A few days ago, there were heart-rending scenes in Kohistan district of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Gunmen stopped a convoy of buses, ordered selected passengers to get off and then killed 18 of them in a grisly attack. The victims were from the minority Shia community. Days earlier, there was another sectarian attack, in Kurram agency of Federally Administered Tribal Agency, that killed 26 Shias. Days before that, there was another. In fact, hardly a month passes in Pakistan without sectarian massacres.
Sane people in Pakistan say the real threat to the country’s social fabric does not come from India, Afghanistan, the US or army’s grip over the country’s affairs. It comes from the ideology of hate propagated freely by religious extremists. Pakistan is a weak state; sectarianism makes it weaker still. After successfully banishing the Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis from mainstream society, now is the turn of the Shias.
Sectarian clashes have killed thousands of Pakistanis since 1979, as the theological differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims have been transformed into a fullblown war. In 1980s, an impotent Pakistani state has essentially allowed the Wahabbi Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran to fight a shadow war in its territory. But from 1990s, the tide has turned against the Shias, as Sunni radical thugs who wage jihad outside and sectarian battles inside, got tacit state support to expand their reach and resources. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Harkatul Mujahideen, for instance, are closely allied with the murderous Sunni sectarian groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
Pakistan’s first encounter with sectarianism occurred in 1950 in Hyderabad during Muharram. If it were spontaneous, the first organised agitation that engulfed the country was the movement against the Ahmadi community in 1953 led by the Jamaat Islami and Majlis Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, a Sunni vigilante group. The Ahmadi issue remained dormant until 1974, when the “progressive-minded socialist” Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. Bhutto’s appeasement of the religious right was dud in political terms. The same religious forces rallied against Bhutto’s “anti-Islamic” rule in 1977 amidst cries of Nizam-e-Mustafa. Enter Gen Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship, and the country has fallen into a benighted era of an ideological warrior state. The bloody phase of sectarianism erupted when Gen Ziaul Haq ruled the country.
Some say Gen Zia, the self-proclaimed “Soldier of Islam”, even enoucraged the bloodshed by allowing the proliferation of madrasas, which preach the narrow and violent strand of Islam, with little government oversight. Even today, the government dare not interfere with madrasa education.
Two events that shook the world in 1979 — the Islamic revolution in Iran and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — had profound implications for Pakistan. The clergy coup in Iran catalysed Shia activism in Pakistan, thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini’s enthusiasm to export the revolution. Pakistan’s support, as a frontline ally of the US, of the mujahideen and foreign Wahhabi elements fighting the Red Army strengthened the Sunni extremist demand for declaring Shias non-Muslims.
Sectarian strife is the price Pakistan had to pay for its strategic follies of attempting to proxy rule Afghanistan and bleeding India in Kashmir.
Actually, the Sunnis never had it so good than during Gen Zia’s dictatorship. In 1980s, the Shia-Sunni violence became endemic in tribal areas. In Parachinar and Hangu, the areas bordering Afghanistan, sectarian strife assumed the form of a virtual tribal civil war over time, with “free use of missiles, mortars, and rocket launchers” (according a report in Pakistani magazine Newsline, August 2001). The assassination SSP founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi in 1990 (which avenged the murder of Allama Arif Hussain Al Hussaini, founding leader of Shia sectarian group Tehrik-e-Nifaz Fiqh Jafaria in 1986) was the turning point. From that point onwards, the whole of Pakistan was game. The Parachinar paradigm of sectarian violence — use of heavy weapons and indiscriminate killings — became the norm.
With the coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996, and the post-9/11 cataclysm in Pakistan, sectarian strife became a one-sided affair. Sunni sectarian groups like the SSP and Lashkar-e-Jhangi plugged in their lot with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir. Now, many of these sectarians and their sympathisers morphed into voluntary foot soldiers of Al-Qaeda and its splinter groups, which are legion in Pakistan. In the last 15 years or so, it looked as if a religious cleansing in slow motion — of ridding the country of Shias — is in progress.
But then, hate ideology has been pretty obvious in Pakistan’s history, and inventing “enemies of the faith” was no accident waiting to happen.