Sectarian violence in the country is closely linked with the jihadi policies of the state in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although the state created them for executing its security agenda, they have now developed their own mission of turning Pakistan into an exclusivist, orthodox Sunni state.
A kind of historical determinism (not in Marxist sense), starting in late 1970s, made Pakistan a sectarian hotbed as a host of domestic and foreign factors converged. This led to deepening of the country’s sectarian divide and organised violence albeit these divisions were present in our society from the day one though in milder forms.
Before sectarian violence became organised in the mid-1980s, clerics of different sects – Barelvi, Deobandi, Wahabi and Shias – used to make hate speeches against each other and publish literature, condemning against each other’s faith. But they were not organised and did not have means to carry out armed attacks. Incidents of spontaneous skirmishes between Sunnis and Shias during Muharram processions used to occur very occasionally.
With the start of the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq (1977-1988) sectarianism gained strength with well-funded organisations, indoctrinated and militarily trained cadres, and supply of arms and ammunition. The state patronised militant sectarian outfits for political reasons and its security agenda vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Kashmir, but later they assumed momentum of their own and got out of their patrons’ hands.
Influence of a rigid and intolerant Wahabi sect started spreading in Punjab in the late 1970s when more than five million labourers found job opportunities in the Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where Wahabi sect was in dominance. A majority of these people would earlier subscribe to more inclusive and tolerant Barelvi or Sufi creed, but now brought home exclusivist Wahabi faith along with petro dollars.
This spread of Wahabi faith got a fillip when in 1977, Gen Ziaul Haq, having strong orthodox Sunni sectarian leanings, took power and started using orthodox interpretation of Islam to gain legitimacy and started patronising Sunni clergy. As if it were not enough, two foreign events in the neighbourhood – Afghanistan and Iran – boosted the General’s agenda.
In February 1979, revolution in the neighbouring Iran led by Imam Khomeini inspired Shias in Pakistan and led to Shia activism for the promotion of the Iranian revolutionary agenda. The Shia youth set up their first highly organised body, named Imamia Students Organisation (ISO), which exists to date. This alarmed Sunni sects and the Gen Zia regime that was under the heavy influence of anti-Iran Saudi Arabia.
Instantly taking a cue from Shia revolution in Iran, Gen Ziaul Haq introduced certain laws based on orthodox Sunni interpretation of Islam, such as Hudood Ordinance and Zakat-o-Ushr Ordinance in February 1979. If Iran could be a Shia state, why not Pakistan a Sunni state? The desire for establishing a Sunni theocratic state got a new fervour.
In December 1979, the communist Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, providing Gen Zia and the military junta an opportunity to prolong their rule. The USA, Europe and Arab states backed the military regime for a jihad in Afghanistan. The stage was set for the promotion of religious passions for favourable public opinion for a holy war. Money was in hand from USA and Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, in 1980 started an eight-year long war between Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq started searching its Sunni allies in Pakistan to counter the influence of Iran in Pakistan. Barelvi Sunnis became Saddam’s allies with Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, the chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, his main advocate. People became more conscious of their sectarian identity.
Gen Zia allowed Arabs to pour in the country to fight in Afghanistan. Wahabi and Deobandi seminaries mushroomed across the country and many of them produced mujahideen for the Afghan Jihad. Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) collaborated with the military junta in waging the jihad. Religious militancy became institutionalised. The religious clerics saw an abundance of money and the power of organisation.
Gen Zia’s Islamisation agenda spurred fears among the minority Shia sect of being dominated by Sunni sects. They resisted the regime’s efforts for blanket imposition of Sunni Islam on all sects. Shias congregated in Islamabad on July 5, 1980 to agitate against the regime’s policies, especially the imposition of Zakat and Ushr taxes, which the Shia jurisprudence did not approve of. Gen Zia bowed to the Shias’ demands and exempted them from these taxes. This was the only successful agitation against the Zia regime by that time.
Encouraged by the 1980 agitation and Iranian backing, Shias founded their religio-political organisation, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Fiqh-e-Jafria (TNFJ), later renamed Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan (defunct). Now this organisation exists as Tehreek-e-Islami.
Unnerved by the successful Shia agitation and to counter growing Iranian influence, Gen Zia started patronising more aggressive anti-Shia Deobandi clerics like Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. The firebrand speaker from Jhang received patronage from the Punjab police to spread his provocative hate campaign against Shias in which he declared them ‘kafirs’ and founded his organisation, Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahab, later renamed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (defunct). The organisation later gave birth to more militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (defunct) and itself exists today with the name of Jamaat-e-Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamaat.
Since 1985, with the launching of Deobandi Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba, the tit-for-tat killings of Shia and Sunni clerics started. The close linkages of Deobandi clerics of Akora Khattak and Punj Sher (Swabi) seminaries with Afghan mujahideen and their sanctuaries and training centres in the northwestern tribal regions served to provide uninterrupted supply of militarily-trained hit men and arms and ammunition to the anti-Shia outfit while the state looked the other way.
In 1989, the uprising in the occupied Kashmir came as a shot in the arm for sectarian militant organisations, which developed links with the Kashmir Jihad as well and started supplying indoctrinated cadre to wage jihad for the liberation of Kashmir. By the late 1980s, Afghan jihad, Kashmir jihad and sectarian militancy at home have converged with sectarian outfits, keeping the supply line of militarily-trained cadres for jihad alive.
The onset of Kashmir jihad coincided with increased sectarian killings at home during the early 1990s with more casualties taking placing on the Shia side as they are in minority and not involved in jihadi activities. This was also the time when the establishment was creating a new militant force, called Taliban, to take power in Afghanistan. As Taliban came into power in Kabul in September 1996, the Deobandi sectarian militants found safe havens in Kabul.
Onwards, they developed linkages with al-Qaeda that remain intact to date. Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik repeatedly said in his statements that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is connected with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban. An organisation that was initially created to contain Shia activism became part of the larger agenda of creating an orthodox Sunni state in Pakistan.
With the ouster of the Taliban regime in Kabul by the US-led Nato forces, the centre of jihadi-sectarian forces shifted to the northwestern tribal region and Malakand division. However, the ideological centres of these organisations are Lahore and Karachi where seminaries and clerics produce literature that inspires the activists. Afghan Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), different Deobandi and Wahabi sects and sectarian organisations are ideologically on the same page. Some are more diplomatic in their posturing and shun violence just as a matter of tactics.
From 1979 onwards, the state has fed the sectarian and extremist elements for the sake of its ill-conceived strategic plans. Now they have grown into a force to be reckoned with. The state can weaken its military might by launching aggressive military actions in the tribal belt and dismantling the militancy’s infrastructure, but it cannot wipe them out. The sectarian pot will keep simmering.