Carnage at Data Darbar Shrine.
A proxy object, holding the most expensive weaponry imaginable, flies from one point on the earth, crosses Pakistan’s border, and unleashes its full force over the people.
One would think I am describing the attacks Pakistan faces in the form of drone operations conducted by the U.S. to eliminate high-profile terrorist threats. In fact, I am talking about the ideological “bombs” being dropped on Pakistan’s society by the Saudis and Iranians through their militant forms of Islam.
Incidents like the savage attacks on the Ahmedies and recently the Data Darbar Sufi shrine, are ideological drone attacks waged by both Iran and Saudi Arabia. These attacks violate Pakistan’s cultural sovereignty transforming the national identity to a radical religious one.
One should ask what the incentive for Iran and Saudi Arabia is in spreading militant ideologies and supporting elements who gravely threaten the security of Pakistan? The answer is in the Cold War chapter of history where the value of proxy wars was that you compete against your arch nemesis in someone else’s backyard to avoid risks at home. As such, playing out the primordial Sunni-Shiite conflict has been facilitated for both nations in Pakistan by its own leadership.
The door was first opened by Z.A. Bhutto who jockeyed for the support of religious groups. Forgoing the fact that he was a leftist candidate, Bhutto imposed several Islamic concepts to an otherwise secular urban population (i.e. banning the gambling halls and bars of the big cities). Perhaps Bhutto realized that many of the religious political parties were funded by entities in Saudi Arabia, and thus had more cash and influence than Bhutto could fight against.
More importantly, one should simply look to the rise of the religious militancy fed by Saudi Arabia during the Zia Ul-Haq period. During the 1980s, Pakistan was engaged in its first proxy war that brought the flood of Islamists and set the seed for extremism. Zia Ul-Haq found himself in a situation where he could not only prop himself in power, but get U.S. aid by espousing an Ummah ideal of Pakistani identity. The U.S. was comfortable with this rhetoric because it served their short-term goal of battling the Soviets in Afghanistan.
More significantly, it was during this period that Zia Ul-Haq ramped up the ideological engagement with Saudi Arabia to give weight to Zia’s call for mujahiddin to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of Laskar-e-Taiba, states that he was given a scholarship by the general to study Islam in Saudi Arabia, where he first learned concepts of global jihad. This seemingly insignificant administrative action, with the intent of spreading Saudi ideologies, has led to the growth of one of the most lethal insurgent groups who regularly threaten the stability of the state.
Some make the argument that today’s government is secular and does not espouse the same ideals as the puritanical Zia. Yet, the military remains greatly affected by the importation of militant Saudi/ Iranian ideologies during the Zia period. The connection between the ISI and the militants is fueled by a shared religious sentiment which they simultaneously were exposed to in the 1980’s. Further, the school systems have been left to languish which has opened the door not only to an uneducated populace, but a MIS-educated populace who no longer contemplates the idea of a Pakistani identity.
Instead of focusing on issues concerning the venomous militancy spreading throughout the nation and its root causes, the leadership seems keener on lambasting the U.S. drone attacks. While these drone attacks do violate principles of national sovereignty and have caused the death of hundreds of civilians, the ideological proxy wars being fought have a far more expansive reach in spreading chaos. Currently, we are seeing a rise in sectarian murders being carried out in cities like Karachi. The tension amongst religious sects seems to be reaching a feverish pitch both in the media and through the attacks by the myriad of militant groups.
The Dara Darbar attack best illustrates how forces within Pakistan are being encouraged to attack the oldest pillars of Pakistani society, by forces outside of Pakistan. Perhaps more news-worthy than the Data Darbar attacks were the protests that followed calling on Shahbaz Sharif to crack down on militancy, especially in Punjab.
This might signal that the populace’s honeymoon with Wahabiism and militant Shiite ideals may have come to an end. Pakistan’s leadership needs to shake itself out of playing up anti-Americanism as an easy ploy to garner popular support. The civilian government must deal with the homegrown problem of religious extremism fueled and funded by Saudi and Iranian powers. Without recognizing that hundreds of “drones” are being piloted to drop ideological bombs from Riyadh and Tehran, there can be no success in battling religious extremism and its militant wing.