It is not a fairytale. Not very long ago, Muharram was not the season of sectarian violence and mayhem; people of all sects would attend the Majalis under the same roof to pay homage to the great martyrs of Islam. While the Shias would move in processions, the Sunnis would line up along the routes and manage the sabeels. Indeed, the rise of sectarian violence in Pakistan is a recent phenomenon.

Pakistanis are not sectarian-minded and for most of the country’s history, people of different sects have co-existed peacefully. Nevertheless, sectarian scourge in its current form is certainly deep-rooted and cannot be eliminated easily. It is being systematically fanned by misguided adventurers and religious bigots. An unfortunate combination of vested interests, misplaced policies and discriminatory laws has drastically reduced the scope for a religiously tolerant state and society in Pakistan.

Communalism, religious intolerance and sectarian violence are ugly scars on the face of any society; these are certainly an anti-thesis to the teachings of Islam. The word ‘Islam’ means peace and harmony. As a matter of doctrine, it forbids bigotry and fanaticism. What to talk of intra-Islam harmony, it pursues generosity and tolerance towards the followers of other religions as well. It is interesting to refer to Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947: “… are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship…....You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” This speech came under similar circumstances when post-partition communal violence was at its peak.

The expanse of sectarian extremism has enhanced over the last three to four decades. Earlier, it was confined to rural pockets; now it haunts major metropolitan centres as well. In good old days, sectarian violence used to spark up spontaneously and then subside quickly to give way to peace. Now it is a perpetual activity spanning over the entire year.

The older version of extremism was a reactive response to objectionable utterances or actions of rival sect, now it is a proactive and premeditated activity, incorporating a shade of battles for turf. Earlier, weapons were glass bottles and knives, now we face grenades and bombs.

Another factor sustaining the sectarian intolerance is its politicisation. Sectarian parties have entered the arena of politics; clerics contest elections on sectarian, rather than Islamic basis. Sectarian intolerance is now the springboard for political dividend. Even mainstream political parties like to have electoral adjustment with sectarian clerics-turned politicians.

The conflict between sectarian groups is not merely ideological; often it is impelled by the desire to obtain political power. Undue patronage of the clergy by various governments has steadily raised their public profile and influence, culminating in a larger than life political clout of sectarian parties.

Yet another cause is dominance of orthodoxy in the religious scholarship and their acceptance as an authority on religion. While orthodoxy holds the sway; mainstream clergy stands marginalised. Peripheral theological debates provide the basis for volatile divisions. As a result, healthy academic discourse has been replaced by militancy.

Of late, a dangerous trend has emerged whereby sectarian groups are playing an increased role in fuelling the insurgencies in Balochistan and Fata. Most of the extremist outfits either have well-thought-out linkages with terrorist organisations or they are unwittingly strengthening their agenda. Acts of violence by sectarian organisations are reinforcing the global perception of equating Islam with militancy and terrorism.

It is an oversimplification to attribute the mushrooming of sectarian violence as a spinoff of the Afghan jihad or the Islamisation effort by President Ziaul Haq. Afghanistan, where successive wars have destroyed the physical infrastructure and the social fabric, sectarianism is much more contained than in Pakistan.

While challenging institutionalised sectarianism is certainly not easy, strengthening the common cultural heritage of Pakistani people offers a less-confrontational way to reverse the trend. The compulsions fuelling religious conflicts are surely complex. They have multiple negative implications. At the same time, this is not a problem that will go away on its own. It needs to be confronted head-on!

The government, civil society, political parties and media have critical roles to play in countering trends through the promotion of religious freedom, social harmony and protection of divergent opinion holders. The blame for the current situation falls squarely on successive governments. The strategy to tackle sectarian extremism has always been reactive than proactive; i.e. it has always been about damage control. Successive governments have seldom been serious to arrest the steady rise of sectarian extremism.

It is high time that Pakistan comes up with a well-thought-out national strategy to tackle sectarian extremism. The government cannot contain religious extremism and violence by simply issuing executive orders. It requires a comprehensive approach that entails monitoring supporters of the militant groups, curtailing their societal sources of support, and taking appropriate action against the hardcore sectarian militants. The government must also adopt measures to address socio-economic inequities. Unless poverty and underdevelopment are addressed effectively, ideological appeals and militancy will continue to attract the alienated youth.

The problem, which has taken roots over a couple of decades, may not necessarily take as long to eradicate. It is, however, essential that the effort to tackle the sectarian violence begins immediately. This effort must be underwritten by unwavering political will, and a long-term strategy. Mere cosmetic measures won’t achieve much beyond patchy pauses of calm.

The writer is a retired Air Commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.