Death of a Singer – Guest Comment OP/ED

Amjad Sabri, a celebrated qawwali singer, is the latest victim of the Taliban’s war on plurality in Pakistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has claimed responsibility for Sabri’s murder in Karachi on Wednesday, has said the group considers his music blasphemous. The reason lies in the Taliban’s own ideological moorings. Qawwali is part of a Sufi tradition that binds not only Muslims across South Asia, but people of other faiths too. It is indeed the most vibrant iteration of the subcontinent’s syncretism. The TTP, steeped in an extremist, fundamentalist approach to religion and society, has long made known its displeasure against both music and the Sufis. Being part of the well-known Sabri family tradition, Amjad clearly was a target. His murder is also in line with the new tactical use of violence by the TTP. Of late, the group has turned its focus from large-scale attacks in public places to targeted killings. A day before Sabri was shot, an Ahmadi doctor was killed in Karachi. Last month, a rights activist who was critical of Islamist extremism met the same fate.

Be it large-scale attacks or targeted killings, the goal remains the same. The TTP wants to inflame sectarian passions that it could exploit to find recruits among the radicalised sections. Such attacks could also trigger fear among the public, particularly among critics of the Taliban brand of Islam, and create security challenges to the authorities. Unlike major attacks in public places, targeted killings are unlikely to attract a massive security crackdown on militants. The TTP may have learnt this lesson after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, which forced the Pakistani security establishment to turn against the militants. In the ensuing battle the TTP was badly weakened, though its capacity to strike is still formidable. It remains a threat to both the Pakistani state and society. The question is whether the authorities have an effective counter-strategy to stop them. Fighting radicalisation is key to this. But the increasing use of the controversial blasphemy law under the watch of the state betrays reticence, or fear, on the part of politicians and institutions in fighting radicalisation. Even Sabri had faced a blasphemy case two years ago over his songs. Second, Karachi is known for violent crimes. Though there was a government sweep in 2013, militant groups are clearly still active in the city. Third, the Pakistan army’s approach towards the Taliban is complicated. It is fighting the TTP on the Pakistani side, but maintains good ties with the Afghan Taliban on the other side of the border.

This dual approach is self-defeating in any meaningful fight against extremism.


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