Easter Slaughter Tests Sharif's Push for a More Liberal Pakistan

  • Sharif has backed moves to support women, religious minorities
  • Attack hits heart of Sharif's political stronghold in Punjab

Nawaz Sharif.

Source: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The suicide bomber who slaughtered dozens of Pakistanis enjoying a day in the park to celebrate Easter Sunday probably had another target: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s vision of a more liberal, inclusive democracy in the Muslim-majority nation.

As of mid-Monday, 72 people were dead, including many women and children. Scores more were fighting for their lives in hospitals throughout Lahore, the biggest city in Punjab and Sharif’s hometown.

QuickTake Pakistan's Turmoil

The attack was the deadliest since Taliban fighters entered an army school in December 2014 and massacred 134 students, shooting some point blank in the head. That strike prompted Sharif and military leaders to enact new measures to fight terrorists, leading to a reduction in violence that helped spur investor interest in the frontier economy.

The latest bloodbath represents another pivot point for Sharif. In recent months he’s called for a more "educated, progressive, forward-looking" Pakistan, a country created for Muslims following independence from the British in 1947. In doing so, he’s backed moves to improve the lives of women and religious minorities -- including Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims -- who have been frequent targets of sectarian violence.

"Sharif seems to have taken some steps which the terrorists clearly are angered by," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani author and former parliament member. "The terrorists are continuing their quest to purify Pakistan of all religious minorities and those who don’t conform to their limited vision."

Sharif condemned so-called honor killings as a "dark side" of Pakistani society, and lawmakers in his political base of Punjab are backing a bill to protect women. His government also unblocked Youtube and agreed to allow Easter and the traditional Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi as public holidays.

Blasphemy Law

Perhaps most significantly, his government in February executed Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who shot a former Punjab governor in 2011 after the official sought to ease the country’s controversial blasphemy law. As rescuers raced to save victims of Sunday’s terrorist attack, police in Islamabad clashed with Qadri sympathizers who wanted Sharif to adopt Islamic Shariah law.

"Sharif is suffering a blow back," said Rohan Gunaratna, who runs the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. "Pakistan is today a victim of terrorism, and the world needs to understand that without constantly accusing it of being a perpetrator of terrorism."

Pakistan has seen more than 60,000 people die from terrorism since 2001, as Taliban insurgents based in the mountainous areas near Afghanistan look to overthrow democracy and implement Islamic Shariah law.

‘Uprooted and Destroyed’

Yet despite the heavy death toll, Pakistan has struggled to convince the world that it’s really serious about eliminating all terrorist groups. The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, has long used extremist groups as strategic assets against arch rival India to the east and Afghanistan to the west.

Sharif himself has also relied on support from conservative elements in society to win elections. Punjab, which is governed by Sharif’s younger brother, has failed to take serious action against jihadist groups, according to Ikram Sehgal, a former military official and chairman of the Pathfinder Group, one of Pakistan’s largest security companies.

"There is a complete network that has to be uprooted and destroyed," Sehgal said by phone. "The Punjab government talks a lot but there’s no action. Unless you move against jihadis, their hideouts, their logistics, their personnel, their contacts, their complete network -- these things will keep going on."

Sharif vowed to do just that on Monday. The army conducted raids in cities throughout Punjab, arresting suspected terrorists and recovering weapons.

"Our goal is not only to eliminate terror infrastructure but also the extremist mindset which is a threat to our way of life," Sharif said in a statement on Monday after reviewing security in Lahore. "We must take this war to the doors of terrorist outfits before they are able to hit our innocent country men."

Whether he follows through, however, remains an open question. Pakistan has been accused time and again of tolerating militants who attack its neighbors while fighting back against those that strike within the country.

Ispahani, the former lawmaker who wrote a book on persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan, is skeptical.

“There is no sign that the military strategic calculation has changed," she said. “It is still dissipating energies cornering secular and ethnic political forces instead of single-mindedly confronting jihadi groups."

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