Pakistan’s Taliban Approach is Risky for Christians

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 8/2013

The killing of over 85 people and the wounding of 150 others in a suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar two months ago has brought no change in the Pakistani government’s approach to dealing with Islamist terrorists. Instead of taking strong action, the government continues to surrender to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) while appearing weak and timid.

The attack at All Saints Church in Peshawar on Sept. 22 was the first major targeting of a non-Muslim minority by the TTP, which acts as an umbrella organization of numerous smaller terror outfits in the country. Until the church bombing, the Taliban would launch targeted attacks only on Shia or Ahmaddiya people, state officials and at times high-profile Christian individuals.

Most terror strikes are about messaging, and the message sent out by the TTP through the church bombing was perceptible. One, it was seemingly an assertion of confidence by demonstrating the expansion of the target, which was foreseeable given the Islamist terror network’s belief in creating a homogenous society where only their version of Islam is practised. Two, the attack was perhaps aimed at making the government desperate to negotiate peace with the Taliban with little or no bargaining power. After all, a terror attack on Christians gets more international attention than assaults on Muslim minorities, and thereby causes a greater concern in the local government.

The TTP has demanded that the government release detained terrorists, withdraw troops from the tribal areas and force the United States to stop drone attacks before negotiations begin. And the government appears to be continually giving in, showing clearly that it is afraid to take on the terror group. “So fearful is the government that it has put on hold the execution of three convicted militants including the mastermind of the 2009 GHQ [Pakistan Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi] attack after threats from the Taliban,” said a recent article in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

This week, Member of Parliament Raja Zafar ul Haq, who is the chairman of the governing party, told the BBC that the government will not criticize the Pakistan Taliban. “We don’t want to spoil the atmosphere, that would be counter-productive,” he said, adding, “I don’t want to say anything against them which hurts their feelings.”

Former leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike [by the United States, and not Pakistani forces] on Nov. 1, was purported to be interested in striking a deal with the government. But the outfit’s new head, Mullah Fazlullah, has categorically rejected calls for peace talks. But the government apparently wants to woo him, although Fazlullah’s men were believed to be behind the attack on 16-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai.

Few have believed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's claim of “foreign hand” in the church bombing. The Taliban has denied, and at the same time admitted, its role. “We didn’t carry out the church attack. However, we believe it’s according to the Sharia,” TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid told BBC last month, and added that the group has many factions, all working towards the same goals.

Naturally, “a culture of fear grips the nation as the state has abdicated all responsibility, leaving the people at the mercy of the terrorists,” add the Dawn article. “It gives the people little faith when their political leaders surrender to the militant narrative.”

In its editorial the day after the church attack, Dawn noted that the hatred and bigotry embedded in the extremist ideology is not just about foreigners, but also about the majority of Pakistanis themselves. “Be it Shias, Ismailis, Barelvis, non-Muslims or anyone else deemed to be outside the pale of radical Islam as practised by the militants and terrorists, everyone is a target,” it said.

Until the political leadership of Pakistan acknowledges that the ideology of the TTP leaves no room for negotiations, “there can be no real understanding of why Pakistan has been so wracked by violence,” the newspaper added. “And without that understanding, there cannot begin to be a solution.”

While the TTP has communicated that it has a new target, i.e. Christians, the government has not made any effort to deter the group from that position. This can prove to be dangerous for the minority in the coming months and years.

The relations between Pakistan and the United States are far from cordial despite cooperation by the former in the latter’s war against terror, but Washington must not overlook the suffering of Pakistan’s minorities and liberal Muslim sections. If the United States can negotiate its way in continuing drone attacks despite pressure from powerful sections in Pakistan, it cannot excuse itself for not convincing Islamabad to deal strictly with the Taliban. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

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