Pakistan has been shaken by a suicide blast in the eastern city of Lahore and a violent right-wing protest in the capital Islamabad. Where is the country headed? Experts say this is likely just a taste of what's to come.
The two events simultaneously unfolded in Pakistan on Sunday, March 27. A suicide bomber belonging to a Pakistani Taliban group targeted a public park in the eastern city of Lahore killing at least 65 people, mostly women and children. The militant Jamaat-ul-Ahrar organization said its target was Christians who were celebrating Easter in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. It was not the first time the South Asian country's minority community has been attacked.
On the same day, thousands of supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, an extremist who was hanged last month for killing a former provincial governor, stormed the capital Islamabad and clashed with police outside of parliament. They were protesting against Qadri's execution and demanding the imposition of the Shariah law in the capital. The situation became so volatile that the government had to seek the military's help to control right-wing extremists, who have now staged a sit-in outside the parliament.
The two events are inextricably linked, say observers. The nuclear-armed Pakistani state is increasingly falling into the hands of Islamist extremists. Efforts by the Pakistani government and military to eradicate home-grown terrorism have so far failed, despite claims that an ongoing military operation has defeated the Taliban and other militant groups.
No city is safe
The Islamists' attack on Lahore was a strategic one. The city is a political stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and one of the most secure in the country.
"We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore," Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson for the militant group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, said in a statement on Sunday.
By attacking Lahore and Islamabad - which are not situated in the country's volatile northwestern areas - the militants are trying to send a strong signal that they can attack anywhere in the country, at any time, and there is nothing the government can do to stop them.
Meanwhile, observers say there is growing public support for militant Islam.
"You cannot separate what happened in Lahore and what is unfolding in Islamabad," Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani analyst and Geo TV journalist, told DW. "The extremism in Pakistan has two faces: militant and civilian. The Lahore attack was carried out by militant Islamists, and the riots in Islamabad are being unleashed by civilian Islamists. Both are extremely powerful in Pakistan."
Is Sharif's government a target?
Farooqi believes the latest onslaught is well-planned. Islamic extremists are outraged by PM Sharif's India-friendly policies and a number of liberal legislations that the Pakistanti government has introduced, he said.
"It is obvious that Islamists want to destabilize Sharif's government. He was brave enough to hang Mumtaz Qadri despite immense right-wing opposition, and passed pro-women legislation in parliament. Also, his closeness to India is irking Islamic extremists," Farooqi underlined.
It is likely that the army generals want to weaken Sharif's government by supporting Islamists, some analysts claim. The military does not want cordial Indo-Pakistani ties.
"Sharif has understood that liberal economic policies and good relations with neighboring countries is the only way forward for Pakistan. But there are institutions and groups in Pakistan which do not agree with this approach," said Farooqi.
He believes that the government is already on the edge and has conceded much of its power to the army. Despite that, most people are not blaming the military for the current situation but the civilian government.
Military's upper hand
Pakistan has been the target of militant attacks for years, especially in the restive tribal region along the Afghan border. The government has stepped up operations against militants following a Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed 134 children.
Sharif, who once had close ties with Islamist groups, has distanced himself from Islamic extremists over the years. The same thing cannot be said about the country's army. Analysts say the military still considers Islamist organizations a strong ally in relation to its anti-India policies and its need to create a "strategic depth" in neighboring Afghanistan.
For that reason, the Pakistani military believes that operations against militants should be selective. Certain groups, which are thought to be against the state, are targeted, but the rest of the groups are pretty much pardoned. Observers say that if the authorities continue to undertake selective operations and distinguish between the "good Taliban and the bad Taliban," terrorist attacks will not halt.
However, the chairperson of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission (HRCP), Zohra Yusuf, blames the political leadership for not taking advantage of the political consensus against Islamist militancy and surrendering their powers to the army. "It is unfortunate that the nationwide resolve against the Taliban and other extremist groups did not translate into political action. It remained a military affair," Yusuf told DW.
Apart from the threat from the Taliban, the Middle-Eastern Islamist group "Islamic State" (IS) is expanding in Afghanistan and is also increasing its presence in Pakistan. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which claimed the responsibility for the Lahore attack, swore allegiance to IS in September 2014. A number of other Taliban splinter groups have also joined the IS ranks.
"IS and the Taliban are very different ideologically and culturally. In Pakistan, however, they could find some supporters, and they already have," Wahid Mazhda, an expert on the Taliban in Kabul, told DW.
If this is the case, Pakistani authorities need to immediately revise their policies regarding militant Islamism. The Lahore bombing could just be the beginning of an Islamist take over of the country, say observers.
But Amin Mughal, a Pakistani journalist and scholar in London, believes it is high time that Pakistani rulers changed the game. He said that the policy of supporting Islamist groups had backfired and that the Pakistani state is no longer in a position to control the situation.
"It is a logical consequence of state policies which are based on religion," Mughal told DW, adding that the only way out of the crisis was for "true secular parties" to come to power and change the course of state affairs.