In Western media coverage of Pakistan, political Islam and its jihadi offshoots—the “pro-Taliban elements” who pop up in reporting—have become regrettably synonymous with Islam and Pakistani Muslims in general. Pakistani Islamists, like their compatriots elsewhere, do advocate for an Islamic state, and jihadi groups in Pakistan have employed violence, most directed at other Pakistanis, in pursuit of their goals. But Islam in Pakistan is considerably more complicated, bound up as it is with languages, lineages, sects and local and regional identifications. Most Pakistani Muslims adhere to the quietist Sufi traditions which helped Islam spread to the subcontinent. The small but influential modernist minority which dominates the Pakistani state and civil society seeks to meld scientific reason with religious piety. Both the modernist and the Sufi traditions are hostile to Islamist attempts to create a theocracy in Pakistan, though Pakistani state policies have been instrumental in the rise of jihadi groups. As the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan lose their grip on power, an urgent question for Pakistan is whether these groups&mdashand the sectarian strife they have fueled—will persist or melt away.

Anti-Soviet Jihad

In the 1980s, two intersecting developments in Pakistan resulted in the proliferation and expansion of jihadi Islam and groups seeking to impose narrowly defined Islamic government by force. The first was the US-Saudi-Pakistani effort to transform the Afghan resistance into a jihad against the Soviet Union; the second was the Pakistani state’s use of Islam to maintain its legitimacy. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, over 3 million refugees entered Pakistan, and soon became the human resources for the CIA-backed Afghan mujahideen. As the resistance campaign became more effective, camps for the fighters were established in eastern Afghanistan. The CIA provided weapons to the mujahideen, turning a blind eye to the heroin production being used to supplement US funding. Up to 1984, the CIA strategy was to simply keep the pot boiling. But after 1985, the goal became explicitly to defeat the Soviets. The US provided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, gave the go-ahead for raids into the Soviet republics of Central Asia and—with the help of Pakistani and Saudi intelligence—enlisted Muslims from all over the world to participate in the Afghan war. Between 1982 and 1992, 35,000 Islamist radicals from 40 different countries joined the jihad.

For propaganda purposes, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) was keen that a Saudi prince enter the fray; the nearest they got to that was Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states also poured funds into Pakistan, particularly into regions bordering Afghanistan, to establish madrassas (religious schools) to instruct students in rigid interpretations of Sunni Islam. Nearly 2,500 new madrassas became breeding grounds for the militants who were recruited first for the Afghan conflict and later for the Pakistani military’s proxy war in Kashmir. With the rise of the Taliban, numerous training camps were set up inside Afghanistan for Pakistanis, Chechens, Kashmiris, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Arabs seeking to export the Afghan jihad to their home countries.

Islamization and Discrimination

Within Pakistan, the military regime of Zia ul Haq set in motion an “Islamization” process that affected Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Islamization—or more precisely, the identification of the state’s version of Islam with the “true” Islam—greatly intensified patterns of religious discrimination that had begun under the government of Zulfiqar Bhutto. Under Zia, Christians, Hindus, Ahmadiyyas, Parsees and other religious minorities were excluded from holding high office in government. Christians and Hindus were further marginalized by the imposition of separate electorates: they can only vote for candidates from their own religious communities, and cannot vote for Muslim candidates. Sectarian Muslim groups have invoked Zia’s anti-blasphemy law to harass Christians, and the law has also been exploited to gain unfair advantage over Christians in personal rivalries and land disputes. To date, there has only been one case where the anti-blasphemy law was used against a Muslim.

Islamization has also negatively affected Muslims. Though first introduced as an ideological fig leaf for the junta, the long-term consequence of Islamization was to politicize Islam in Pakistan and reinforce the trend towards religious sectarianism. The state ideology gave rise to institutional discrimination of Muslim minorities, the Shias being the largest. Encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Sunni countries that wanted to isolate the revolutionary Shiism of Iran, the targeting of Shias in Pakistan led to sectarian conflict among different groups of Sunnis.

Sectarian Splintering

> Opposed to the Shias, particularly in the Punjab, stood a number of heavily armed and dangerous sectarian Sunni splinter groups. These groups are based locally but their collective influence spans a crescent stretching from Sialkot to Fasilabad covering Gujranwala, Sargodha and Jhang. Some of the organizations such as the Sipah-i Sahba Pakistan (SSP) broke away from Jamiat-ul Ulama-i Islam (JUI), part of the reformist Deobandi current which had previously been apolitical. While the JUI advocated a generic concept of an Islamic state, the SSP adhered to a much narrower view demanding that all other sects be declared non-Muslim. On gaining its independence from the JUI leadership, the SSP became involved in a protracted and bloody struggle against Shias. In the western Punjabi district of Jhang, where Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi founded the SSP, the large landholders are Shia and the tenants are Sunni. This class antagonism transformed into religious antipathy and spread to other parts of the Punjab. Following fierce leadership conflicts in Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and his successor were killed, a number of splinter organizations emerged from the SSP. The Harkat-ul Ansar and the Tanzeem-i Dawa are the largest of the nine groups that seceded. These organizations have circulated a vast amount of sectarian literature, valued in millions of rupees, inciting Sunnis against Shias, Ahmadiyyas and Christians. The other major sectarian organization is the Sunni Tehrik, a product of the Brelvi madrassas movement called Zia-ul Quran, which has grown dramatically in Fasilabad and Jhang. This group has been in the vanguard of anti-Christian incitement, dramatized recently by the murder of 16 Christians in a church in Bahawalpur on October 28. (Members of the SSP have been arrested in connection with the attack.)

Though most of these organizations’ energies have focused on non-Muslims or those who were perceived to be non-Muslims, antipathy toward minorities spilled over into inter-Sunni rivalry. The inevitable consequence of sectarian ideas has been a bitter and violent struggle between Sunnis and Shias and between the various Sunni sects. Sectarian violence has become common, particularly in the Punjab and major cities such as Lahore and Peshawar. Beginning in the late 1990s, Pakistan suffered a intensified wave of indiscriminate drive-by shootings, killings of party members, bombings and political assassinations motivated by sectarian strife. Attacks on mosque congregations with automatic weapons and grenades—reprised most recently when Sunni gunmen shot five praying Shias in Karachi in October—led to the posting of armed guards at prayer times. Judges who had the courage to pass judgments against the sectarian organizations have been murdered. The murder of a local Deobandi leader in 1994 by a mob egged on by a rival Brelvi cleric indicated the dangers of politicized Islam for Pakistan.

Half-Hearted Restrictions

Before General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup two years ago, the Pakistani authorities adopted a half-hearted strategy of encouraging dialogue between the different groups to reduce sectarian tension and violence, as well as giving protection to religious congregations by posting armed police (though for many years the entreaties of Shia communities for police protection were met with indifference or even hostility). Musharraf has tried to tame the militant Islamist groups. Enforcing restrictions on the display of weapons in public places, the state made unsuccessful attempts to integrate madrassas into the state education system and curb their political activities. In 1999, Musharraf banned two groups—one Sunni and one Shia—and warned that other groups were being watched.

But the authorities are not prepared to actively disband the sectarian organizations because they play a key role in the government’s strategy for Kashmir. Sunni sectarian groups recruit and train militants who are sent across the border to fight Indian forces in the ongoing low-intensity conflict. The emergence of private religious armies, beyond the control of any authority, is the price Islamabad is ready to pay for its Kashmir strategy. Until recently, jihadi groups were protected by the Taliban, who saw them as lever of influence on the Pakistani authorities. After a spate of violent activity these groups would retreat into Afghanistan out of the reach of the regime. Now, with the apparent collapse of the Taliban, jihadi groups will not have such effective sanctuaries.

Unpredictable Disarray

After September 11 Pakistan became a key player in the US-led alliance and dramatically reversed the previous decade’s policy of trying to influence Afghan politics through the Taliban. The policy reversal immediately brought the state into conflict with jihadi groups in Pakistan. Some leaders of sectarian organizations were arrested, the pro-Taliban head of the ISI was removed and police vigorously dispersed demonstrators in opposition to the war, killing three on October 8. Curiously, the authorities have not stopped Pakistani volunteers for the Taliban army as they crossed the border. One speculates that the Musharraf regime is quite happy for the US-backed Northern Alliance or US forces to assume responsibility for killing Pakistani militants. In the short term, with the jihadi groups and their Taliban patrons in disarray, sectarian violence will decrease in Pakistan, despite calls by “pro-Taliban elements” for a “black day” of country-wide protest over Musharraf’s support for the war on November 16.

However, the long term is more difficult to predict. The fall of Kabul and Taliban strongholds is pushing the Taliban into the mountains, including the near-autonomous tribal agencies in Pakistan’s border region, where they say they will mount guerrilla operations against the Northern Alliance and such other forces as eventually enter Afghanistan. A guerrilla campaign will produce a number of problems for the Musharraf regime. Musharraf has already come under great pressure from Washington to seal the highly porous border. The regime will also be urged to take aggressive action against the Taliban and their supporters, running the risk of provoking a tribal revolt. If the war for Afghanistan drags on, Pakistan’s predicament vis-a-vis the jihadi organizations will worsen. The Soviets once controlled all the urban centers of Afghanistan, but still lost the war. If the Taliban enjoy similar success against US-sponsored troops, the sectarian groups in Pakistan will doubtless press on toward their domestic agenda.

How to cite this article:

Yunas Samad "Pakistan, “Pro-Taliban Elements” and Sectarian Strife," Middle East Report Online, November 16, 2001.

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