Tragedies that expose Pakistan’s faultlines

As polarisation deepens in Pakistan, national tragedies attract both cheers and mourning.

Pakistan Celebrates Independence Day
A man walks with a Pakistan National flag, as people gather at Seaview waterfront to celebrate Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14, 2011 in Karachi, Pakistan [Getty]

Tragedies, it is said, tend to unite nations. In Pakistan, each tragedy exposes the faultlines and polarisation in society. Every few months a bloody reminder of the divisions racking the 180 million-strong South Asia nuclear-armed state is served. Junaid Jamshed was the latest.

The 52-year-old pop-icon-turned-preacher was among the 48 passengers and crew who died when Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-661 crashed some 20 minutes after taking off from Chitral in northern Pakistan on December 7.

Soon after the news surfaced, as social media timelines started to fill with messages expressing shock and horror and offering condolences to the victims’ families, the mood started to change.

Enduring divisions

While one set of social media users started to focus on Jamshed’s career as a pop star, once the lead singer of the group Vital Signs credited with an iconic national song Dil, dil Pakistan (Pakistan in every heart) in 1987 – the song was voted the third most popular worldwide in a BBC World Service poll in 2003 – others started to attack them, saying his later life as a bearded and “pious” Islamic proselytiser-preacher should have been the focus of attention.

This second group saw his life as a born-again Muslim as a renunciation of his earlier one. Jamshed recorded albums and videos and did live tours as a pop star, before being attracted to the faith and joining the ranks of the Tablighi Jamaat, an orthodox Muslim group that propagates its interpretation of Islamic tenets via congregations and door-to-door visits.

Finally, someone came up with a 2014 Tweet from Jamshed himself in which he said he didn’t “hate” his previous life even though he may have given such an impression at times. That quietened that particular debate somewhat.

But every kind of prejudice seems to have made a home in Pakistan thanks to the divisive “Islamisation” programme of military dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who saw religion as a convenient tool to justify his usurpation of power.

Zia may have lasted a little over 11 years in power before being killed in a plane crash, but the seeds of division he sowed will continue to polarise Pakistani society for years to come.

Chain of events

Belonging to the Deobandi school of thought, Jamshed gave a sermon which offended some representatives of the dominant Barelvi school, forcing him to go into hiding in 2014.

He lived in exile for a bit after he faced a blasphemy charge. He then sought “forgiveness” and returned to his proselytising and business empire led by a branded clothing line.

In March this year, he was attacked at Islamabad airport by Barelvi activists who accused him of blasphemy. They were identified and charged with the crime because they were foolhardy enough to upload a video of the episode on social media.


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a manifestation of the intolerance of the Zia years where no attempt was spared to fragment society and minimise potential challenges to the general’s rule.”]

His Barelvi attackers had travelled from Karachi to Islamabad to pay tributes at the graveside of Mumtaz Qadri, the police protection squad member who was tried and executed in February 2016 for the 2011 murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Qadri is buried in his village near the capital.

Governor Taseer was shot dead by Qadri, a Barelvi member of his police squad, after being accused of blasphemy by certain Barelvi followers who whipped up hysteria only because the governor had tried to secure a presidential pardon for Asia Bibi, an illiterate Christian woman, sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Many lawyers believe she was convicted mainly due to poor, inadequate legal defence. She has now spent nearly a decade in jail. Her appeal is currently being heard by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

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Secular Taseer and deeply religious Jamshed both earned the wrath of the Barelvis, largely seen as moderates, for perceived blasphemy. As news of Jamshed’s death broke, some Barelvis were expressing joy over his death on Twitter and Facebook and celebrating his “journey to hell”.

All this happened in Pakistan, where most violent incidents and even terrorist attacks are claimed by groups closely associated with the Deobandi ideology rather than the Barelvi school. Tehrik-e-Taliban is said to follow the Deobandi school, for example.

Other innocents killed

The murder of provocative social media figure and aspiring showbiz star, Qandeel Baloch at the hands of her own brother in the name of honour, after she engaged in a discussion with a religious scholar Mufti Abdul Qavi at a planned encounter was another link in the same chain.

A video of that particular encounter was placed on social media. That the scholar was not blamed by anyone (apart for a handful of liberals) for meeting Baloch in a hotel room to “convert” her and offer his hand in marriage to a woman probably less than half his age was typical of both the polarisation and hypocrisy of Pakistan.

The murder of the famous and loved Qawwal, Amjad Sabri, a devotional Sufi singer, was again a manifestation of the intolerance of the Zia years where no attempt was spared to fragment society and minimise potential challenges to the general’s rule.

The motive for his murder in June this year was not known until the arrest last month of a man described by police as sectarian hitman who reportedly confessed to killing Sabri, a Sunni Muslim, because he attended “majalis”, congregations of Shia Muslims.

As the world moves into the 21st century, many Pakistanis worry where they are headed with few attempts to heal the rifts and bridge the divisions. Almost everyone agrees robust enforcement of laws, including those on hate speech, can curb such madness, but unfortunately we have seen little political will to do so.

Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Pakistan’s English language newspaper Dawn and former executive editor at BBC Asia-Pacific region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.