Sectarian violence in the country is no longer a one-dimensional, local phenomenon of intense expression of hatred of one sect towards the other, as it was at the time of its inception in the mid-1980s. It has rather become a part of larger agenda of Al-Qaeda and its affiliate Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Sectarianism has now evolved into a more ambitious mission of subduing the minority Muslim population for establishing an Islamist-Jihadist control over the Pakistani state and society.
The nexus of sectarian groups (both overt and covert) and Jihadist organisations have served the mutual benefit as the former provided ideology and manpower for jihad and the latter sanctuaries, training grounds and arms and ammunitions for violence against the minority.
The so-called Shia-Sunni sectarian split in the country can be more accurately described as a Shia-Deobandi divide. While the Deobandi clergy and Islamists seek to establish an orthodox Sunni state in Pakistan on the pattern of Shia Iran, Jihadists desire to see Pakistan not only a theological state but also a bastion of anti-west worldwide jihad as was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under Mullah Omer.
The clergy’s desire to establish a majority sect’s theological state got its first expression in the form of the 1948’s Objectives Resolution. However, at that time, the clergy lacked the means to realise its goal – till Gen Ziaul Haq (1977-88) bolstered their prospects and later the creation of Taliban and other jihadi forces during the 1990s brought into existence a formidable alliance of the clergy, Islamists and Jihadists.
Three main areas of anti-Shia violence – Karachi, Quetta and Parachanar – going on for the last one decade have strategic significance for Islamist-Jihadist combine. Karachi is the ideological centre and financial hub of the combine, Quetta is a sanctuary of runaway jihadists from Afghanistan and Parachanar lies at the crucial supply route to Afghanistan. Hence these regions need to be cleansed of the opposition to pave the way for a sectarian ‘Islamic emirate’ in Pakistan.
Although different shades of religio-political formations differ on their approach towards politics and the interpretation of Islam, they are on the same page in their opposition to the religious minorities, including Ahmedis, Christians and Shias. They share the same sectarian agenda of forcing the minorities to a status of second-class citizens.
Ahmedis and Christians have been successfully suppressed following the declaration of Ahmedis as non-Muslims and the enforcement of the blasphemy law. Now the prime targets are Shias as they are seen as main obstacle in the way of converting Pakistan into a Sunni state. This task is a bit harder than the earlier ones as Shias are the largest majority with a substantial population of 10-15 percent of the country’s total Muslim population and have the backing of neighbouring Iran.
For sectarian elements, labelling Shias as ‘infidels’ is important for this slogan not only motivates their cadres, but also legitimises killing of the minority sect. Jihadist creed, unlike conventional, orthodox Islam, permits murder of all those people who are not part of their grouping, including children, women and the elderly.
Under the same ‘takfeeri’ belief, Islamist-Jihadi militants belonging to Taliban carry out deadly attacks against common people in markets, mosques and security officers.
The objective of orthodox Deobandi clergy is a bit modest as compared to that of the Islamist-Jihadist agenda. By carrying out attacks, sectarian militants intend to instill fear in the Shia community so that they finally give up taking out ritualistic Muharram processions on streets and restrict their activities within the four walls.
The Islamists-Jihadists are more ambitious and aim at terrorising the minority to the extent they start leaving the country or convert to the majority’s faith. Conversion and sectarian cleansing are the ultimate goals of jihadists, which for now has also been espoused by sectarian militants though they originally belong to the orthodox school of thought.
The perpetuation of violence is a necessity for internal dynamism of the sectarian and jihadist groups as it demonstrates to potential recruits that success of their mission could be achieved. Violence also keeps the existing cadre motivated, engaged and active besides raking in more funds from passive sympathisers.
Although the clergy maintains a posture of moderation and shuns violence in public appearances, it indirectly feeds into sectarian violence by providing hate literature, cadres and boarding and logistical support to the sectarian militants at seminaries. When state starts crackdown on the militants, the clergy shields them by initiating a dialogue with the minority sect and mediating with the security agencies.
The state has been lenient in dealing with the sectarian outfits as they provided manpower for jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. To check the sectarian hate campaigns and killings, effective laws were either not framed or enforced to provide a leeway to militants. As a result, the menace has now phenomenally grown in size and proportion to the extent where its eradication is beyond the capacity of civil administration.
The seminaries, directly or indirectly involved in sectarianism, are in thousands and spread all over the country with hundreds of thousands of students on their rolls serving as foot soldiers. The sectarian militant organisations have attraction for the youth from the low-income strata as they find these a channel for their upward mobility and empowerment through organisational strength, networking and availability of weapons.
The militant organisations have grown into a force that is beyond the control of the civil administration. The efforts to bring sectarian seminaries under state regulation, underway for the last more than one decade, have failed miserably. A strict action against them may trigger a civil-war like situation.
At present, what the state can achieve at best is dismantling of the militant infrastructure in the north-western tribal belt, which can weaken sectarian organisations’ capacity to carry out violence and killings. The knot between sectarian militants and Jihadists has to be untied if religious minorities are to have any future in this country.
But the jihadist-sectarian phenomenon has much more to it than militancy. It’s an ideological and social movement and needs to be tackled and countered at these levels by promoting an interpretation of religion which is forward-looking, inclusive and tolerant of other views.