Karachi Muharram Blasts: Understanding the Local and Global Politics

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Funeral procession for the martyrs was attended by a large  crowd.The mourners clearly understood that the real target was Muharram processions. The enemies wanted to confine these processions to indoors. They wanted to reduce them to a spiritless ritual, so that these gatherings that inspire the world with the message of truth and resistance against injustice of any kind would not be effective any more.Funeral procession for the martyrs was attended by a large crowd.There were clear reports in the media that the Arbaeen procession in Karachi would be targeted by terrorists once again, following the deadly attack on the last Ashura. No real guarantees that anyone participating in the commemorations would return home safely. But that did not stop the mourners from joining. It was estimated that the turn out was at least three times higher than usual – much more than what was on the day of the last Ashura. A good number of mourners came wearing symbolic white shrouds. Some shrouds had written on them Azadari Ya Shahadat (Commemoration or Martyrdom!), others had Shahadat Sa’adat (Martyrdom is Success). Even after reports of the two blasts that came one after another within the span of just two hours in the afternoon, the mourners – men, women, children, elderly – continued their march, unceasingly chanting, Labbaik Ya Hussain, Labbaik Ya Hussain.

The mourners clearly understood that the real target was Muharram processions. The enemies wanted to confine these processions to indoors. They wanted to reduce them to a spiritless ritual, so that these gatherings that inspire the world with the message of truth and resistance against injustice of any kind would not be effective any more. After the last Ashura blast, some well-intentioned but naïve people in the authorities also made similar suggestions of “limiting” or “confining” the processions in the name of security. But over years of being targeted by one or another form of violence, the Shias in Pakistan have understood very well the real goals of their enemies. The enemies want to impose a ‘defeatist mentality’ on them, that the Shias would be allowed to perform their religious practices as long as they remain invisible in the public sphere, and that they should not dare to interfere in determining the future of religion and politics in Pakistan or resist the neo-imperial plots in the region.

No single person or organization was controlling the miles-long Arbaeen procession on Friday. It had not been surprising for any other crowd to lose patience and break discipline upon hearing the news of the tragic blasts. That is perhaps what the terrorists would have wanted. But the self-discipline with which the mourners continued the procession spoke of their political maturity and fearless devotion as a nation. One was reminded of the political resilience and organized response of the Lebanese Shias during and after the 2006 Israeli war.

Was it Sectarian Conflict?

To frame these attacks as “sectarian” in the news misleads an uninitiated viewer into believing that this is a fight between the Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. That is not true. For one, consider the background of people killed in the Ashura blast: according to one report, 15 of the 50 killed were Sunnis, two were Bohra Shias, and one was Christian. Anyone familiar with the ground reality in Pakistan knows that Muharram processions are widely attended by Muslims from diverse sectarian background, and at some places, even non-Muslims also participate. Thus, the processions are not an exclusive tradition of Shias, contrary to how it is framed in the international news media. They are for all those who want to commemorate the noble sacrifice of the grandson of the Holy Prophet, Imam Hussain (peace be upon him). However, the reductive representation in the international news media further distorts the image of Sunni-Shia differences in the mind of general viewers: an attack on Muharram procession is automatically seen as an attack on “Shias by Sunnis” in the news and analysis. Perhaps that was also the intention of the perpetrators of these attacks: to provoke sectarian differences and to distance the Sunnis from the Shias and Muharram processions.

There is no fight between the Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan. The ongoing wave of terrorist attacks is aimed at not only Shias but also those Sunnis who are against extremism or who do not fit into the strategic equations of the bigger players in this game. Maulana Sarfraz Ahmed Naemi, who was killed in a suicide attack on June 12, 2009, is a case in point. (For the role of the Taliban in Pakistan and how their various groups intentionally or unintentionally play into the hands of bigger players, see here.)

Why Charge the Government?

The government is of course implicated in these blasts. First, because the government is supposed to protect its citizens and their religious and civil rights. Unfortunately, some government officials once again want to blame their security failures on the public nature of the Muharram commemorations. They fail to recognize that be it indoor or outdoor location – government buildings, mosques, or schools – they have failed to stop terrorists from carrying out their attacks in the last couple of years. They also fail to recognize that Imambargah Ali Raza, Masjid-e Haideri, Mehfil-e Murtaza, and a number of other religious places that were hit by terrorists in the past few years were all indoor locations.

Moreover, the failure to take adequate security measures is not the only reason that the government is implicated in this tragedy. For years, the power-holders and policy makers in this country have nurtured and manipulated the extremist-militant elements, within and outside of Pakistan, in the name of security, “strategic depth”, and “Jihad”. During the Cold War, these extremist groups openly received funding, training, and, quite often, their agenda through middlemen or directly from America and Saudi Arabia. Both of these powers were interested in curbing the influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and containing the Soviet advancements. The ‘establishment’ also saw it in their interest to support this agenda. From the 1980s onward, the security agencies allowed, and even endorsed, these extremist elements to spread hatred and violence against all others that did not confirm to their twisted ‘Jihadist’ ideology and politics – Shia and Sunni alike.

However, more recently, when this policy backfired and the country suffered the blowback with waves of suicide attacks and bomb blasts, the establishment took recourse in propagating a distinction between “Good Taliban” and “Bad Taliban”. Good Taliban are those who still follow their dictate; the Bad Taliban are those who have become independent or who now take their dictates and funding directly from other powers, within or outside of the country. While the Musharraf regime claimed to fight the war on terror, it continued to support the “Good Taliban” over the last decade with the money received in military aid from the US. The perpetual “India threat” paranoia of the establishment as well as their desire for “strategic depth” was also at work. The establishment also feared that once the NATO forces would leave Afghanistan, Pakistan would be left with a hostile neighbor. (The “strategic depth” policy was recently reiterated by General Ashfaq Kayani, albeit in a modified version.) What the establishment has not realized yet is that there are no good or bad Taliban – neither is good for the future of Pakistan or Afghanistan. Furthermore, the US is not leaving Afghanistan in any near future. The “Af-Pak” is the new geographical category in the neo-imperial planning, with assigned roles given to both countries.

The establishment needs to stop using the “Good” Taliban and similar extremist-militant groups within and outside Pakistan as tools for its strategic objectives. This policy has demonized Islam and ideologically polarized the Pakistani society. Furthermore, the establishment needs to stop playing as mercenaries in the neo-imperial American plans for the region, under pressure and/or for military assistance. The American presence in the region, and its continuous bombardment and killing in the last few years, has only fueled more extremism and violence. Pakistan did not have any suicide bombers in 1998, and now it exports them! More violence gives Washington more reasons to stay in this region to keep a check on Iran, Russia, and China. The so called “War on Terror” has actually allowed the US to expand its neo-imperial ambitions. Furthermore, for years now, America, Israel, and India have continuously conspired to undermine and neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. It is clear that Pakistani interests and those of the foreign powers are diametrically opposed to each other, and it makes no sense for the establishment to continue following the line given to it by the US.

The civilian government is similarly implicated. The conditions under which the deal between General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto was brokered by the Bush Administration are still unclear. The NRO was certainly one manifestation of that deal. Now it is an open secret that the establishment and the civilian governments are at odds with each other. First, over consolidation of one’s power over the other. Next, over the agenda given to the civilian government by Washington. That tussle was clearly reflected in the civilian government’s failed attempt to bring the ISI under its control in July 2008. This tussle is a major reason for the ongoing instability in Pakistan.

Furthermore, the civilian government shares the responsibility in the tragedy because it showed no serious interest in tracing the hands behind the Ashura blast. No independent inquiry commission was set up. Rather, the government seemed more concerned about maintaining its political alliances and holding on to power. Otherwise, there was clear evidence about the systematic nature of the Ashura attack and the violence in the aftermath, and if examined carefully, the evidence would have unmasked many faces. However, the multiple hands that could have been exposed in the investigation are once again being covered up by throwing the labels of “suicide bombing” and “Talibanization” in public discourse. These labels serve as both description and explanation of violence: call it “mindless fanaticism”, and then there is no need to dig deeper for the hidden hands or bigger game plans. If the government is really sincere, then it should set up an independent inquiry commission to investigate both the apparent and hidden perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Suicide Attack or Bomb Blast: Does the Method Make Any Difference?

Commenting on the Indian reaction to the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, Pulitzer Prize winner author Arundhati Roy wrote in her characteristic perceptive style (Guardian, Dec 12, 2008): “Almost always, when these stories unspool, they reveal a complicated global network of foot soldiers, trainers, recruiters, middlemen, and undercover intelligence and counter-intelligence operatives working not just on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, but in several countries simultaneously. In today’s world, trying to pin down the provenance of a terrorist strike and isolate it within the borders of a single nation state is very much like trying to pin down the provenance of corporate money. It’s almost impossible.”

Building on the same argument, it really does not matter what method was used. There are pawns and there are kings. And then there are the actual players playing the chess. The important thing is to identify all the critical players in this game. Equally important is to raise the question of interests and ends: Who benefits from these attacks?

The Two Blasts: What Do We Know About Them?

Within the context of above framework, consider the following talking points:

First, the incident on December 28, 2009 (the day of Ashura) that killed over 50 people and the most recent on February 5, 2010 (the day of Arbaeen) that took over 31 lives should be seen in connection with the ongoing violence against Shia Muslims in different parts of the country, including D.I. Khan, Hangu, Peshawar, and Parachinar. Hundreds have lost their lives in these attacks. They also are linked to broader wave of violence and blasts that have been going on throughout the country for the last couple of years.

Second, in the aftermath of the Ashura blast, note the systematic nature of arson and torching of shops and buildings in the particular vicinity (Bolton Market) by masked miscreants who were all dressed in black and came prepared with cutters, hammers, and inflammable chemicals. All of this was captured by security cameras. (See Urdu clip from Dunya News.) It is hard to imagine that they could be the Azadars (participants of the Muharram processions) with those accessories ready who somehow knew beforehand that a blast would happen and they would have the opportunity to steal and torch those shops.

Note also that the “reactionary violence” by “angry protesters” – as some news sources framed it – happened only in the Bolton Market. If the reactionary violence was indeed caused by irrational impulses of angry protesters, then the systematic arson and property destruction should have happened at multiple points in the miles long procession on M. A. Jinnah Road. The plotters surely screwed up this part in their planning. The Ashura blast and its aftermath were clearly well-planned, perhaps coordinated among multiple groups, whose diverse interests all converged into making it happen in Karachi.

Third, just a few days ago, four Jundallah members were captured by Karachi police, which claimed that the members confessed their involvement in three Muharram blasts in Karachi this year, including the Ashura blast. Jundallah is widely known for its connection to the US. Jundallah is also known for its connection to local extremist-militant groups in Pakistan.

However, one should also take the police’s claim with a grain of salt, given the way the police works in Pakistan: It is not unimaginable for the police that under pressure of their superiors or public demanding justice and efficiency they would capture innocent people or petty criminals and charge them for a high-profile crime. The caution is also due to their silence regarding how exactly were these members involved, how were they captured, how were they related to the masked men involved in arson and torching after the Ashura blast. Further, if they had captured the right people, why did they fail again on the day of Arbaeen? Why were they not able to ward off further attacks?

It is hard to tell the reality of those captured from outside. But, in either case, this should not invalidate the fact that since the “Afghan Jihad”, many extremist-militant outfits in Pakistan have more or less remained connected to and dependent on Pakistan’s security agencies, and some of them directly to foreign actors (like in the case of Jundallah).Their involvement in “sectarian” violence in the past is no secret. Time and again, they have done their masters’ bidding. Jundallah, for example, claimed responsibility of the bomb blast in the Iran-Pakistan border area in October 2009 that killed more than 40 people including Iranian military officials and local tribal elders – Sunni and Shia both.

Fourth, one should also see the blasts in the context of local politics, particularly in relation to the “ethnic” clashes among different groups that are going on in Karachi for many months now. The clashes are partly about political control against the fear of a demographic shift – with the continuous influx of “migrants” from north of Pakistan (and interior Punjab) – and partly about land-grabbing interests. In the past, concerns were raised by different groups that a certain ethnic group may be targeted in the name of curbing “Talibanization” in Karachi and that all it would require is a provocation – from whatever side it may come from and in whatever name it may be carried out (sectarian or otherwise) – to spark clashes. In response, others contended that there was indeed a rise of extremist-militant activities in certain neighborhoods in Karachi and the “Talibanization” threat was real and imminent. With the latest blasts, people are concerned that once again the demands of doing “operations” against the “Taliban” would be motivated by “ethnic” politics, which would target the innocent.

How Is the Local Connected to the Global Politics?

In one broader perspective, the purpose of systematic violence in all over the country is to pressurize the civilian government or the Army to give in to certain demands, and for that reason, Blackwater’s role should also be considered in any investigation. (See: Blackwater in Pakistan: Loose End or Larger Strategy) Another perspective suggests that the volatile conditions resulting from such violence may further weaken the central government and destroy its political alliances, paving the way for a sweeping political change by the “establishment”.

In the global context, one should also question the simultaneous escalation in “sectarian” attacks in Iraq and Pakistan. In Iraq, at least 67 Shias have been killed in the last week alone, and over 40 of them died in the blasts on the day of Arbaeen in Karbala. Some political analysts argue that instability in Pakistan, Iraq, and particularly Lebanon are key indicators of possibly a decisive move by the US or Israel against Iran and/or Palestinian resistance. Instability in the case of Pakistan and Iraq would probably mean further chaos, so that their populations remain busy in themselves. As mentioned earlier, the instability gives America a pretext for increasing its presence in the “Af-Pak” region. For Lebanon, the instability may be in the form of internal clashes among different political groups or an attempt to “neutralize” the resistance movement from outside, so the resistance cannot respond to any major Israeli or US aggression against Palestine or Iran.

One should carefully follow the developments on the international scene, including the media’s role in manufacturing consent for wars. For example, in the last few days, front page headlines saying, “US arms gulf states against Iran attack” were seen on all major news sources in the US and UK. (See, for example, NYTimes, WSJ, Telegraph.) Recently, General Petraeus, who heads the US Central Command overseeing US forces in the Middle East, Gulf, and Central Asia, has repeatedly made provocative statements about bombing Iran. However, this could all be just psyops to pressurize Iran. But they could be real threats too. On a related note, on Jan 18, 2010, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Lebanon that “Israel may be planning attack”. A statement like this to come from Turkey is not very usual.

Within the context of these reports, the point is to keep an eye out for political developments at the international level and in specific countries, as they are all inter-connected. The discussion on the Muharram blasts in Karachi draws attention to the multitude of political actors and interests that may have been involved. Many questions about those blasts remain unanswered. The little we know about the blasts demands caution against believing in any simplified explanations that do no go beyond the labels of “Taliban” or “mindless fanatics” or “sectarian violence”. Without connecting the history and politics of multiple players to the rise of militancy and extremism in Pakistan, it is very easy to fall into the trap of “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim“. Our inclination to be on the side of the good and distance ourselves from the bad – for example, in this case, to stand up against “Talibanization” or to support the “War on Terror” – may be used by others to advance their own political agenda.

Ali A. is a doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at

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