Monday, January 4, 2010

Terrorist Attacks Widen Pakistan's Fault-lines

The WaPo's Pamela Constable reports from Karachi on how a terrorist attack on a Shii religious procession has threatened to widen fault lines between ethnic and sectarian communities there.
With one strategic blast, the attackers added a volatile new ingredient to the cauldron of ethnic and sectarian tensions, political brawls, business mafia rivalries, and street crime that simmers in this metropolis of 18 million. Although these conflicts periodically erupt into violence, they have rarely disrupted the purposeful hum or resilience of city life.

This time, the destruction triggered by the explosion was so shocking and affected so many interest groups that the entire city went on strike Friday, uniting in an act of peaceful protest. The normally clogged boulevards and teeming bazaars were silent; the swank seaside eateries were empty. Even the Karachi stock exchange shut down instead of grandly opening for New Year's Day. . . .

With few solid facts emerging, the devastation has also provided tinder for conspiracy theories to suit the agendas of every religious, ethnic and political group in the complex, fragile mosaic of Karachi society. They range from accusations of economic sabotage by property owners to wild speculation of international plots by Western and anti-Muslim powers.

Some groups have accused Shiite militants of using their holy day to create chaos, saying fire accelerants were hidden inside religious cloths. Shiite leaders insist that most mourners continued with their procession after the bombing, while the looting and arson broke out many blocks behind. They assert that the attackers were trying to provoke sectarian divisions among Shiites and Sunnis, backed by a conspiracy of Western interests.

Doesn't this sound eerily familiar to Iraq, starting in 2004?  How terror attacks ratcheted up distrust between communities with already long histories of mutual grievance, leading eventually to the Sunni bombing of the Shii al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, which led to what was essentially a civil war that left tens of thousands dead?  Iraq has never truly recovered from that time, at least from the standpoint of trust being restored between Shii and Sunni.

And Pakistan seems to have at least as many potential fault-lines as does Iraq: among them, Sunni v. Shii, as well as regional/ethnic lines involving Pashtuns, Punjabis, Baluchs, Sindhis, Mohajir.  As Constable's report indicates, there surely are many in Pakistan who want to preserve ethnic unity.  But in 2004, there were many in Iraq of similar good will.

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