Will Pakistan Survive Its Never-Ending Waves Of Sectarianism?

Justice Munir wrote the following words in his famous Munir Report following the anti-Ahmedi riots of 1950s: “You can persuade the masses to believe that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action, regardless of considerations of discipline, loyalty, decency, morality, or civic sense.”

In 1953, the Islamic clergy across the country demanded for Ahmedis to be declared non-Muslims and to be fired from key government positions. The violent protests were put down by the Nazimuddin regime. Later, however, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto eventually capitulated to the religious orthodoxy’s demands, declaring Ahmedis a non-Muslim minority in 1973. This single decision would set the stage for an Inquisition-like persecution of the community.

Soon after, Zia came into power and with him came sectarianism, red in tooth and claw. Zia capitalised on an environment that was increasingly hostile to a liberal discourse, whether in politics or in the social life of the masses. Liberal values soon became the scapegoat for all of the country’s ailments. Violence against minorities, curbs on basic freedoms, stifling the legal freedoms of women, and a regressive purview of anything of public importance were the leitmotif of the General’s tenure. In the process, Pakistan became one big ghettoised pariahdom for Ahmedis.

Soon, frantic sectarian organisations emerged, killing anybody from another rival sect. Tehrik-e-Nifaz Fiqh-e-Jaffaria (TNFJ), Tehrik-e-Jaffaria Pakistan (TJP), Sipah-e-Muhammadi Pakistan (SMP) and Imamia Student Organization (ISO) were Shia radical groups; while Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Harkat-Ul-Ansar (HUA) were Sunni-led extremist groups. Madrassas mushroomed in the country, many of which, with foreign aid pouring in from wealthy Gulf countries, also trained their students militarily for jihad in Afghanistan.

Among the radical religious organisations listed, the first extremist Shia group, TNFJ, was formed in 1979 due to Zia’s ignominious onslaught of all and sundry, except the Sunnis. This group ultimately splintered into TJP and TNFJ. TJP was a moderate entity, but its breakaways, that were ISO and SMP, were as rabid as their Sunni counterparts.

The basic prototype of violence between Sunnis and Shiites was reprisal attacks. For instance, in 1983, two Imambargahs were attacked by Sunnis in Karachi. Sectarian tensions that ensued spilled over to almost the entire country, unleashing violence and bloodshed everywhere.

The Sunni platforms included SSP, a JUI(F) breakaway, which was formed in 1984. SSP demanded that Muharram processions be proscribed, Shias be declared a non-Muslim minority, and Sunni Islam be proclaimed the state religion. The SSP deployed many uncouth means to achieve these ends. Feeding the fire was Riaz Basra who formed LeJ in 1996 (LeJ’s name was derived from the name of SSP’s founder, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi). Among these groups, LeJ was the most violent of all, a morbidly sepulchral band of zealots. Ever since its formation, LeJ has been seeking out the blood of all the minorities in the country far and wide. The state, on the other hand, has always been reluctant to prosecute the LeJ leadership. Sheikh Hakim, Tariq Azam, Zia Ur Rehman, and Malik Ishaq would remain at large and even get elected to the provincial and central assemblies while dozens of cases of terrorism against them would rot in the files. Unlike the rest of the world, in Pakistan, it is the cases, not the criminals, that rot.

The state has also been involved in spilling the blood of its minorities, on different occasions. For example, in 1986, Zia-ul-Haq sent an influx of Afghan refugees to Parachinar bearing sectarian divisions. What followed was a gory rampage killing 200.

It is also known that many of the LeJ militants were trained in a camp run by HUA for Kashmir Jihad. However, these serpentine monsters soon ran amok and started killing minorities in their own country. Recalling all these incidents, the words of then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton come to mind: “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbours.”

The impunity with which these Sunni terrorists come for Pakistani minorities, the rapidity with which they are found to be at large again following brief spells of incarceration, and the rallies they hold every now and then, implicate their clandestine relationship with the power-wielders. The supposedly “banned” organisations recently took to the streets in Islamabad and Karachi, echoing the demands of their forerunners and spouting hate-speech against Shias. Not too long ago, Ahmedis were ostracised in a more or less similar fashion. The cycle of ostracising continues, but who will be next? After Shias, these divisive mobs can very well turn towards the sects in Sunni Islam. Shia militant groups went almost obsolete as soon as Zia died, but violence against them has continued unabated. The new millennium brought a cascade of violence against the Hazaras, again instigated by LeJ.

Majoritarianism has been part and parcel of our polity. It is about time we quit demonising, bastardising, and belittling our minorities. When all but the Sunnis are dead and gone, will the Barelvis turn toward Deobandis? Or will it be the other way around? Killing people because they differ with you, even on something as important as religion, shows that your morals are entrenched in something very distinct from and antithetical to humanity.

There is much to ruminate over, much to rethink, reconsider, and reprogramme. Our fault lines run deep; so deep, in fact, that we may very well be in the need to overhaul how the majority of our country’s population thinks.