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Pakistan: ‘Ordinary people in the cities have not been drawn into sectarian violence’

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Riaz Ahmed assesses the implications of the West's failure in Afghanistan for Pakistan
Issue 2210

The Attempt by US generals in Afghanistan to negotiate some sort of power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban is leading various ethnic groups to jockey for position in a new government – creating an atmosphere of tension and bitter rivalry.

A similar process is occurring in Pakistan. The government has created space for religious and ethnic sectarian groups and turns a blind eye to the increasing use of violence by some.

Many people in power see the growth of sectarianism as a useful counter-weight to the growing anger at the economic crisis sweeping Pakistan.

The majority of the population are mainstream Sunni Muslims. Sectarians from different groups have mounted bomb attacks on mosques and festivals organised by minority religious groups, like Sufi and Shia Muslims, in an attempt to increase tensions.

The government publicly condemns every atrocity as the work of the “Pakistani Taliban”, which it fighting as part of the US “war on terror”. Yet it makes no effort to clamp down on the sectarian groups who are the more likely perpetrators.

The price of basic goods, like food and fuel, has rocketed, while unemployment and low pay are endemic. The ruling class fear that this could lead to a social explosion, and so are happy to see divisions – particularly among the urban poor, the working class, and the middle classes.

The wave of bomb attacks also allows the government to continue its claim that its “war on terror” is an essential means of defending the people

For the state, Islamist militants are a useful internal enemy that can be used to direct people’s anger away from the rich and powerful, and away from the US and its drone bomb attacks on Pakistani villages.

But anger at US imperialism, and the way that the government in Pakistan is prepared to attack its own citizens at Washington’s behest, are the key reasons for the growth of Islamist organisation.

Some 70 drone strikes have killed more than 200 people in Waziristan since the start of 2010.

The prospect of a Pakistan that is increasingly divided on ethnic lines does have real implications for the ruling class.

Participation in the “war on terror”, has increased existing regional and ethnic tensions by mounting military operations in the North West Frontier Province and the Swat Valley.

If we add the prospect of inter‑religious fighting in the cities, then we can see the Pakistani state is looking increasing precarious.

So far, ordinary people in the cities have not been drawn into the violence as participants. This sets Pakistan apart from the tensions that quickly formed in Iraq after the US backed occupation.

Unlike the early 1990s, which saw inter-ethnic rioting, there is no mass campaign against religious minorities – and we have not yet seen a wave of counter-attacks.


The bombers are acting in small groups – and there is little sense of a sectarian mood among ordinary people. Certainly, most workers don’t want to be drawn into this kind of fight.

This feeling provides socialists and the working class movement in Pakistan with opportunities.

Some 15,000 workers in the ship-breaking industry in the city of Karachi are currently on strike. They are fighting a ruthless management that has refused to raise their pay, and the police that have attacked them and arrested their union leaders.

In the textile city of Faisalabad, many thousands of mill workers are striking against low wages, long hours and the thugs hired to intimidate their union.

Last week, unidentified men gunned down a key union leader during negotiations with the bosses. A renewed strike closed thousands of mills across the city in response.

The working class in Pakistan is ethnically and religiously mixed, and has a long tradition of united action. We will need to draw heavily on this strength to resist those who wish to divide us.

Riaz Ahmed is a member of the International Socialists Pakistan

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