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Pakistan – Sectarian Monster

This article is reprinted with permission from South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR), Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 3, No. 47, 6 June 2005

The sectarian war between Pakistan’s Shias and Sunnis is bloody and deadly. Available figures indicate that, between January 1989 and May 31, 2005 a total of 1,784 Pakistanis were killed, and another 4,279 injured in 1,866 incidents of sectarian violence and terror across the country. This averages out to over 100 persons per year over the past 17 years, with no end in sight. And there are some indications that the trends may worsen. Thus, 187 persons were killed and another 619 were injured in 19 incidents of sectarian violence in 2004. Within the first five months of 2005, 120 Pakistanis have already lost their lives, and 286 have been injured in 30 incidents of sectarian violence. The worst of the incidents in the current year include:

May 30, 2005: Six people, including two of the three assailants, among them a suicide bomber, are killed and 19 persons sustain injuries during an explosion in the courtyard of a Shia mosque at Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi.

May 27, 2005: At least 25 people, including a suspected suicide bomber, are killed and approximately 100 others sustain injuries during a powerful explosion at the Bari Imam shrine of the Shia sect located in vicinity of the diplomatic enclave in capital Islamabad.

March 19, 2005: At least 50 people are killed and over 100 others sustain injuries during a suicide bombing at a crowded gathering near the shrine of a Shia saint at Fatehpur village in the Jhal Magsi district of Balochistan province.

In view of the current wave of sectarian violence, it seems that the Government has simply failed to curb the activities of the banned jehadi and sectarian groups, despite repeated claims by General Pervez Musharraf of having adopted strict administrative measures against them. The unfortunate fact remains that most of these groups continue to enjoy a free hand under the very nose of the administration, which is more interested in taking cosmetic steps instead of doing something practical to scotch the evil.

It was the support extended by the country’s third military ruler, President General Zia-ul-Haq, to the jehadi and sectarian groups during the Afghan war that created these unmanageable monsters, who now rise to consume their own creators. The sectarian and ethnic essentialism that came into its own in an organized, militant form during the Zia period, now poses an ever more serious challenge to the state. The genie of sectarian violence refuses to be bottled and even as President Musharraf exhorts the people of Pakistan to adopt ‘enlightened moderation’, the country’s tentative quest for a non-discriminatory liberal democracy continues to unravel. Indeed, the ideology of fundamentalist Islam appears to remain at the heart of the Musharraf establishment’s strategy of national political mobilisation and consolidation, despite talk of enlightened moderation. Pakistan continues to be caught in the trap of extremist Islamist militancy and terror that its mighty military establishment constructed as part of its Afghan and Kashmir policies. Official support – both explicit and implicit – to Islamist terrorist groups continues, even while the state struggles to cope with the internal fall-out of the burgeoning terrorist community.

Since the overall direction of Pakistan’s military establishment remains committed to an Islamic ideological state, some of the militant groups that are supported by the regime are often found involved in bloody acts of sectarian violence. The Musharraf administration’s support for the jehadis fighting in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and Afghanistan – and the growing nexus between the jehadi and sectarian outfits – has indirectly promoted sectarian violence in Pakistan. The linkages between militants active in J&K and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and those within Pakistan, on the other, are not surprising, since these jehadis share the same madrassas (seminaries), training camps and, often, operatives. Thus, though the Pakistani military establishment’s support for these groups has kept the Indian Army tied down in J&K, it has created a serious ‘principal-agent’ problem on the domestic front. By facilitating the actions of irregulars in J&K, Pakistan actually promotes sectarian jehad and terrorism back home.

Facing international criticism over its status as a host to numerous Islamist extremist elements, the Musharraf administration has, from time to time, sought to take steps to deflect growing internal and international criticism of the activities of fundamentalist elements within Pakistan. Inner contradictions within the ruling establishment are, however, bound to hamper these efforts.

It is significant that, for decades, the country’s Shia and Sunni sects lived side by side without any major problems. The roots of sectarian killing lie not in religious differences, but in political and social developments within Pakistan and the region. They are intimately tied up with the country’s wider problem of militant and extremist Islam. With the passage of time, the largely theological differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims of Pakistan have been transformed into a full-fledged political conflict, with broad ramifications for law and order, social cohesion and governmental authority.

It was during the Afghan jehad against the Soviet occupation, with dollars coming from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) promoted the proliferation of a huge number of militant groups and religious seminaries inside Pakistan. At that time, Washington needed Islamists to wage jehad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, while Islamabad needed them to bring in billions of American dollars. Consequently, both turned a blind eye to their radical ideology and methods.

The shortsightedness of the American administration and their Pakistani proxies became apparent soon after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. While radical Islamists in Afghanistan formed the Taliban, their brethren in Pakistan turned their attention towards J&K or to sectarian opponents inside the country. Each act of sectarian killing provoked a cycle of revenge killings, with the civilian Governments failing to curb the menace, either because they also wanted the militants to fight in Pakistan’s corner in J&K or because they lacked the will and the strength to do so. External factors other than Kashmir also promoted sectarianism – the foremost being funding of certain Pakistan-based Shia and Sunni sectarian groups by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. As successive Governments in Pakistan allowed Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran to fight a proxy war on Pakistani soil, the country and the people have had to suffer the devastating consequences.

When Musharraf seized power in October 1999, he faced a formidable foe: well-armed, well-trained and well-financed Islamist-sectarian organisations, with a huge resource pool of recruits in thousands of religious madrassas in the country. Dealing with such a foe was never going to be easy for an isolated military dictator. Yet his task was made somewhat easier by the 9/11 terror attacks and the worldwide backlash against extremist Islam that it unleashed. Islamabad’s decision to cut down support to the Kashmiri militants also boosted its drive against sectarianism.

Once Islamabad decided to put the Kashmir issue on the back burner for the sake of better ties with New Delhi, it no longer had to put up with the jehadi groups operating in J&K, or the sectarian outfits within Pakistan. The first clear sign of a shift in the Pakistan Government’s attitude came in a televised speech by Musharraf to the nation on January 12, 2002. While announcing a massive campaign to eradicate the sectarian menace, the General banned three sectarian groups, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan (TJP) and the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) and put the Sunni Tehrik on notice. Another two sectarian groups – Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan (SMP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) had been banned earlier, on August 14, 2001.

Despite the Government ban, however, almost all these sectarian groups continue to operate freely under changed names without much difficulty. Contrary to Musharraf’s much-trumpeted claims of having dismantled the sectarian mafia in Pakistan, the hard fact remains that his administration has hardly taken any concrete measures to implement the ban in letter and spirit, except in arresting and later releasing some of the cadres of these groups. Enforcement agencies arrest some of these cadres every time there is an escalation in sectarian conflict, but they are released shortly after the wave of violence subsides. The organisational infrastructures of the banned sectarian groups has essentially remained intact, with most of the groups retaining the same office bearers who refused to go underground even after the January 2002 ban. Most of the banned groups continue to operate out of their old office premises, though some have shifted to new premises. They are still bringing out their periodical publications, in most cases under the old names, besides raising funds and holding congregations without any check or fear. And the sectarian tensions refuse to die down, given the fact that the contending groups are well organised and well armed. Their ability to maintain effectiveness and to elude enforcement agencies also has to do with an extensive support network that includes madrassas, political parties, bases across the border in Afghanistan, and financial support from foreign countries, if not foreign Governments. The International Crisis Group has noted, in its April 2005 report, The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan:

Sectarian terrorists in Pakistan are thriving in an atmosphere of religious intolerance for which its military government is largely to blame. General Musharraf has repeatedly pledged that he would eradicate religious extremism and sectarianism and transform Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state. In the interests of retaining power, he has done the opposite.

The report notes, further, that as Musharraf is praised by the international community for his role in the war against terrorism, the frequency and viciousness of sectarian terrorism continues to increase in his country. Regulating madaris, reforming the public education sector, invoking constitutional restrictions against private armies and hate speech, and removing all laws and state policies of religious discrimination are essential and overdue steps to stem the tide of religious extremism. The choice that Pakistan faces is not between the military and the mullahs, as is generally believed in the West; it is between genuine democracy and a military-mullah alliance that is responsible for producing and sustaining religious extremism of different hues. The report recommends to the Pakistan Government that it recognise the diversity of Islam in Pakistan, reaffirm the constitutional principle of equality for all citizens regardless of religion or sect, and give meaning to this by repealing all laws, penal codes and official procedures that reinforce sectarian identities and cause discrimination on the basis of faith.

If these changes do not occur, the situation can be expected to worsen. Arif Jamal, a Pakistani writer on jehad, notes a troubling trend in the patterns of sectarian violence in the country:

…the Pakistani groups used to carry out sectarian violence on the pattern of non-sectarian violence in the country before the 9/11 attacks in the United States. The sectarian violence became intense and brutal after the jehadis had to leave Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US attack. The sectarian terrorists started using suicide attacks to perpetuate sectarian violence in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Suicide attacks were unknown in Pakistan in the pre-9/11 period and were largely associated with the al-Qaeda network, although the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups never used them in Pakistan. However, a new mode of violence has been introduced during the current wave of sectarian conflict: a car bomb. It is for the first time that the terrorists have used a car bomb in Pakistan. And if past is any guide, they are likely to use this mode of violence more frequently in the future.
Sectarian conflict and violence are an unpleasant reality in Pakistan today, and are becoming more and more intense. Administrative measures taken by the Musharraf-led Government have failed to produce results so far. Analysts believe that the sectarian problem cannot be overcome by such administrative measures alone, while the state itself remains in alliance with extremist elements. The problem for General Musharraf is that it is difficult to promote the so-called jehad in J&K without inadvertently promoting many of the Pakistani sectarian outfits. In the process, state authority stands eroded in one way or the other. The increasing militarisation and brutalisation of the conflict shows that there are virtually no sanctuaries left – neither home, nor mosque nor hospital. Not even a jail is safe. And being innocent is not the issue. Just ‘being’ is enough – being Shia or Sunni, Barelvi or Deobandi. In a situation where different sectarian groups are vying to prove themselves the standard bearers of Islam, one strategy to secure prominence as a representative of ‘true Islam’ is obviously by displaying extreme hostility and intolerance to those designated as being ‘un-Islamic’ by virtue of belonging to religious minorities and minority sects.