A day before the tragic bomb blast in Lahore, a city described as "the heart of Pakistan", I hosted Raza Rumi, a prominent liberal Pakistani journalist, on a live radio show to inquire if Pakistan's prime minister Nawaz Sharif had finally decided to walk his country on the path to liberalization. Rumi, now based in the United States after luckily surviving an assassination attempt on him in March 2014, responded affirmatively.
The Pakistani prime minister, now serving an unprecedented third term, has taken several measures in recent times which were previously unimaginable. He has irked the confrontational religious lobby by taking bold steps toward combating violence against women with the help of new legislation, providing protection to religious minorities, discouraging the misuse of the country's infamous blasphemy law and improving ties and enhancing cooperation with arch-rival India. Sharif seems to have some backing of the mighty army but it is unclear how much and to what extent the army is comfortable with the idea of a liberal (and possibly secular) Pakistan.
Sunday's horrific terrorist attack in Lahore killed at least seventy people, including several woman and children. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar has accepted responsibility for the suicide attack that was carried out at a public park when an "unusually large" crowd was spending time with their families on the eve of Easter.
The incident attracted more media attention than the usual similar attacks perpetrated by the Taliban elsewhere in Pakistan probably because it took place in the capital of the country's most powerful province. In the past one decade, the Taliban had spared no major city as they have carried out numerous devastating attacks in the cities of Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi. However, the Punjab was largely considered as a Taliban-free zone where it was not easy for the extremists to plot a major terrorist attack. Sunday's attack has shattered that myth and has opened a new front for the Pakistani authorities to prepare to grapple with.
There are several questions that arise in the backdrop of the Lahore blast. Are the Taliban attacking the Punjab as an act of retaliation due to what the Pakistan army describes as a successful military operation against the Taliban in the tribal region? After all, the bulk of the top army officers belong to the Punjab. One example of the Taliban resorting to such retaliatory action was the attack on the Army Public School in December 2014 that killed more than a hundred school children. The Taliban cited the military operation against them as the pretext for their deadly assault on the Army Public School. One wonders if the Taliban, by attacking Lahore, are testing their ability if they can expand their presence and operations in secure urban areas that were until recently considered inaccessible to them. An active presence of the Taliban in the Punjab should also alarm the neighboring India.
Another question is whether the largely unacknowledged local supporters of the Taliban, often described as the "Punjabi Taliban", have finally been encouraged by the Taliban and the ISIS operations elsewhere in the Middle East and now they want to take this as the right moment to demonstrate their strength. Furthermore, Sunday's attack coincides with the shocking eruption and display of zealotry in urban Punjab in the aftermath of the execution of a police guard who murdered Salmaan Taseer, the former Punjab governor. When Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Governor Taseer because he accused the liberal politician of committing "blasphemy", was executed last month, tens of thousands of Pakistanis came out to pay him respect at his funeral. Many Pakistanis were shocked to see the extent to which religious extremism had penetrated among young, educated, urban fellow countrymen. The people who came out to pay homage to Qadri would perhaps not condemn Sunday's terrorist attack on innocent citizens because the Taliban also justify their actions in the name of Islam. That's where Pakistan's got a serious problem to address.
During the radio show, I agreed with my guest, Mr. Rumi, that the Pakistani government had taken some bold steps that would help the country move on the right direction. However, this is not going to be a painless process. The Taliban and their supporters in the mainstream media and almost all public institutions will resist any endeavors that are aimed at cleaning Pakistan of religious fanaticism. Even if the army and the civilian government genuinely decide to give up decades old policy of solely depending on Islam and anti-Indianism as unifying forces to keep Pakistan together, there is still much work to be done.
The army, which truly controls Pakistan, must work with the country's liberal and progressive voices instead of undermining them or trading them with religious extremists. The army should permanently abandon the religious lobby whether they are hiding in and fighting from the mountains in remote tribal regions or crippling Pakistan's roots while finding safe sanctuaries within the army, the judiciary, media, universities and all key state institutions.
A military operation, even a successful one, is a partial solution to a more complex problem. A long-term sustainable solution rests with imparting liberal education among Pakistan's children, drastically reforming the religious educational seminaries and revisiting the current constitution that invokes radical Islamic provisions and discriminates religious minorities. Pakistan can surely get out of this troubled phase in its history and defeat religious extremism provided that its civil and military leadership realize that official patronage for Islam and tolerance for terrorists who employ violence in the name of religion is the problem not the solution. The State has to lead with example by remaining utterly neutral when it comes to citizens' religious beliefs. By mixing religion with politics, the Pakistani state has provided the Taliban a lethal template. Mere condemnation of terrorist attacks or announcing official days of mourning will not rescue a deeply troubled state like Pakistan.