A series of murderous attacks on members of the Shia community were unleashed in Kohistan, Karachi and Quetta last week. Those killed in the Kohistan incident were headed home for Eid with their families in various parts of Gilgit-Baltistan where I’ve been travelling this past month. From the scenic jungle of Rama, against the advice of the manager of the motel where I was staying, I decided to come 11 kilometres downhill to the town of Astore where eight dead bodies had arrived. The small town was quiet and subdued. Better sense had prevailed and after an emotional protest, the dead were taken to nearby villages for burial, I was told. There are reasons to worry though.

Traditionally, different religious communities have lived in harmony in Gilgit-Baltistan and Astore is no different. People in general are tolerant and are not easily provoked by such targeted acts of terrorism. However, it would be naïve to think that the repeated occurrence of such incidents is not taking its toll on the public. The timely intervention of local administration in Astore, which contacted the religious leaders of the two main sects immediately after the incident and brought them round to announcing sectarian solidarity in face of this recent act of terrorism, was extremely helpful in diffusing a situation that had the potential of developing into something more serious. Despite these efforts, the community elders and some sensible people had to rein in certain charged elements to avert clashes at a couple of places. Besides, administrative measures are at best good only for the short-term. The challenge is essentially political and social.

In Astore, and in other places in the region that I have so far visited, the spirit of tolerance is remarkable, yet one can sense a growing division among the main sects. While no one advocates violence against the other sect, people are generally more aware of sectarian identities and differences than they were when I visited the region last year. Talking to the people one realises that much of this sense of otherness comes from sectarian indoctrination and the way the incidents of targeted terrorism have been interpreted by the sectarian leadership. In Chilas, the people I spoke with told me that the shameful incident when some locals stopped a bus and killed innocent members of the Shia community last December was fuelled by a handful of firebrands. An SMS was circulated that falsely claimed that 20 people from Chilas had been killed in the grenade attack on a Sunni procession in Gilgit, and it exhorted the faithful to rise to defend their faith.

In Astore, the sectarian leadership seems to be fanning the growing sense of alienation among the Shia community and it can be gauged from the ultimatum that the protest gathering in Astore issued to the government in case it failed to meet its set of demands; that they would announce a long march to a country where they are safe, clearly meaning India that is not very far away. Why would the sect-obsessed religious leadership go that far and choose to give a sectarian colour to what is clearly an act of terrorism? Many educated people here feel that it adds to their power over a simple, poor and illiterate population that has an emotional relationship with their religion. In any case, the sectarian leadership is playing into the hands of the terrorists whose aim is to create sectarian strife in the country.

The political leadership, on the other hand, has utterly failed to stem this trend of growing sectarian division, and give some sense of security to the Shia community that has been the main victim of these targeted acts of terrorism. It seems to be oblivious of their alienation and has not come up with a powerful political response that unites the people against a common enemy. There is no initiative to monitor the sectarian leadership and their sources of funding. Many people feel that the evil game of pitting one sect against the other is an old imperial game. They point at what has happened in the Middle East in recent times. A local correspondent of a news channel told me that according to a survivor of the Kohistan incident, the terrorists carried sophisticated communication technology. Why has this bit of information evaded our Interior Minister Rehman Malik?

The situation also calls for a fresh assessment of the way our society tolerates the distortion of Islam, whether at the hands of sectarian leaders and their extremist and exclusionary doctrines or our profit-obsessed media. During Ramazan, a month that teaches us simplicity and control over our worldly desires, television channels bombard us with endless advertisements showing lavish iftars and special shows with elaborate set designs and hosts in glittery designer wear. Weeks before Eid, the main news bulletins carry stories of special preparations focusing on clothes, bangles, mehndi and beauty parlours, as if this is what the month of fasting is about. What about all the people who cannot afford these things? Aren’t they the ones that Ramazan teaches us to care about?

Surely, we cannot put the entire blame for the growing sectarian divisions on terrorists. As a nation, we all must accept the responsibility of creating a society that is fertile ground for exploitation by them. We must revisit our notions about Islam and what it stands for, and stand guard against those among us who, in the name of religion, are taking us very far from it.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: hazirjalees@hotmail.com