, but the people who are advising sectarian beliefs are not terrorists of the suicide-attacker type." In 2010, again according to Human Rights Watch, banners proclaiming "death to Qadians" were erected along major roads in Lahore (I have not seen these banners myself) with the permission of local authorities. And the provincial government has consistently failed to provide security for likely targets, starting with Ahmedi mosques and Sufi shrines. The political calculation is simple: the PML-N's view appears to be that Pujabis fall along a spectrum, and that their core political support comes from a population of devout Muslims who do not necessarily support terrorism but would be offended by any vigorous government efforts to prevent it. The re-election of PML-N governments depends on holding this base.

Perhaps there is a tipping point. Violent attacks in Peshawar is one thing. Attacks on Punjabi teachers in Balochistan, well, you know what the tribes are like and besides, India is behind it all. (There may, in fact, be Indian involvement in support for Baloch separatist groups, but that's another story.) Terrorism against Ahmedis? One of my students here in Lahore -- during a meeting of a class on Democratic Theory, no less -- explained that while the attacks were deplorable "as a good Muslim I would never say hello to an Ahmedi or respond if he said a'salaam." But attacks in the heart of Lahore on an ancient Sufi shrine that is both a tourist attraction and one of the identifying monuments of the city?

A week ago I presented an optimistic view of Pakistan's future, with a focus on national development efforts and events in the western areas. This morning I am waiting for the provincial government of Punjab and the PML-N to show me that Pakistan has a future.