As I lay dying: Religion, politics and a nation’s struggle on the front lines of the war on terror

Musulmani in preghiera in una moschea

On December 16, 2014, a group of terrorists – backed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – shouted God is great before unleashing a barbaric attack on an Army Public School in the city of Peshawar. They killed more than 140 schoolchildren and injured more than 100 others. Most of the victims were ages 12 to 16.

Even the children are dying on the frontline in the war against terror, Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said that day. The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry

Barely three months later, a week before official Pakistan Day in March, militants attacked two churches in the largest Christian locality in Lahore, killing at least 21 people. A violent mob in reaction beat and burned to death two suspects, snatching them from police custody.

The tears of anguished mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, barely seem to dry from one attack before another takes its place. In the last several years, more than 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed in various attacks by militant groups claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Some have sought to blame religion, and even Islam itself, for the violence.

But to do so would be to ignore the faith of the vast majority of Pakistanis, who believe acts of violence that target civilians cannot be justified in the name of Islam. In a 2013 Pew survey, 89 percent of Pakistanis said suicide bombings can never be justified. Even before the attacks on schoolchildren, two-thirds of Pakistanis said they were concerned about Islamic extremists in their country.

A study of a random sample of several thousand adult Pakistanis revealed that neither higher degrees of religious practice nor greater piety were related to support of militant organizations.

What did matter is the content of religious doctrine. But how extremist organizations that preach violence gained such a foothold is less a story of faith than a textbook example of the cycle of violence and conflict that erupts when governments and political interest groups use favoritism and coercion to manipulate religion to their own ends.

It is a complex narrative that includes the state’s security forces using these violent groups in the country’s geo-political interests, political forces failing to act out of fear and a history of government corruption and massive poverty that makes it difficult for many Pakistanis to trust in the state’s ability to act in their best interests.

And it begins with the founding of the nation.

Safe haven for Muslims

Pakistan achieved independence on August 14, 1947, in fulfillment of the two-nation theory carving a separate homeland out of former British India to provide Muslims their due rights and a place to practice their faith freely. But it was not long before some hardline religious groups made it clear freedom of religion should be limited to the dominant Sunni sect.

In 1949, the first Constituent Assembly already began to take action to make Islam the state religion. A movement against the Ahmdiyya branch of Islam started in the 1950s and ultimately they were declared non-Muslims in 1974 by a political government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto, who was considered a liberal leader, also banned open buying and selling of liquors, bars and dance clubs in the country.

Despite all these moves, he was hanged by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a military dictator who made further efforts to appease religious extremists. Federal Shariah courts were introduced, the old blasphemy laws were amended to introduce stricter punishments and authorities often looked the other way against acts of discrimination and violence against marginalized groups within Islam and Christian and Hindu minorities. Anti-Ahmadi laws were toughened and anti-Shiite legislation was enforced.

Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 establishing Shia Islam as the official state religion, the sectarian dimension of militant groups within Pakistan increased. Local anti-Shiite groups developed against a sizeable population of Shiite Muslims.

In the 1980s, the Pakistan Army decided to become a launching pad of the Cold War, encouraging extremists to wage what they interpreted as a holy war against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan. A lot of money was pulled in from Saudi Arabia and America to strengthen Wahhabi and Deobandi movements that sanctioned the use of violence in the name of their interpretation of Jihad. Religious schools endorsing the message that individuals were justified in taking arms against the state to defend Islam began to spread.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as the Pakistani Army sided with the United States in its war against terrorism, militant groups by now well established within Pakistan responded with violence.

And still successive governments and the military responded in many cases with further efforts at appeasement.

Today, Pakistan is one of the most persistent violators of religious freedom.

By one scholarly measure ranking religious restrictions on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most restrictive, Pakistan scored 8.8 on government regulation of religion and government favoritism of religion and a full 10 on social regulation of religion.

The consequences are enormous, contributing to a fractured, polarized nation lacking the political will to take effective action against a movement it allowed to pervade the infrastructure of the nation’s legal and educational systems even as it took the lives of tens of thousands of Pakistanis.

The result is the world’s second-largest Muslim state finds itself in its fourth decade of warfare, with a precarious democracy hanging in the balance.

Segni di speranza

There are many positive developments in Pakistan.

Interfaith and peace efforts are gaining traction.

Muslims are raising their voices to reform the educational system, appealing in part to the glorious history of advances in science within Muslim-majority nations.

The horrific murders of schoolchildren gave new will to take action against extremists. After taking major political forces on board, the Army announced a National Action Plan to curb all forms of terrorism.

But major obstacles lie ahead.

From without, pressures and funding for interest groups from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to serve as proxies in their sectarian conflicts threaten to further divide Pakistan. Sectarianism has distanced the people as never before, and if the gulf is not bridged it may result in civil war, an article in the Pakistan Observer noted.

Well-publicized acts of insensitivity toward Islam and discrimination against Muslims in the West also have served as a resource for extremists in a nation where three-quarters of citizens view the U.S. as more of an enemy than a partner.

Within Pakistan, most citizens stand against extremism, but are fearful of speaking out in the absence of government protections. At the moment, civil leadership is hiding behind the military to fight its war against terrorism.

Pakistan is struggling whether to embrace a Turkish or a Saudi model of government. It is the difference between a representative democracy where secular and religious voices have access to the civil arena and a model where an authoritarian government establishes an official religion and shuts off any dissent.

For ordinary Pakistanis, like average people of a multitude of faiths throughout the world, religion helps them to keep on keeping on in the face of suffering. According to the World Values Survey, 96 percent of Pakistanis view religion as a source of comfort and strength.

In one national study in Pakistan, greater religious practice and higher levels of education were strongly associated with individual well-being and overall life satisfaction.

In the end, a democratic Pakistan cannot be built by denying religious and political freedoms.

It will take good governance and a political will that overcomes fear of terrorism to build a society where ideological differences are worked out in a peaceful and civil manner.

The war against terror is in large part a struggle for hearts and minds. Groups throughout Pakistani society need to nurture an ideological counter-narrative to extremist groups that goes beyond security concerns, replacing the futility of revenge with a vision of citizens working together to improve education, health care and economic opportunity. Decades of suffering in Pakistan reveal that only a military operation is not a real solution at all.

Waqar Gillani, a founding member of the International Association of Religion Journalists, is a reporter for The News on Sunday in Lahore. He also writes on religion-related issues for international publications, including The New York Times.




  • Ahmed, Khaled. Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East
    The book is an account of how the Shia-Sunni conflict was relocated from the Middle East to Pakistan after the rise of Revolutionary Iran in 1979, through the mediating agency of the rulers in Pakistan and the proliferation of the religious seminaries funded by Saudi Arabia.
  • Grim, Brian e Finke, Roger, Il prezzo della libertà negata: Persecuzione religiosa e conflitti nel XXI secolo.
    Il libro fornisce un'argomentazione convincente sul fatto che la libertà religiosa serve a ridurre i conflitti, mentre la limitazione della libertà religiosa è un percorso verso la persecuzione religiosa e la violenza.
  • Haqqani, Husain. Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military
    A former adviser to Pakistani prime ministers analyzes the origins of the relationships between Islamist groups and Pakistan’s military, and explores the nation’s quest for identity and security.
  • Lieven, Anatol. Pakistan: A Hard Country
    This critically praised book seeks to present a clear-eyed view of contemporary challenges facing Pakistan.
  • Malik, Iftikhar. Pakistan: Democracy, Terrorism and the Building of a Nation
    The book strives to synthesize the complex issues facing Pakistan today while remaining cautiously optimistic about the future of a pluralistic nation caught between civic and military imperatives.
  • Rana, Muhammad Amir. Radicalization in Pakistan
    The book builds upon the core findings and outcomes of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ (PIPS) four-year long largely empirical research work on radicalization in Pakistan.