Lahore bombing should not be defined as an Easter attack

Published: April 22, 2016
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She tweets @MadihaAfzal

The deadly, heart-wrenching Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park attack of March 27 — referred to as “Saniha Lahore” or “Saniha Gulshan” in Pakistan — became known around the world as the Lahore Easter bombing. It garnered a great deal of global attention. Not as much as Paris or Brussels, but more than most attacks in Pakistan, second only to the Army Public School attack in Peshawar. In a time of ubiquitous social media and heightened sensitivities, the world’s attention on Paris and Brussels ruffled feathers in countries that deal with terror on a daily basis. Then came the Lahore attack, which was mourned globally. Why? Surely because the victims were children and families out on a weekend evening at a public park. Who wouldn’t be horrified by the thought of a suicide bomber near a children’s joyride? Maybe because the attack occurred in relatively secure, prosperous and politically important Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital?

But was it also mourned the way it was because it was called the Easter attack? Defined that way, it fit neatly into Pakistan’s stereotypical image as a place that is abysmal for minorities. International media reporting tended to focus on the Christian targets of the Lahore bombing. A CNN headline incorrectly said that the attack killed “scores of Christians”. The Economist also misleadingly wrote that many of the victims were Christians.

Of course, the attack occurred on Easter Sunday, and the attackers, the Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, identified Christians as the target of the attack. And many Christian families celebrating Easter were in the park that evening. Christians — who form one to two per cent of Pakistan’s population — were 20 to 25 per cent of the dead. They suffered disproportionately high losses relative to their numbers in the population. But the majority killed in the attack were Muslims. If Christians were the targets, you say, does it matter who the majority of the victims were? Who gets to define how an attack is characterised?

In a world where sound bytes and hashtags come to signify the import of a complex event, the characterisation of an attack does matter. And the world does not get to define the Lahore attack as the Easter bombing. The bombing of March 2016 in Lahore, more than anything, was an attack on the neighbourhood of Allama Iqbal Town, and on those in Lahore, the city of beautiful gardens, who dare to consider public spaces safe and to seek respite and enjoyment in such places. It was an attack on Christians and Muslims, on Iqbal’s and Jinnah’s idea of a Pakistan where communities can coexist.

Most of all, it was an attack on Pakistan’s poor, as most of the terror that has struck the country over the past decade has been. Terrorists strike those most vulnerable to attack — on public transport, in poor neighbourhoods, in public spaces.

For a country known for its many divides — ethnic, religious, sectarian — there are also public spaces where those with such differences intermingle and coexist, and public parks are some of these. There, Christians, Ahmadis, Shias, Sunnis can find an escape and enjoy themselves. Each is as vulnerable as the other.

Conspicuously missing from these spaces is Pakistan’s elite. Its members effectively barricade themselves from insecurity, entertaining themselves behind gates and guards. The children of the elite play in heavily guarded, expensive indoor play areas. As terrorism rose in Pakistan over the last decade, security has become a commodity that only the rich can afford. Its poor are the ones who have no recourse but to seek recreation in unprotected public spaces, leaving them vulnerable to attack. As they did on March 27 in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, and paid for it with 72 lives.

Missing from the international coverage is the fact that Allama Iqbal Town is not a Christian neighbourhood (in a city that does have Christian neighbourhoods). The attack did not occur near a church. The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar knew that a bombing in a public park such as this would target Muslims as well as Christians.

And Allama Iqbal Town is a neighbourhood — middle-class, non-elite as it is — that has seen attacks before. On December 7, 2009, two bombs ripped through shops in its busy Moon Market at 9pm, killing at least 54; many of the victims were women shopping for clothes. Then, as now, terrorists targeted the common man and woman.

In the past decade, terrorists have targeted Pakistan’s religious minorities often in the most brutal manner, attacking mosques and churches and religious processions. In one of the deadliest attacks on Pakistan’s Christians, 85 were killed in twin suicide attacks on September 22, 2013 as they left a Sunday service at the historic All Saints’ Church in Peshawar. In cases of alleged blasphemy, enraged mobs deliver violent “justice” to those accused of blasphemy — often religious minorities.

I am acutely sensitive to the poor state of the country’s minorities. And I am also fully aware of the denialists who minimise attacks on Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, pointing instead to the suffering of Muslims elsewhere — a common refrain in Pakistan. I vehemently disagree with them.

But the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park bombing was not an attack on Pakistan’s Christians alone. It was an attack on poor Christian and Muslim children and families, every one of whom deserve to be mourned. Sadly, it does not seem that the world has mourned them in equal measure.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2016.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Qureshi Manzoor
    Apr 23, 2016 - 12:19AM

    How callous it is for the author to define the dead in Muslim-Christian divide.
    Weren’t they all human beings? Does the death have a sense to check religious identity before striking its death blow? You are a super mathematician in doing the percentage statistics of Easter Day victims. At the same time you are simply a heartless nuts my dear author. Have a secured day with your family and friends.
    Qureshi Manzoor Recommend

  • Parvez
    Apr 23, 2016 - 12:27AM

    Those who read the papers and use their common sense realize this…….but its good that you pointed it out.Recommend

  • Strategic Asset
    Apr 23, 2016 - 1:00AM

    It was an attack on poor Christian and Muslim children and families, every one of whom deserve to be mourned. Sadly, it does not seem that the world has mourned them in equal measure.

    @Author: As a Christian in India, I would like to know notwithstanding the fact that a quarter of those who died were Christians and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar admitted to specifically targeting Christians during Easter as to why world opinion matters to you so much that you are in fact extolling an apologist narrative? Again as a Christian in India, I assure you I would be concerned and worried if such an event were to take place in India regardless of whether a single Christian died.Recommend

  • Arsalan
    Apr 23, 2016 - 1:52AM

    Strange piece from an otherwise sensible writer.Recommend

  • Apr 23, 2016 - 4:02AM

    I think you are just worried about branding and came up with this article to justify why you don’t want the attacks to be called “Easter Bombing”.

    You rather not have Pakistan known as the place where Christians are attacked because in the Christian dominated world it’ll stay on longer in the psyche.

    We get it. But, I’m sure you don’t apply the same logic to, say, Gujarat riots. In fact, most Pakistanis never mention how many Hindus died.

    Similarly, you guys are oblivious to the plight of non-Muslims in Kashmir, especially the Pandits.

    When other do that to you, you guys get mad. Nice.Recommend

  • Ejaz
    Apr 23, 2016 - 4:30AM

    And Pakistan is good for its minorities? Recommend

  • Zizpong
    Apr 23, 2016 - 8:39AM

    Few points,
    1. The terrorists admitted at targeting Christians, it was an Easter Sunday.
    2. Pakistan’s Muslims number 98%? So even if some one farts at one X’ian or Hindu or Sikh, it will pass though 5 Muslims
    3. Just today another minority minister is gunned down, no one condemns the terrorist but just convey their sorrow
    4. Last but no least I second the comment from BruteForce, your sympathies are with highly subsidized, lazy stone throwing Kashmiris but not a single person Pakistani speaks about Kashmiri pandits kicked out of their home

    I guess first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it.Recommend

  • OSD
    Apr 23, 2016 - 10:19AM

    Thankfully someone has come out and said it. We are all being targeted but identifying them on the basis of religion is playing into the hands of the extremists.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Apr 23, 2016 - 1:25PM

    Instead of going on a spin the author should focus on the issue of terrorism, its strong roots, its supporters, its toll of innocent victims and the deep tentacles it has sunk into the vital organs of the State. The question that needs answers is will the State continue its association with various terror groups, irrespective of the toll it takes in number of lives lost by innocent citizens. Rather will spilling of blood remain collateral damage and the price to be paid to accommodate an ideological orientation feeding a certain worldview. Will the tools of suppression and oppression or policy of denial provided through use of proxies, be given up ?Recommend

  • Milind
    Apr 23, 2016 - 3:15PM

    @Zizpong – “I guess first step in solving a problem is acknowledging it.”

    You nailed it.. Unfortunately this “first step” has never occurred to Muslims in the last 1400 years, after the first schism amongst them happened. With the way things are moving, another 1400 yrs will not see any change in their attitudes (assuming they continue to exist)Recommend

  • kartikey
    Apr 23, 2016 - 6:35PM

    when a NIA officer tanjil Ahmed has killed by his relative over property despite then pak media headline was ” Muslim inspector killed in india ”
    so I’m asking what was that ????
    that hypocrisy….Recommend

  • Umar
    Apr 23, 2016 - 6:54PM

    Hello Indians,

    Who are mysteriously dominating the comments section. Hope you’re well. You’re all missing the writers point. Good luck oppressing occupied Kashmir. Bye bye. Recommend

  • C M Naim
    Apr 23, 2016 - 8:21PM

    The so-called “world” forgot the incident sooner than the author thinks, and it does not matter to the “world” if a similar horror occurs again. It is the people of Pakistan and the leaders of that political nation to whom the incident on Easter Sunday should matter — or should have mattered. I was in Lahore that evening, staying in an elite household, and first learned of the horror from one of their household staff, a Christian male. His immediately family was safe but he was worried to death about others.
    I saw no difference in Lahore’s life the next day except that all the children’s parks had been closed, and the empty places had armed guards standing around. Was their any public expression of solidarity or mourning or protest? Not that I heard of. Ask anyone in Lahore and they will say the Christians were the target. It is upto the people of Lahore to convince themselves, including the Christians and other minorities, that they were all targets and victims. I can’t see that happening any time soon. Recommend

  • leela4fun
    Apr 24, 2016 - 2:22AM

    An attack on Easter, claimed by those taking responsibility for the blast as targeting Christians…
    and the author wants us to believe it was a display of the ‘Day of Peace’ or ‘Fastest growing Friendships’.

    This article rings as hollow as Pakistan claiming to be the biggest victims of terror, when every major international terrorist activity has a link to Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ravi Indian
    Apr 24, 2016 - 8:21AM

    Of course the terrorists targeted poor people and didn’t care which religion they belonged to. But the moot point is that the terrorists didn’t reduce the minority population in Pakistan. It was regular people who allowed this to happen ..from over 20%, they are reduced to less than 2%. This was done without bombs but by regular people through threats and jail terms for blasphemy. The regular people didn’t do anything at that time. Now when extremism is targeting the regular people, Pakistan is waking up….is it too late as hate has overtaken over everything else…is it too late to change?Recommend

  • Al Furqan
    Apr 24, 2016 - 10:10AM

    And I am also fully aware of the denialists who minimise attacks on Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, pointing instead to the suffering of Muslims elsewhere — a common refrain in Pakistan. I vehemently disagree with them.


    This entire write up is all about how Muslims suffered in the attack and thereby does anything but ‘Disagree’ with them.Recommend

  • JHS
    Apr 24, 2016 - 3:31PM

    wow! I ddnt expect such an odd article from an AP in Public Policy in Maryland. Agreed with most of the comments – we need to acknowledge the problem in order to solve it.
    Minorities in Pakistan are marginalized beyond belief. Perhaps a perfect narrative could have been built on this headline “Pakistanis die in attacks on Christians at Easter in Lahore.” but what you wrote turned out to be a bit off target.Recommend

  • Farcical to say the least, Ohio
    Apr 24, 2016 - 5:35PM

    Even after the terrorists accepted they have targeted Christians specifically on Easter day, author has the audacity and insensitivity to come up with this crap instead of focussing on why and how to stop the hatred against Non-Muslims by the Muslims in Pakistan which is also being perpetuated across the world. Recommend

  • Al Karim
    Apr 25, 2016 - 3:04AM

    As I understood, the article’s rhetoric is that Christians were not the intended target despite the uncanny occurrence on the day of Easter Sunday. Ms. Afzal is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to bring home the point that the Christians were mere collateral damage because it was a random act of terrorism. Nothing can be farther from the truth. It just so happened that the terrorists’ calculation and assumption went wrong. What a barbaric country it must be to live in. Every non-Muslim in that heinous country should be offered amnesty in other countries, including India and let the satan-worshippers decay in their own filth. Recommend

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