KARACHI, Pakistan — “We live in a kingdom of fear, fortified by religious extremism and intolerance,” columnist Ghazi Salahiddin recently wrote in The News on Sunday, one of Pakistan’s leading English-language newspapers.
Such hyperbole reinforces stereotypes about Pakistan. But sometimes, stereotypes contain more than a grain of truth.
This port city is Pakistan’s business and media capital. It is also one of the most violent cities in the world. To give you some sense: a recent crime log in The Express Tribune newspaper was headlined “grenade attacks and encounters.”
These are the kinds of “encounters” you don’t want to have. They included the ambush of a convoy carrying the city’s chief of counterterrorism; the attempted assassination of another government official; nine other targeted killings; a grenade attack on a bus stop; and a shoot-out that killed four armed militants.
Oh, and a guy was burned alive by an angry crowd after he shot a policeman.
Just another day in paradise.
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With America’s impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistanis are shifting their focus from the US military presence to their own internal problems, much of them fueled by regional geopolitics. At the top of the list: homegrown violence that continues to wrack the nation, epitomized by a massacre of 42 Ismaili Muslims in a Karachi bus attack this month.
Some of the violence involves crime gangs; some battles between political factions or, as in the case of the murders of the Ismailis, religious sects. But the motive behind a portion of the violence reaches beyond those boundaries.
And that’s where things get complicated.
A wave of targeted assassinations in Karachi in recent weeks has shaken Pakistan’s intelligentsia. Among those killed were a university professor, the owner of a bookshop that hosted frequent free speech events, and the marketing manager of one of the largest media groups. An American medical school administrator was also shot and wounded.
Among the educated elite, conversations inevitably include speculation about who was behind the killings. As columnist Saroop Ijaz wrote in The Express Tribune, “Public and private conversations in Pakistan have been reduced to obituaries.”
Conspiracy theories abound; the more Machiavellian, the better. They can make your head spin.
A dominant line of speculation involves the rebellious province of Baluchistan, where the military has used brutal tactics to put down an insurgency.
China is building a major port there, which threatens the efficacy of rival ports in Iran, India and the Arabian Gulf, and gives the Chinese Navy a base less than 200 miles from the strategic Straits of Hormuz — not something very attractive to US military strategists. All of those governments are alleged to be stirring the pot.
The bookstore owner, Sabeen Mahmud, had hosted a controversial talk on Baluchi human rights just hours before her assassination. Many liberal activists immediately pointed fingers toward the military’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) arm, frequently blamed for attacks on, and threats against, activists and journalists treading where they should not.
Others say it was the Baluch rebels trying to make it look like the military was responsible. The ISI’s commanders, these people say, are too smart to kill someone in a way that so obviously points back to them.
“There are 10 ways to intimidate without killing,” Azhar Abbas, the top news executive at the new Bol television channel, says, arguing that it would be counterproductive for the military to stage such a high-profile assassination. “By this murder,” the Baluchi issue “got more publicity than from the talk itself.”
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Former television host and liberal activist Qatrina Hosain sees the situation very differently. “Would the ISI be stupid enough to do this right after the talk? Yes, because it’s blatant and aggressive. The message has gone out loud and clear to the [activist] community.”
Shema Kermani, a liberal activist who was a close friend of the murdered bookstore owner, rejects both the ISI and Baluch connections. She blames the Pakistani Taliban and its militant allies: “These are the stakeholders who want to keep Pakistan very, very conservative, very right wing and move it towards a Saudi Arabian system.”
Islamist militants. Sectarian rivalries. Gangs associated with the political party that controls Karachi. A “foreign hand.” Unnamed “dark forces.” They’ve all been blamed in the wave of killings.
And that is precisely the point: the politics of fear.
“If you don’t know who your enemy is…” said Qatrina Hosain, her voice trailing off. “There are very few of us [in the activist community]. We can all be picked off one by one.”
Emblematic of the swirling mysteries is the assassination of Waheed ur Rehman, a University of Karachi professor, who was sprayed with bullets by gunmen on motorcycles in late April. Police now say the killing was “blind murder” — in other words, they’ve given up looking for a culprit, which has not satisfied many of his colleagues. Some believe the murder is linked to the fact that he was a friend of the liberal dean of Islamic Studies at the same university, who was assassinated a few weeks before Rehman’s own murder. The dean had been accused of blasphemy.
Others blame Rehman’s death on internecine conflict between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a political party that dominates Karachi and is accused by the military of maintaining its own armed wing — MQM "categorically" denies this — and Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society), an Islamist group that controls the mass communication department at the University of Karachi, where Rehman was a professor. Still others accuse another militant group called Jundallah (Party of God) for Rehman’s death. Jundallah has its roots in the Baluch conflict, which brings us right back to that restive province and regional power politics.
Pakistani authorities last week arrested four “terrorists” it claimed were involved in both the bus attack and Sabeen Mahmud’s murder — one of whom was a graduate of the University of Karachi — raising the possibility of a connection to the Rehman killing as well, but they did not say with which faction they were allied.
Meanwhile, the shooting of the marketing director at the Dawn newspaper group, found dead in his car, and the American educator, wounded as she was walking home, remain mysteries. That contributes to the sense of fear, even among those who are not overtly political or working in the media.
“People in our community are very concerned, and they should be,” says Seeminaghmana Tahir, a professor at the Federal Urdu University.
Adds one of her colleagues, “The low level of anxiety we all feel has kicked up a notch. We all think we’re going to be next.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include MQM response regarding militants within its political ranks.
Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, is a veteran foreign correspondent. His books include “The New Arab Journalist” and “Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas.”