So far confined to domestic arena, sectarian violence in Pakistan is acquiring external dimensions, both ideologically and strategically.
Violent sectarian organisations in Pakistan are shifting their territorial focus while law-enforcement agencies struggle to chase and trace their networks. There is, however, something more worrisome: how are these groups able to restructure and revive themselves so soon after their networks are weakened and leaders eliminated? The question becomes more critical in the context of the recent rebirth of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami (LJ-A).
Resurfacing with a new global outlook, LJ-A offers a new platform for smaller, struggling militant groups and individuals, including those with violent sectarian credentials. LJ-A has widened its ideological and strategic spectrums to develop compatibility with global terrorist groups, including the militant Islamic State (IS) group, Pakistani security analyst Muhammed Amir Rana has said.
Rana notes that military operations in the tribal areas and counterterrorism campaigns have uprooted terrorist networks from their traditional strongholds. Although LJ-A has claimed responsibility for many attacks across the country, it is believed that it has established its operational base on the provincial border areas of upper Sindh and
Balochistan, alongside other militant groups like Jundullah, factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA). In several reports, law-enforcement agencies point to a rapid growth of madrasas in this region. In the last two years, terrorist attacks —including sectarian-related, on shrines and law-enforcement personnel— have increased in upper Sindh, which can be interpreted as the development of a new basin of terrorism in the region.
Overall, sectarian violence is on the rise in Pakistan. Over 10,000 people have died since 1989, of them 276 during 2015.
Targets in Pakistan include the Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and the small Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian religious groups. Between 1987–2000, as many as 4,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Shia-Sunni sectarian fighting in Pakistan. Since 2008 “thousands of Shia” have been killed by Sunni extremists according to the human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
A significant aspect of the attacks on Shi’a in Pakistan is that militants often target Shi’a worshipping places (Imambargah) during prayers in order to maximize fatalities and to “emphasize the religious dimensions of their attack”. HRW also states that in 2011 and 2012 Pakistan minority groups Hindus, Ahmadi, and Christians “faced unprecedented insecurity and persecution in the country”. Attacks on Sufi shrines by Salafis have also been reported.
Among those blamed for the sectarian violence in the country are mainly Sunni militant groups, such as the LJ, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), TTP (affiliates of Al-Qaeda), Jundallah (affiliates of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). LJ “has claimed responsibility for most attacks” on Shia. Sunni militant groups are also blamed for attacks on fellow-Sunnis, Barelvis and Sufis. These attacks sometimes result in tit-for-tat reprisal attacks by the victims.
Islamist sectarian bodies and militant groups are supported by Mullahs, many politicians and undoubtedly, the Pak Army for whom they are “strategic assets” for keeping hold on the entire political spectrum. These ‘masters’ instruct who should be targeted. Much of the time, this is done to divert attention during a political upheaval.
Yet, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government always remains in denial mode. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has even refused to make a clear classification of banned organizations. Even if banned, a sectarian organisation cannot be equated with a terrorist outfit, he said in the Senate on January 11 after he was ticked off for hosting leaders one of the sectarian groups to tea. It sparked a controversy, prompting the opposition to walk out of the house in protest. Khan maintained that even outlawed sectarian organisations should not be equated with those of terrorist outfits. And then, he let out a wise remark on the floor of the House: Unfortunately sectarian violence had been continuing for 1,300 years. He said this in apparent reference to the time when Islam was begun as a faith by Prophet Mohammed.
Senator Tahir Hussain Mashhadi of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) who led the walkout said the interior minister’s remarks were surprising as some sectarian organisations were “more dangerous and cruel than the Taliban.”
Khan said some organisations were “purely terrorists” while some had “clash on sectarian lines.” Overlooking the violence that they have currently unleashed, he blamed previous governments under whose watch these bodies had been allowed to contest elections.
One has to look at Pakistan’s situation more closely to understand the minister’s logic of a body engaged in violence, yet being allowed to contest elections.
Much of the sectarian violence emanates from madrasas. But the minister insisted that a single madrasa cannot be banned. The Sindh Government had written to demand that 93 madrasas be proscribed. But Khan called any such suggestion ‘ridiculous.’
The Senate proceedings highlight the “kid gloves” approach of successive governments in Pakistan to sectarianism. Indeed, in the last parliamentary election in 2013, all right-wing parties from Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) to Imran Khan’s PTI and the entire range of Islamist parties had reached a deal with the sectarian bodies and had benefitted from that electorally. A hundred workers of the parties targeted, particularly the Awami National Party (ANP) and several secular groups lost 100 of their workers.
As if debunking Khan’s claim about the role of the madrasas, Rana says: “Smaller madrasas are more vulnerable because security agencies usually tend to focus less on them, thus making it easy for such groups to infiltrate them, influence their clerics and exploit their economic conditions. While bigger madrasas and religious sectarian organisations cultivate sectarian hatred, the smaller ones have the ability to transform these narratives of hate into violence.”
He establishes a premise that rebuts the minister’s claim. That sectarian violence feeds terrorism is a reality that the Pakistani state refuses to accept. Violent sectarian organisations have been critical contributors to the restructuring of Pakistan’s militant landscape; they first created physical safe spaces for themselves and then for other groups. It is noteworthy that the government declared victory over the militants; a decline in the number of terrorist attacks was considered the main indicator of victory. But the enemy is not only embroiled in continuous skirmishes with security forces, it has also managed to carry out sporadic yet significant attacks in addition to frequent low-intensity attacks. The only difference is that major attacks were more frequent in the past.
As Rana notes: A state that has tried to use religion for national identity has had its agenda hijacked. “The irony is that the state seems helpless in reclaiming its lost narrative, lacking even the intention of evolving an alternative vision of national identity. The state wants to control violence but not the triggers and drivers of violence. The drivers of sectarian hate are intact yet we continue to wonder why certain groups are resurrected again and again,” says Rana.
This is also underscored by a new book, “Purifying the Land of the Pure” by Farahnaz Isphahani. Ispahani’s book serves as an examination of Pakistan’s relationship with religious extremism, and provides possible foresight on threats in areas where Islamist militancy is on the rise. The book is “a reminder that once the state and the society start conceding ground to majoritarian religious bigots, it will lead to where Pakistan has landed today.”
The book a “brave narrative”, was also described aptly by Asma Jahangir, well-known Pakistani human rights activist, as ‘an amazing account of the manner in which Pakistan’s laws were instrumental in perpetuating injustice and encouraging brute force by religious militants with impunity.’”