I emailed her and also sent a message on Facebook. No answer. Then I remembered my sister-in-law uses WhatsApp on her phone. She was in Lahore Sunday for a family wedding. The children were with her. I had no idea if they were staying near Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Lahore is a big, beautiful city, full of history, monuments, street food, and fun, Pakistan’s cultural center.
As my in-laws readied themselves for another day and night of wedding festivities on Easter Sunday, the city was reminded that it was also home to discontent and anger.
A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban targeted a popular park where Easter celebrations were underway. The bomb blast killed more than 73 men, women and children and injured 320. As the chaos unfolded, rioting was spreading in another part of the city as mourners for Mumtaz Qadri, the recently hanged murderer and former bodyguard of liberal lawmaker Salmaan Taseer, marked the 40th day of his death with nationwide riots and rallies calling for Sharia law in Pakistan. Qadri killed Taseer in 2011 after the lawmaker pushed to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are often used in disputes to attack neighbors for personal gain. The targets are often Christian Pakistanis.
My sister-in-law thankfully responded to my messages on Whatsapp after what felt like an eternity, “We are fine. The city is in lockdown.” Relieved, I simply replied, “Ok, be safe. Bye,” and returned to the emerging headlines and comments growing on my Facebook feed. There were people asking for blood donations at the hospitals in Lahore. Some messages indicated families were looking for a loved one, and Facebook asked its billion plus members to check in – asking us all if we were safe.
This was not the first time Christians have been targeted by Islamists in Pakistan. The same group that took responsibility for the attack, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, targeted two Christian churches in March 2015, killing 14 and wounding 70. This Easter’s attack was a possible response to the previous day’s announcement on Voice of Jihad, a website of the Afghan Taliban, announcing “Only Islamic rituals can be celebrated in an Islamic country.”
Lahore’s diverse cultural history can be attributed to the men and women who have traversed its roads for centuries. Rulers have included the Hindus, Sikhs, and Turks. Ptolemy mentions Lahore in his studies of geography in the 2nd century. Descriptions by a Chinese traveler confirm the city’s existence again in the 7th century. Today, it is the capital of Pakistan’s largest province – Punjab.
The Christians in Pakistan, especially Lahore, are part of the diversity and indigenous history of the country. Islamism, and its offspring – groups like Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, are the foreigners; born of Cold War politics to ward off the Russians in Afghanistan and fight India in Kashmir. Such groups have been tolerated for far too long.
As law enforcement began raids and making arrests following the Easter carnage, the real question that needs to be asked is will the government address the madrassas and training camps in southern Punjab, which continue to remain active with the Pakistani government’s knowledge. A 2008 U.S. State Department cable from its Lahore consulate office to Washington, D.C. noted that the number of extremist recruits in Punjab appeared to be increasing in certain areas since 2005. Locals stated this was the result of social services work being increasingly provided by extremist networks who were then “minimizing the importance of traditionally moderate Sufi religious leaders in these communities.” The State Department cable highlights that the locals in affected Punjabi communities want the government to come in to stop the spread of extremist activity, replace the social services attracting the poor with government help instead. It is unclear if any improvements have been made since that 2008 cable.
It is unlikely. But, while we wait for the government to act, others are. There are numerous grass-roots organizations in the country that focus on a range of gaps in society from illiteracy, health education to specifically addressing issues of tolerance and democracy. The Insan Foundation Trust, for example, trains media staff to identify prejudicial content against minorities and women in programming to remove it. More importantly, the training includes learning how to create content to replace that bias to build greater understanding between communities in Pakistan through the entertainment and news aired daily throughout the country.
Chasing jihadists after every attack is not a strategy. It only ensures another Ankara, Belgium, or Lahore. A real strategy requires shutting down extremist channels for recruitment. This includes shuttering their ability to feed a child in a madrassa in return for spewing hate; targeting the foreign governments that sponsor the extremist networks in Pakistan; and asking the educated Islamist sympathizers among Pakistan’s government and military to understand that aligning with extremists in the fight for Kashmir is not worth losing Pakistan.