AMONG the myriad security risks the country faces, perhaps few present as complex and serious a threat as the advent of Muharram, the first 10 days in particular.
It is an unfortunate fact that, even though the month is an important religious commemoration for millions of Pakistanis, we have become the kind of nation where the public expression of nearly any religious sentiment can become a matter of life and death. But that does not automatically mean that the citizenry must simply accept the risk of death or injury; what it should mean is that the state’s security apparatus take stringent measures to ensure a peaceful few weeks ahead.
Consider last year’s tragic events in Rawalpindi, which demonstrated that even the slightest lapse can result in violence. Standard operating procedure was not followed and few basic precautions were in evidence, so that rabble-rousers were able to inflame religious sentiment until violence broke out.
Were it not for draconian security measures in the aftermath and a localised curfew, the trouble in Rawalpindi could very easily have spread nationally.
From a security standpoint, the basic question is whether the right lessons have been learned. To be sure, not every Muharram has been punctuated by violence and the federal, provincial and military-run security and intelligence apparatus around the country does work in close coordination with Shia leaders and communities to ensure a vigilant peace. But each year brings its own set of new challenges.
This will be the first Muharram since the military operation in North Waziristan began and it is well-known that much of the militant ideology reflects a virulent sectarian strain.
Moreover, this will also be the first Muharram since the global debut of the self-styled Islamic State, and the sectarian-tinged struggles in the Middle East and Gulf countries do have some potential to spill over into Pakistan.
Finally, with civilian-military relations having plunged this year, is there the kind of coordination between military-run intelligence agencies and civilian-run law-enforcement agencies that will be necessary to keep the peace and act swiftly to prevent a major incident?
If the peace is to be kept and lives protected, the lead in the weeks ahead will have to be taken by the interior ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. But if planning, coordination and careful execution have been under way, they have not been visible to anyone outside the government.
The usual process is for Muharram to begin before a so-called urgent, high-level meeting is held to ostensibly review the security arrangements and for assurances to be given that peace will be maintained — until it isn’t. Ad hocism, last-minute arrangements, hoping for the best — real safety and security will only come when all of that changes.