Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Rift

Only 20% of Pakistan’s population are Shia Muslims, but their conflict with the Sunni majority is an existential challenge for the country. Its founders envisioned a land that would welcome Muslims from all over South Asia, and the rift is a threat to Islamic unity.
Sectarianism, as the Sunni-Shia conflict is called in Pakistan, is so contrary to the spirit of the Pakistani project that it could only be an import. Though latent tensions existed within British India, they never got in the way of the ideology of the Muslim League. Its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, was a member of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, and the country has had other Shia leaders, drawn from the political class, as well as the military, like Muhammad Yahya Khan, president from 1969 to 1971. The faith of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a subject of debate, given the Shia connotations of the cult that has developed around him as a “martyr” and his daughter Benazir. Until the 1980s, marriages between Sunni and Shia Muslims were common (Ali Bhutto’s wife was Iranian) and there were no public assertions of Sunni or Shia identity.
The politicisation of Pakistan’s Shias began in the 1980s, after the Iranian revolution of 1979; Pakistan was a key target of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s strategy for exporting the revolution. Shia clerics newly trained in Qom relayed his message as they began to replace old-school imams in Pakistan’s mosques. In response, Saudi Arabia, on the pretext of supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan (1979-89), lent its support to Sunni groups.
The sectarian conflict was brought to a head by the policy of Islamisation introduced by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who referred to himself as a “soldier of Islam” to compensate for a perceived lack of legitimacy after deposing Bhutto. This policy was in fact “Sunnisation.” In reaction, the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e Jafria (TNJF; Movement for the Implementation of Shia Law) was founded in April 1979, and organised agitation, including a two-day siege in Islamabad in July 1980, when Shia protestors from all over Pakistan, galvanised by the Iranian revolution, defied a martial law ban on demonstrations.
The main Sunni movement, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP; Army of the Companions of the Prophet), still one of the most active today, was formed in 1985, with Saudi support. The opposition between the TNFJ—renamed Tehrik-e Jafria Pakistan (TJP; Shia Movement of Pakistan) in 1993—and the SSP was initially political: Both movements became parties and took part in elections. Then both acquired military wings. Start of Sectarian Conflict
Sectarian violence began in the late 1980s with the assassinations of key leaders. When Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, founder of the SSP, was killed in 1990, probably by a Sunni rival, the crime was blamed on the Shias. In revenge, his supporters assassinated the Iranian consul-general in Lahore.
In 1994 an extremist faction of the SSP created Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ; Army of Jhangvi, named after the SSP’s founder) on the initiative of Riaz Basra, a Punjabi who had taken part in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The radical arm of the TJP established Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP; Soldiers of Muhammad Pakistan). From 1995 these groups went beyond targeting the heads of sectarian organisations and set out to terrorise the rival community at large. There were bombings outside mosques after Friday prayers, and suicide bombers attacked processions or family celebrations. In 1989, 67 “sectarian incidents” killed 18; in 2010, 57 bombings killed 509; between 1 January and 27 October 2013, 91 bombings killed 443.
Sectarianism’s threat to internal security, and to national unity, led General Pervez Musharraf to focus on the fight against the LJ and the SSP, as the Shia militias did not have the same strike capability. This strategy—which explains the two attempts on his life in 2003—was unsuccessful, largely because of the support of the Taliban (Afghan and later Pakistani) for these groups.
The Sunni groups have clear affinities with the Taliban, who are also violently anti-Shia, as shown by the massacre at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, in 1998. LJ terrorists, who specialised in targeted assassinations, often took refuge in Afghanistan, but returned to Pakistan after the fall of the regime in 2001. Many settled in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). From 2007 they established links with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP; Taliban Movement of Pakistan), which already had a name for anti-Shia operations in the Fata in 2008, under the leadership of Hakimullah Mehsud, killed by a US drone last month.
But sectarianism is not limited to Pakistan’s margins, geographical or political. It began in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most developed and populous province, where it was encouraged by social conflict. The Jhang district is a textbook example. After Partition in 1947, Sunni refugees who had been forced to leave behind in India almost everything they owned became tenants of Shia landowners. As they became educated and urbanised, they began to want their own place in the sun. In 1992 Azam Tariq, then head of the SSP, was elected to the National Assembly as member for Jhang—a major success for a political force that had until then been marginal. He was re-elected in 1993, and though he lost his seat at the 1997 election, Jhang remains an SSP stronghold because of Sunni resentment of Shia domination. In the Punjab Too
Punjabi sectarianism is not confined to Jhang; it owes its strength to the discreet support of the regional establishment. Although banned, the SSP remains extremely influential in society, through a diligent network of activists. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the strongest party in the province and in Pakistan, is unable to ignore it.
When it was in power in the late 1990s, the PLM-N attacked sectarian groups. Ten years later, after returning from exile, Nawaz, like his brother Shahbaz, currently chief minister of Punjab, has changed his approach. In 2008, after several years of repression under Musharraf, the sectarian movements turned to the PML-N for political protection. The PML-N responded favourably, conscious of the social and political influence of the Sunni activists through their network of madrasas, and of the strength of their militias. The head of the SSP at the time, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, had stated that, during the 2008 general election, Sunni activists had lent “armed support” (intimidation of voters at the polls) to dozens of PML-N candidates, most of whom were elected.
One of those candidates, Rana Sanaullah Khan, became justice minister in the Punjab government, and was able to repay his debt to the Sunni activists who had used their muscle and ideological influence to help him get elected. As minister, he protected Sunni militants after bombings when they should have been the target of police investigations. He also visited the graves of SSP heroes Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and Azam Tariq.
Evidence of the close relations between the PML-N and the SSP can also be seen in the small arms carried by SSP militants. The Punjab government has granted thousands of gun permits to the SSP, which has enabled it to build up a considerable arsenal legally.
The Sharif brothers are all the keener for rapprochement with the SSP because their exile (2000-07) in Saudi Arabia (to which their father had moved some of his business activities in the 1970s) strengthened their ties with that country. Prime Minister Sharif is counting on the Saudis to help get Pakistan out of its present financial crisis. In exchange, the Saudis have been given permission to send more ulemas (Islamic scholars) to Pakistan’s mosques. They are also counting on Pakistan to help isolate Iran by preventing the planned construction of a gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan, agreed by former president Asif Ali Zardari—a Shia in their eyes.
Pakistan’s leaders may also be keen to cooperate with Saudi Arabia because India has strengthened its ties with Iran. India, in financial turmoil, with a collapsing rupee, hopes to cut its oil bill by $8bn by buying more from Iran. It has explicitly chosen to back the Shias in Syria, because making things difficult for Bashir al-Assad would open the door to the Sunnis.
The political situation in and outside Pakistan could allow Sunni activists to assert themselves more strongly. But their actions undermine Pakistan as a nation. Sect has become a structural factor of the identity, or rather the identity crisis, of part of society. People see themselves more as Sunni or Shia than as Pakistani, and Islam is defined according to these categories. Nobody will admit it in public: that would be politically incorrect—the “country of the pure” (the meaning of Pakistan in Urdu) was founded as a homeland for all Muslims. Yet most Sunnis don’t want a Shia to teach their children. They believe there should only be one type of namaz (Muslim prayer), and justify this by pointing out that they are the majority in Pakistan.
Pakistani sectarianism has divided society in a way that threatens national cohesion. This threat is magnified because, although Shias in peripheral zones, such as Baluchistan (where the Hazaras were the first to be targeted) and Gilgit-Baltistan have paid a heavy price, Punjab is the heartland of militant Sunnism.
Sharif, no doubt aware of the need to send a strong signal to the Shia minority, last month appointed members of that community as ambassadors to India and the United States. Time will tell whether it was a purely symbolic gesture. Christophe Jaffrelot is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris and author of Le Syndrome Pakistanais (The Pakistani Syndrome), Fayard, Paris, 2013. This article translated by Charles Goulden. Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique - distributed by Agence Global