On Wednesday, a bus full of Muslim pilgrims was attacked in Karachi, Pakistan.
Jundullah, a Taliban splinter group, claimed responsibility for the murder of some 45 Ismaili Shia -- a minority within the Shia minority -- who were on their way to worship. But this tragedy is more than just a story about extremists striking again. It's about what Pakistan was, and what it might become.
Extremists have a modus operandi: They destroy any and every evidence of pluralism, tolerance, and openness -- which is why they focus on minorities, history, and scholarship, saving a special ire for Muslims who disagree. In Karachi, they targeted a group of Muslims -- Ismaili Shia -- who played a critical role in Pakistan's formation. Don't think that wasn't deliberate.
A little history will help here: The Sunni Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal first popularized the idea of Pakistan. He died in 1938, nine years before Pakistan's independence, but the cause was taken up by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. With critical financial support from the Aga Khan, Jinnah saw Pakistan through to independence, and became its first governor-general.
What is the significance of this to the bus attack?
Jinnah was born into an Ismaili Shia family. And the Aga Khan wasn't just an Ismaili: He is the Ismaili Imam, a descendant of the Prophet Ismaili Muslims believe is the designated leader of the community. Thus targeting Ismaili Shia Muslims means targeting Pakistan today, and Pakistan's formative history.
Fortunately, Pakistan's not having it.
In the last year, the country has shown itself more committed than ever to fighting extremism, and by strengthening its democracy, it's playing a more constructive role in the Muslim world. The catalyst for the former was the December 2014 Taliban attack on a Peshawar school. Relations with Afghanistan significantly improved in reaction to that horrific massacre of 132 schoolchildren, but also as a result of China's massive planned investment into Pakistan -- including energy-producing projects.
Both events were sufficient to convince the two neighbors, long at odds, that they have a common enemy in extremism and a common partner in China. (Note to State Department: Want to fight ISIS? Forget social media. Build power plants.) A second development is found not in Pakistan's new crackdown on extremists (some of whom, sadly, the state once sponsored), but in Pakistan's civil society.
While there are reasonable and serious criticisms of Pakistani democracy, we should not forget that Pakistan is one of the few Muslim-majority countries -- with Bangladesh, Nigeria and Indonesia -- that has had successful handovers of power after regular elections. That is, I believe, the only long-term antidote to extremism. Recent events suggest why: Pakistan has refused a sectarian narrative, in part because Pakistan knows the real cost of intolerance.
When Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia recently tried to drum up military support for its war on Shia Houthi forces in Yemen, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, initially seemed open to the idea. But a backlash from Pakistani civil society forced the Prime Minister to reconsider. Hence Sharif -- deeply indebted to Saudi Arabia, and the GCC countries in general, for past political support, foreign aid and labor remittances -- had no choice but to refuse participation in Saudi Arabia's Operation Decisive Storm, potentially crippling the effort.
Pakistan, a democracy whose population is far greater than Iran and the GCC's combined, counseled dialogue instead of war. With a growing population, and a growing economy, the country has the chance to present a different model for Muslim politics. This week's bus attack shows the lethality of sectarianism, the wisdom of Pakistan's decision and the wrongness of some of our assumptions.
Extremism isn't endemic to Islam, nor are sectarian conflict's "ancient hatreds" Muslims have no choice but to repeat.
That wasn't true in the past, which means it doesn't have to be true in the future.
Extremism isn't endemic to Islam. And Muslims don't have to repeat the "ancient hatreds" of sectarian conflict.
They didn't have to do it in the past, which means they don't have to do it in the future.
Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding,a nonprofit institute that provides research on American Muslims. He is an author, essayist, and public speaker. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.