The recent carnage at Nishtar Park in Karachi on 11 April 2006 killed over 50 people, including many religious leaders and left over 100 injured. The bomb blast occurred at a congregation to celebrate Milad-e-Nabi - the birth of Prophet Mohammad. The attack indicates that newer fissures have appeared in the ever growing sectarian divide in Pakistan. Political parties are still debating whether it was a suicide bomber attack or a planted explosive device. It suits the coalition of religious parties the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) to accuse the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's (MQM) local administration of failing to provide security. The MMA is therefore propagating that the carnage was the result of a planted device. The MQM, on the other hand, believes that the carnage was perpetuated by a suicide bomber indoctrinated by religious parties that are closely allied to the MMA. Most reports from police sources do indicate that it was indeed the handiwork of a suicide bomber closely allied to the Deobandi School. The explosive used in the carnage is believed to be similar to that used by Lashkar-e-Janghavi in the past.
Pakistan's attempts to mix religion and state have led to a situation where society is not willing to accept plurality of thought so far as religion is concerned. The sponsorship of Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s had the effect of 'Talibanising' Pakistan's society itself. With the growth of fundamentalism, Islam - considered as a unifying force - has become an agent of destabilisation. Talibanisation of society has reduced the threshold of tolerance. As a result, each sect and each school of thought considers its own brand of Islam to be true. This has led to greater schism between various sects and schools of thought. The genesis of the problem can be traced to early 1970s when, under pressure from the fundamentalists, the Ahmadiyas were declared as non-Muslims. Today, a number of Wahabis and Deobandis are clamouring for a similar edict to be passed against the Shias.
Although sectarian tensions had always existed, it did not become acute until the1980s when General Zia-ul-Haq added fuel to the sectarian fire by using religion to legitimise his regime. Devoid of democratic support, Gen. Zia turned to rightwing Islamic elements for support. His attempt to create an Islamic polity and society was an attempt to gain legitimacy. The immediate provocation for sectarianism was Gen. Zia's attempt, in 1980, to raise Zakat tax. As soon as the tax was announced, the Shias argued that the government's proposals were not in line with their traditions. Gen. Zia soon found himself facing massive Shia protests. In July 1980, emboldened by the Shia-led revolution in Iran, tens of thousands of Pakistani Shias stormed the Federal Secretariat building in Islamabad. Gen. Zia relented and accepted the Shias' demand to be exempted from Zakat and provoked a furious response from the Sunni community.
Sectarian terrorists have exhibited complete disregard for human life. The carnage at Nishtar Park virtually eliminated the entire leadership of Sunni Tehrik, an organisation of Barelvi Sunni Muslims. Such large-scale targeting of moderate Sunni leadership of Barelvis by hardliner Sunnis believing in Ahl-e-Hadith, Deobandi or Wahabi school of thought is a first for Pakistan. However, the sectarian violence in Pakistan consisted of violence by Sunni groups against Ahmediyas till they were declared apostate and subsequently against Shias as well as reprisal attacks by Shia militants against Sunnis.
Although there have been trouble amongst the Shias between the Ismailis and the followers of Twelver School in Northern Areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, this is probably the first time when such a large-scale attack has been launched by one Sunni group on another Sunni group purely on the basis of minor differences in religious thinking. It must be noted that the Wahabis, Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandis do not believe in celebrating the birthday of the Prophet unlike the Barelvis who constitute the majority of Muslims in South Asia, including Pakistan.
Having driven out religious minorities, the hardliners have tried to marginalise the Shias and have succeeded to a great extent. Having achieved that, the fundamentalists have started targeting the moderate Sunnis. Over the years the number of Deobandis in Pakistan has risen at the cost of Barelvis, a main contributing factor has been the large scale proliferation of Deobandi Madaris. Pakistan is realising the dangers of mixing religion with state, because every small difference in religious practices is being blown out of proportion to create an unbridgeable divide. The recent report by Foreign Policy, where Pakistan has been ranked ninth even ahead of Afghanistan amongst the list of most failed state, is a timely warning for Pakistan.