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Pakistan's Sectarian Menace

By Dr. Iffat Idris

Outlook, India
21 August, 2003

Sectarian violence is an unpredictable menace in Pakistan: for weeks,
even months at a time, nothing happens; then all of a sudden there is
a sectarian massacre. No one can tell when or where the sectarian
menace will strike next.

On July 4, 2003, it struck a Shi'a imambargah (mosque) in Quetta, the
capital of the Balochistan province. Worshippers at the Asna Ashari
Hazara Imambargah were in the middle of Friday prayers when two men
entered and opened fire with automatic weapons. A third assailant
then set off a suicide bomb. Dozens of worshippers were killed on the
spot, while others died later in hospital. The total death toll was
over 50. All those killed were Shi'as of the Hazara community.

Earlier, on June 8, Shi'a police recruits, also from the Hazara
community, were gunned down as they were being driven back to their
barracks in Quetta. Prior to this, the last major sectarian attack in
Pakistan had occurred in Karachi in February, when nine Shi'as were
gunned down as they prayed in a mosque.

As all these incidents indicate, the primary victims of sectarian
violence are members of the minority Shi'a community. Karachi,
Pakistan's largest city, has been an especial site of sectarian Shi'a
killings. Such is the scale of the problem there that hundreds of
professional Shi'as have packed their bags and moved abroad, though
Sunnis have also been targeted by extremist Shi'as. Furthermore, the
sectarian menace has gradually spread from Karachi to other provinces
- notably Punjab, and now Balochistan. Across the country, the total
death toll in sectarian killings over the past decade runs into
several thousand.

While seeking an explanation for Pakistan's sectarian menace, it is
noteworthy that, for decades, the country's Shi'as and Sunnis lived
side by side without any major problems. Sectarian killings are a
relatively recent phenomenon in Pakistani society. Their roots, thus,
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 extremist Islam.

The origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan can be traced back to
the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. American
funding and Pakistani assistance promoted the proliferation of a huge
number of militant Islamist groups and madrassahs (seminaries) inside
Pakistan. Washington needed the Islamists to 'wage jihad' against the
Soviets in Afghanistan, while Islamabad needed them to bring in
billions of American dollars. Hence both turned a blind eye to their
radical ideology and methods.

The shortsightedness of that thinking became apparent immediately
after the Soviet Union's exit. While radical Islamists in Afghanistan
formed the Taliban, their brethren in Pakistan turned their attention
towards Indian Kashmir or to sectarian opponents inside Pakistan.
Each act of sectarian killing provoked a cycle of revenge killings.
Civilian Governments failed to curb the menace, either because they
wanted the militants to fight Pakistan's corner in Indian Kashmir, or
because they lacked the will and the strength to do so. That failure
in turn allowed the religious militants to flourish and grow in

External factors other than Kashmir also promoted sectarianism. For a
period, Shi'a and Sunni sectarian groups were sponsored by Iran and
Saudi Arabia respectively.
These two rivals fought a proxy war in Pakistan. Their support abated
as relations between Tehran and Riyadh improved, but the sectarian
groups found other sources of sustenance. They derived ideological
inspiration (not to mention a base from where to train and launch
their operations) from the ultra-orthodox Taliban that came to power
in Afghanistan. The Taliban had strong links with madrassahs in
Pakistan, so it was little wonder their hard-line thinking influenced
people there.

The end-result of all this was that when Musharraf seized power in
October 1999, he faced a formidable foe: well-armed, well-trained and
well-financed Islamist-sectarian organizations, with a huge resource
pool of recruits in the country's thousands of religious madrassahs.
Dealing with such a foe was never going to be easy.

His task was made somewhat easier by 9/11 and the worldwide backlash
against terrorism and extremist Islam (not to mention the Taliban)
that it unleashed. Musharraf could strike against sectarian groups
knowing that public opinion was mostly on his side. Religious
parties, who would normally be expected to mobilize massive street
protests against any Government attempt to curb religious activism,
were now unable to do so.

Pakistan's decision to cut support for the Kashmiri separatist
movement also boosted its drive against sectarianism. As seen, many
sectarian groups emerged or were tolerated because of their
connections with groups fighting in Indian Kashmir. Once Islamabad
decided to abandon the latter, it no longer had to put up with the

The first clear sign of a shift in the Government's attitudes came in
a televised speech by General Musharraf to the nation on 12 January
2002. The Chief Executive announced a campaign to eradicate the
sectarian menace. He 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. He also announced a reform programme for religious
madrassahs - breeding grounds for religious extremism and

Implementing the anti-sectarian drive, however, has been easier said
than done. As a leading English daily pointed out in its editorial
the day after the Quetta killings: "Mere condemnations and resolve of
the kind expressed by the President and Prime Minister are not
enough. They should prove by deeds that they are capable of rooting
out the menace of terrorism, especially of the sectarian variety."

Aside from the massive scale of the task - there are thousands of
madrassahs, tens of thousands of unregulated arms - there are very
real problems with regard to the capacity of the security forces.
Whenever an incident like that in Quetta takes place, police are
quick to make arrests - but those detained are usually scapegoats.
Very few of the people actually responsible for sectarian killings
have been captured or convicted. Improving the dismal record of the
intelligence and security forces requires a huge investment in
equipment and training - not easy for a country like Pakistan with
limited resources.

The other knee-jerk reaction among many Pakistanis, especially those
in authority, is to blame a 'foreign hand' for sectarian violence.
The July Quetta massacre, for example, was initially blamed on Afghan
nationals. Accusing outside forces is a convenient way of deflecting
attention (and criticism) from the authorities' clear failings. But
it does not help deal with the actual problem, which is primarily
domestic in origin.

There is also a growing suspicion that the Government's strategy
could be fundamentally flawed. Banning groups does not render them
ineffective - rather, it drives them underground and makes them even
harder to trace and curb. As the attack in Quetta showed, it only
takes a handful of dedicated extremists to wreak wide-scale carnage
and destruction. Unless the Pakistan Government can find a way to
deal with these dedicated sectarian killers, the threat of sectarian
violence will continue to cast a dark shadow over Pakistani society.