Secularism Is Pakistan's Way Out to End Sectarian Violence

05/14/2015 05:30 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

When armed gunmen stopped and shot dead 43 people from the Shia community in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi on Wednesday, it was certainly not the first time that the terrorists had carried out such an atrocious attack. Islamic extremists operate across Pakistan with absolute impunity. The Pakistani Taliban murder unarmed civilians randomly regardless of their sectarian affiliations. The Sunni militants routinely target the members of the Shia community. Similar attacks also take place on the followers of the Ahmadiyya Muslims; the Hindus and the Christens. These attacks are not confined to one city or a province. They occur in places as remote as the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in relatively modern cosmopolitans like Karachi and Lahore.

Of course the loss of precious human lives is the dark side of these attacks but the worst part is that these attacks take place so regularly that they just become a statistic for the government, media and the researchers. The government condemns these attacks, suspends a few policemen, makes some void promises to the people to take action against the terrorists sand then life goes. A few weeks or months later, the same terrorists strike in a different city in a newly crafted style. In this process, hundreds of Pakistanis lose their lives every year. Terrorists get strong and stronger by the day. They keep expanding their networks and invent new techniques to kill more and more people from the opposite religion and sect. In the recent times, the terrorists have found it convenient to wear police and army uniforms to gain immediate and unquestionable access to their targets.

The million-dollar question is why do these attacks take place again and again? Why doesn't Pakistan have a strategy to address this challenge? As a matter of fact, there are no administrative and technical fixes to this problem. Violence in the name of religion does not specifically target people from one gender, race or ethnic group. The Pakistani state has been lucky that most of its citizens are not educated enough to hold it accountable for its failures to defend the lives of the citizens. The relationship between the state and the citizens should be based on mutual trust and benefits. In Pakistan, the state has excessively benefited from its relationship to a docile public. The state has imposed an Islamic identity and a jingoistic narrative on its population and kept the public emotionally blackmailed that questioning the role of Islam in every day lives would amount to committing blasphemy. Religion has become such an integral part of the State's identity that people are unable to look at the world beyond religious frameworks. Given that context, people find it more comforting to trade conspiracy theories with the reality insisting that the Muslim extremists cannot be Muslims in reality. When the population does not blame the oppressor, this helps in exempting the government from accountability.

Recently, I attended a talk at Harvard Kennedy School of Government by a young Pakistani activist Jibran Nasir who has been struggling against religious extremists in Pakistan. Mr. Nasir, 28, just like many other activists, diagnoses Pakistan's problem wrongly. According to him, Pakistanis have to "reclaim their mosques". What does that mean? Nasir believes that religious obscurantists have taken hold of the mosques in Pakistan and they use these crucial platforms for preaching hatred and violence. Therefore, the Pakistanis have to reclaim their mosques. Well, this is not going to help Pakistan in getting rid of its existing problems with radical Islam. Pakistan has to renegotiate its relationship with all its citizens regardless of the faith they believe. Mosques should not be the place to decide the future of Pakistan. The Pakistanis should instead reclaim their constitution, parliament and democratic institutions and keep the mosque only as a place of worship without giving it any powers to decide the affairs of the state or individuals' personal lives.

After all, why should the fate of a Pakistani Christen, Hindu or any other religious minority be decided inside a mosque? In spite of recurrent attacks on innocent citizens in the name of religion, there is surprisingly not enough protest in Pakistan from the people telling the state directly that they can no longer carry its burden of Islam. People believe in religions because they want to be connected with some spiritual or divine force that comforts them not to be manipulated as tool in the hands of a state for its own political ambitions.

States are supposed to treat all their citizens equally and respectfully instead of discriminating them because of their religion. In Pakistan, religion is certain to become a cause of bloodshed given the overwhelming emphasis on Islamic identity. Religion is a dangerous recipe for a society like Pakistan where millions of children do not go to school and another millions of women do not get out of their homes because men decide their fate. In a society where dozens of television channels and radio stations regularly preach one version of religion, it is too naïve to expect respect and tolerance for other religions and appreciation for difference of opinion.

The way forward for Pakistan is detaching the state from religion. Official patronage of religion at school or any other level should stop and there should be more emphasis on civic education. The State should have no business with religion. People should be allowed to practice whatever religion they believe in. But when the State advocates and defends only one religion, it ends up offering too much tolerance for those who kill fellow citizens for the same reasons. In a way, it helps the state to promote its idealogical mission but it is simply wrong and unaccetapble to have tolerance for extremist groups because they are on the side of the state's narrative.