The Easter Day Attack Spotlights the Plight of Pakistan's Religious Minorities

The Easter Day terrorist attack against Pakistan’s Christian community is a stark reminder that despite recent attention on ISIS and its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Pakistan remains a hotbed for Islamist extremists. The attack is a setback for the Pakistani military and civilian authorities, which over the last year had been making steady gains against the internal terrorist threat.

The suicide attack was carried out by a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, at a popular park in Lahore. While the attack was targeted at Christian families celebrating the Easter holiday, most victims were Muslim, and about half of the 72 killed were children.

Most terrorist attacks in Pakistan target the security forces and their families, such as the attack on the military school in Peshawar in December 2014. But there has been a recent rise in attacks directed at religious minorities. Indeed, this is the third major terrorist strike in recent years against Pakistan’s Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population. In March of last year, terrorists bombed two Christian churches, killing 15, and in September 2013, a suicide bombing of a church in Peshawar killed nearly 80.

But Christians are not the only religious minority to suffer. Violence against the Pakistani Shia community in the last few years has also reached alarming proportions. In January 2015, at least 61 people were killed after a bombing at a Shia mosque in southern Pakistan. Four months later, gunmen attacked a bus in Karachi, killing 45 Ismaili Shia.

Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia is not a new phenomenon. It has been prevalent in Pakistan since the 1980s, when former military dictator General Zia ul-Haq carried out a campaign to Islamicize the country.

But the attacks have escalated in recent years, with the rise of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), a ruthless Sunni militant organization that categorizes Shia as non-Muslims. Over the last year, the Pakistani government has started cracking down on LJ, and in July 2015, LJ founder and supreme leader Malik Ishaq and more than a dozen of his followers were killed in a police encounter.

The Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslim but do not recognize the finality of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, have suffered discrimination throughout Pakistan’s history and also increasingly have suffered the threat of violence. In December 2014, a member of the Ahmadi community in Gujranwalla was shot and killed five days after an extremist cleric called Ahmadis “the enemy” in a rant on a popular Pakistani television show.

The proliferation of Sunni Islamist militant groups that recruit and inspire members by condemning religious minorities has exacerbated religious intolerance and violence. These militants intimidate lawyers, judges, journalists, and government officials, preventing fair trials and allowing perpetrators of violence to escape punishment. Exclusionary laws and a flawed education curriculum that teaches religious intolerance have further contributed to the crisis.

One of the most prominent examples of the growing culture of intolerance and extremism is the misuse of the blasphemy law and the inability of the Pakistani political leadership to amend these harsh laws due to threats from extremist forces.

Over the weekend, thousands of demonstrators protested in Islamabad over last month’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who had championed protection of religious minorities and spoken out against the controversial blasphemy laws.

Reversing the Extremist Tide

The Pakistani authorities have reacted swiftly to the Easter attack and launched a series of raids throughout the Punjab province, netting hundreds of suspects. Initial reports indicate that the government has given paramilitary forces enhanced powers to conduct raids and interrogations, a practice that has helped improve the law-and-order situation in Karachi over the last year.

Despite Sunday’s attack, there are tentative signs that the civilian and military leadership’s tougher stance toward the Pakistani Taliban in the last two years is shrinking the space in which extremists can operate and spread their deadly ideologies. The National Action Plan to combat terrorism that the Pakistani parliament passed in January 2015 includes steps to curb the spread of extremist literature and propaganda.

There are other signs that the Pakistani authorities are seeking to reverse extremist trends in the country. As I point out in an article to be published this summer in a special edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs, the government’s follow-through with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri sends a clear signal that violence, including violence rationalized on religious grounds, will not be tolerated. Also welcome is the Pakistani supreme court’s decision last year to review the case of Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman who has been in jail since 2009 under charges of blasphemy.

Other positive steps include the Punjab provincial government’s review last year of several hundred blasphemy cases pending in the courts; the reviews aimed to determine compliance with evidentiary standards and ensure that no case is unfairly prosecuted.

According to Farahnaz Ispahani, former Pakistani parliamentarian and author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, there are other signs of positive change, including the initiation of a process to reform educational curriculum in the Sindh and Punjab provinces.

A Long Way to Go

Pakistan has a long way to go before it gets a good handle on its terrorism and extremism demons. The U.S. must demonstrate that it will stand with Pakistan as it battles the internal terrorist threat. But we must also make clear that American aid will be conditioned on Pakistani action against anti-Afghanistan and anti-India militant groups.

The U.S. can facilitate the process of uprooting extremist ideologies by making the protection of Pakistan’s religious minorities a higher priority in its dialogue with the Pakistani authorities. The Pakistani government needs to implement legal reforms and foster an environment that allows people to freely express their religious beliefs.

The civilian courts also need to be strengthened so that militants are unable to sway court opinions and judgments in favor of religious extremists. Finally, the Pakistani government must prioritize the issue of educating its youth and moving forward with changes to the education curriculum to foster values of religious tolerance and pluralism.

Pursuing better relations with India would also help tamp down religious intolerance in Pakistan. Extremist ideologies have gained traction in Pakistan in part because the government has failed to uphold the rule of law against terrorist groups that the military leadership believes serve the nation’s strategic interests. These extremist forces, which were created to undermine Pakistan’s neighbors, are now threatening the stability of Pakistan itself.

Until Islamabad takes a comprehensive approach to shutting down all Islamist militant groups that operate from its territory, religious minorities will remain under threat. And the vision of Pakistan as a cohesive and stable nation will remain unfulfilled.

  - Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

 - This piece originally appeared in National Review. This and more can be viewed at 

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in the National Review