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Pakistan: How politics fuels Shia-Sunni divide

By Sushant Sareen
September 06, 2010 16:44 IST
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Apart from religious hatred that makes it kosher for the Sunnis to massacre the Shias, the targeting of Shias serves a political objective of the Islamists in destabilising the Pakistani state. As a result, the Sunni extremists are killing two birds with one stone, says Sushant Sareen..

The divide between the Shias and Sunnis is as old as Islam. But the bestiality on display in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan where an open season being declared on the minority Shias traces its origins to the geo-politics of the third quarter of the 20th century. Dovetailing on this geo-politics was the domestic political compulsions of the military regime of that horrible military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq.

Until the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, notwithstanding their sectarian and theological differences, the Shias and Sunnis never indulged in massacring each other. While the ulema from the two sects would argue and debate theological issues, things never really deteriorated to a point where blood was shed.

Much like communal rioting in India, which is essentially a 20th century phenomenon and a gift of the wily British to the subcontinent, the Shia-Sunni armed conflict is the gift to Pakistan from the Americans, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the imperatives of survival of Gen Zia's regime.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 had shaken up the predominantly Sunni sheikhdoms in the middle-east. To prevent the export of the Islamic revolution from Iran to their domains, the sheikhdoms used sectarianism as an instrument of policy. Sunni Islam was also the natural ally of the Americans in their not so covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After all, bulk of the fighters, or if you will Mujahideen, were Sunnis, many of who adhered to a puritanical version of Islam, which incidentally was rabidly anti-Shia, something that suited the Americans who had burned their bridges with Shia Iran. Add to this the deliberate divide and rule policy adopted by Gen Zia who for political reasons fuelled sectarian differences by providing the Pakistan Army's patronage to the worst sort of radical mullahs who started openly spouting hatred against the minority Shias.

Until 1979, the Shia-Sunni divide was only at the level of mullahs. The relationship between ordinary Shias and Sunnis was hardly affected. The first big break came after Zia imposed Islamisation in Pakistan. The Shia clergy, which had become very aggressive after the Khomeni regime took power in Iran, organised a mammoth rally in Islamabad against the Zia regime, which they accused of fostering Sunni personal law on the Shias.

Although Zia was forced to back off and concede the Shia demands, this show of force convinced Zia and by extension the army establishment, including the infamous ISI, of the need to cut the Shias down to size. Exploiting an existing fault-line between Shia landlords and Sunni tenants in Jhang, the Pakistani agencies unleashed the extremist Sunni organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan on the Shias. This was the time that sectarian differences started being settled through bullets.

Alongside, the SSP indulged in the most virulent hate speech against the Shias, going to the extent of bringing to bear the theological differences to start a campaign demanding that Shias be declared non-Muslims, like the Ahmediyas. The Shias too started organising themselves and the Tehrik-e-Fiqh-e-Jafferia came into existence. Both the SSP and TFJ formed their militant wings and started targeting each other.

The Shias, who comprise around 15 percent of Pakistan's population, were however, outnumbered and outgunned. The Sunni outfits were flush with arms and money which had flooded Pakistan due to the Afghan 'jihad' against the Soviets. What is worse, the Pakistani state and its infamous agencies patronised the Sunni jihadist outfits which were involved in the targeting of the Shias.

Jumping into the fray were the Saudis and Iranians who fought their proxy war in Pakistan using the extremist Sunni and Shia groups respectively, and providing them money and weapons to kill each other.

Until the mid-1990s, the Shia-Sunni violence was limited to targeted killings of leaders and activists. But this form of violence soon graduated to mass killings, with Shia Imambargahs being stormed by gunmen. The Sunni extremists in Pakistan received a massive boost after their ideological twins, the barbaric Taliban occupied Afghanistan. Suddenly, many of the Sunni extremists had a ready-made safe haven to which they escaped after massacring Shias. Despite being clients of the Pakistan Army, the Taliban rejected all requests from Pakistani authorities to hand-over some of the most notorious Sunni terrorists who had taken refuge inside Afghanistan. Inside Pakistan, the more radical elements in the extremist SSP formed the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

The formation of the LeJ allowed the SSP to operate over-ground and participate in politics. The network of the SSP spread so deep into Pakistan's body politic that the current head of the SSP's new avatar, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, has claimed that nearly 25 Members of the National Assembly from across the political spectrum have been elected to Parliament with the its backing. In 2002, the Pakistani military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, released then SSP chief Azam Tariq to win the vote of confidence in the National Assembly for his puppet prime minister, Zafarullah Jamali.

While the SSP was strengthening its political position, the LeJ was continuing with its Shia killing campaign. There was a lull in anti-Shia violence after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.

But with the resurgence of the Taliban around 2005, the massacres of Shias once again started, this time with even greater ferocity. Using gunmen to storm Shia mosques was passé. The weapon of choice became the suicide bomber. Although, the LeJ didn't have its own cadre of suicide bombers, its close links with the Pakistani Taliban -- the LeJ is regarded as part of the larger Punjabi Taliban phenomenon -- and Al Qaeda who share its rabidly anti-Shia ideology gave it access to the suicide bomber arsenal of the Taliban.

But apart from the religious hatred that makes it kosher for the Sunnis to massacre the Shias, the targeting of Shias today serves a political objective of the Islamists in destabilising the Pakistani state. As a result, the Sunni extremists are killing two birds with one stone.

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Sushant Sareen