Martin Parsons has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject.
On Sunday, two suicide bombers targeted all Saints Church in Peshawar, resulting in a death toll so far of more than 85 with at least 140 others injured. The bombing for which the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility potentially represents a new and more deadly stage in Islamist terrorism, and also illustrates the likely results of appeasing Islamism. The bombing is also personal for me. I used to live in Peshawar and counted many Pakistani Christians as my friends.
The terrorist attack
All Saints Church is situated in the old City area of Peshawar, it is surrounded by a high wall with a narrow gate with a small area of grass inside in front of the church. The bombers appear to have gained access to this and detonated explosives packed with ball bearings as worshippers were leaving Sunday’s communion service, a time when a meal of rice was normally served. Monday’s Pakistani press such as the English language Dawn contain graphic pictures of the aftermath of the attack. With many of the congregation coming from the poorest levels of society, this was a not to be missed meal. For many local Christians it was also their last, something that highlights the cynical targeting of this congregation.
A new stage in Islamist terrorism
It also appears to represent a new stage in Islamist terrorism. Al Qaeda-type Islamist terrorist groups see their jihad campaign as having various stages in achieving their ultimate aim of seeing Islamic government and law (i.e. sharia) enforced on the entire world. However, intelligence reports over the last ten years or so have suggested that while Islamist terrorists saw anyone they suspected of engaging in missionary activity as a potential target, they had ‘not yet reached the stage of jihad’ where they specifically targeted local Christians. However, the specific targeting of All Saints Church in Peshawar suggests that this is no longer the case. The church is less western than probably any other church in Pakistan. It was built in 1883 as an outstanding example of how Christianity could be separated from western culture and contextualised in relation to local culture. In many respects its architecture more closely resembles a mosque than a typical church, with the Arabic inscriptions that normally characterise the inside of a mosque replaced with texts in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Old and New Testaments. It was one of the very first churches in the region to have an Indian minister and today has a congregation almost exclusively drawn from the local Pakistani Christian community which numbers around 15,000 in Pakhtunkhwa Province, previously known as the North West Frontier Province. Whilst there have been significant levels of violence directed against Pakistani Christian communities in recent years, such as two attacks on Joseph Colony in Lahore earlier this year when more than 170 Christian homes were torched by a Muslim mob, these have been more in the nature of mob violence often whipped up by extremist local mosque preachers, rather than any sort of pre planned terrorist attack. Similarly, while there was a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad in 2002, this was on an English medium expatriate church, not on a Pakistani congregation. Sunday’s terrorist attack on All Saints Church Peshawar appears to be the first deliberate targeting of a Pakistani congregation by terrorists and as such seems to represent a new and deadly stage in the development of Islamist terrorism.
The folly of appeasing Islamism
The attack also illustrates the folly of appeasing Islamism. Recently, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Islamist Pakistan Muslim League (N) announced plans to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban. Immediately following the attack responsibility was claimed by elements of the Pakistani Taliban, an alliance of around 30 Islamist terrorist groups who are primarily based in Pakhtunkhwa Province and the neighbouring tribal region. The Pakistani Taliban justified the attack on Pakistani Christians stating: “They (i.e. Pakistani Christians) are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them. We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.”
Viewed in this light the attack appears to be a clear signal from the Pakistani Taliban, that one of their demands in any negotiations with the Pakistani government will be the closure of Christian churches within Pakhtunkhwa Province, if not the removal of the entire Christian population from the province itself.
Judging by his comments in the local Frontier Post, Sharif himself saw all too clearly the connection between his offer to negotiate with the Taliban and the attack on the province’s oldest Christian church. In other words far from preventing terrorism, Sharif’s offer to negotiate with the Taliban has actually emboldened them to engage in even more deadly acts of terrorism that appear designed to drive the Christian minority out of Pakhtunkhwa Province itself.
Immediately following the attacks, Sharif raised a question as to whether the attack might jeopardise talks with the Pakistani Taliban. However, given the despair in the country at his government’s inability to deal with the violence, it is unclear how much weight should be given to this statement. Whilst, Sharif, a wealthy industrialist is no friend of the Taliban, he has himself been a key figure in the Islamisation of the country since the days of the late General Zia al Haq who introduced sharia enforcement into the then predominantly British style legal system.
It is therefore essential that at this time the British and other western governments make absolutely clear to Sharif that any negotiation with the Taliban can only bring further violence and suffering and should be resisted.