Our Interior Minister – who, in the wake of Quetta Commission, has lost all semblance of moral authority to continue in the role of the individual responsible for internal security of Pakistan – seems intent on digging himself a deeper hole. Having already ignored the Quetta Commission Report as ‘biased’, the Interior Minister has proceeded to present an irrational (ludicrous?) rationale for meeting with members of banned sectarian outfits. He claims, astonishingly, that sectarian organisations should not be equated with terrorist outfits.

In this regard, the Interior Minister has claimed that while members of terrorist organisations are proscribed, members of sectarian organisations actively participate in election campaigns, and are not, per se, “terrorists” for the purposes of the National Actions Plan (NAP). Also, in the same breath, he informed the Senate that sectarian violence has been a part of Islamic history for over 1,300 years (apparently implying that we should just accept it as an enduring part of our collective legacy).

Let us pause and analyse Interior Minister’s rationale for continuing to engage with members of organisations that propagate sectarian violence. His statements seem to imply two things: 1) TTP’s killing of Pakistani citizens makes its members “terrorists”, because TTP opposes the ideology of Pakistan (as a nation State), but LeJ or ASWJ’s killing of many more Shias does not classify its members as “terrorists”, because they are not at war with the State of Pakistan – just with its 40 million Shias; and 2) since the sectarian battle between Shias and Sunnis has been continuing for over 1300 years, we should just accept that this violence is part of who we are, and stop fussing over it. After all, why make efforts to fix something that has been broken for long enough to have assumed the status of protected heritage.

Bravo! This is exactly the sort of argument one should expect from an individual who is responsible for the protection of our life and liberty.

So should this be the end of the debate? Is the Interior Minister correct in his preposterous reasoning? Does our State still distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ killings? If so, would the honourable Minister be kind enough to point to clauses of NAP that allow sectarian terrorism to be acceptable? Also, while on the point, would the honourable Minister like to suggest amendments to NAP so as to ensure that any bloodshed, once it has continued for longer than a specified period, should be accepted as part of our collective heritage?

Also, should we, as part of counter-terrorism philosophy, be forgiving of those who kill in the name of religious sectarianism? Should we accept them as legitimate forces, to be listened to and negotiated with? If so, should we all embrace this 1300 year old battle? Maybe even join it?

Or should we, instead, no longer take our counter-terrorism lessons from an Interior Minister who, per the Quetta Commission Report, has “displayed little sense of ministerial responsibility”, “called only one meeting of the Executive Committee of NACTA in over three and a half years”, “violated the decisions of the Executive Committee of NACTA”, “met the head of a proscribed organisation, widely reported in the media with his photograph, but still denied doing so”, “accepted the demands of the proscribed organisation regarding CNICs”, “inexplicably delayed in proscribing terrorist organisations”, and “not proscribed a well known terrorist organisation”?

There can be no denying the fact that religious sectarianism is alive and kicking in Pakistan. Over the past thirty years, ever since the first time ‘Kaafir! Kaafir! Shia Kaafir!’ was graffitied on a wall in Jhang, the State of Pakistan, and her people have been living (and dying) in the crossfire of a centuries-old battle that rests at the heart of Islamic ideology and way of life. It is true that our State and its institutions are probably not equipped to resolve the underlying theological and historical differences (which transcend our national boundaries and the empire of our Constitution); however, the State has a constitutional obligation to protect the life and property of its citizens, even while they may choose to disagree with each other on matters of faith.

This, in a country where almost eighty percent of the population prescribes to the Sunni schools of thought, has not been easy. In fact, successive political (and military) leadership in Pakistan (including PML-N) has had a sympathetic stance towards the fringe Sunni groups, some of which are militant in nature.

Resultantly, sectarian militancy has become bolder with each incremental kill. Simultaneously, the democratic empire of our state has shrunk to make space for militant fiefdoms. Mandatory constitutional command of Article 256, which prohibits “private organisation capable of functioning as a military organisation” has been surrendered at the altar of political expediency. And over time, a one-off target killing of Shia Muslims became indiscriminate firings at Imam Bargahs, and then finally mass massacres in the streets of Quetta and Shikarpur. To the point that these killings, carried out by bearded Pakistani citizens, who live in the heart of our urban and rural centers, is now an even graver existential threat to the life of our State, than the (somewhat) identifiable enemy who lives in the rugged mountains of the tribal belt.

The malady of this violence is no longer a localised cancer, contained in just a few pockets of the country. The poison, as a result of decades of duplicitous policies, has seeped into our societal bloodstream, and infects the entire national corpus. And, therefore, the treatment of this poisonous cancer cannot be done through localised surgical operations close to our borders; we need a counter-terrorism strategy that confronts and eliminates extremism in every street, corner, or mosque across our land.

Such a counter-terrorism strategy cannot be restricted to merely the legislative, administrative or military domain. Because the menace of extremism does not stem from our laws or policies: it emanates itself from a cultural ideology that views disagreement as animosity, and meets dissent with disdain. A culture that teaches us to confront fellow citizens as enemies – not to be met with cooperation, but instead with conquest. Not to be befriended, but instead to be subjugated and mastered.

Even today, while groups such as SSP, LeJ and ASWJ are banned in our laws, we make space for their sympathisers on our talk shows and political rallies. Even as we abhor the fanatical molvi who leads the Jumma prayer in our local mosque, we continue to tolerate his fiefdom at the corner of our street, just so long as he does not come barging into our homes.

This, and much more, is the real counter terrorism challenge in our country. We cannot wait, silently, as our esteemed Interior Minister comes around to this realisation. We cannot sit, impotently, while sectarian religious militants are re-packaged as legitimate forces in the state structure. In the final analysis of things, when we are asked to account for our time in this world, it will be no justification to say that we looked the other way. That we knew who the enemy was, and still welcomed it in our lives. That we did not kill, but only tolerated the murderer. That we did not become evil, only transacted with it.