Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sectarianism and Sects - IV


The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan Asia Report Nº95 18 April 2005


I. Introduction

Religious militias calling themselves Sipahs, Jaishes and Lashkars cannot exist parallel to the army…our army is the only Sipah and Lashkar in Pakistan.

General Pervez Musharraf, at an interfaith conference in Islamabad Lauding the Pakistan military's recent operations in South Waziristan, the Bush administration has called the military-led government an exemplary partner in the fight against terrorism. However significant the Musharraf government's successes against al Qaeda -- including some 600 arrests -- its record against Pakistani terrorist organisations is far from impressive. Belying the president's claims that "our cities have been almost cleared of terrorists" and his government has "broken the back of terrorism", Pakistan's sectarian organisations, many with close links to al Qaeda, have continued to flourish. These sectarian extremists are simultaneously fighting internal sectarian jihads, regional jihads in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir, and an external jihad, against the West in general and more specifically against the U.S..The focus of this report is on sectarian terrorism in Pakistan and its regional and international implications. After every bloody sectarian attack, the police and intelligence agencies round up hundreds of suspects. Many leading sectarian terrorists have also been killed, more often than not in staged police "encounters" . Yet, such attacks continue to take place countrywide, casting a pall of fear on public life and undermining the security of the Pakistani citizen and state. This failure to take effective action against sectarian extremists has another, international dimension, since homegrown sectarianism has close links to transnational terrorism. Pakistan may have arrested or killed more al Qaeda suspects than any other country, but many of those al Qaeda suspects have had direct or indirect links with domestic jihadi outfits and religious parties. Pakistan-based terrorists, foreign or domestic, are two faces of the same coin. Religious sectarianism is, in fact, the principal source of terrorist activity in Pakistan. Shia and Sunni zealots have killed more than 2,000 and maimed thousands in the last twenty years. The Musharraf government's failure to deal with this threat is more than evident. With more than 200 dead, 2004 was one of the bloodiest years on record.

The description generally used for religious violence in Pakistan -- conflict between its majority Sunni and minority Shia communities -- is misleading. Pakistan's sectarian landscape is far too complex to be reduced to a simple binary division since there are a multitude of Sunni and Shia sub-sects, local cultural variants and cults, and rival religious traditions. Although the conflict between Deobandi and Shia extremists has been principally responsible for fuelling sectarian terrorism in recent decades, the phenomenon of sectarianism is present in other forms and has the potential to surface in other variations in the future. This report reviews the permutations of sectarian politics, highlights the state's role in determining the directions of sectarian conflict and analyses the local socio-political milieu of sectarianism by focusing on some of the more volatile regions. Finally, it assesses the Musharraf government's performance in curbing religious extremism in the context of its domestic and external policies and implementation of its international commitments.


By official estimates, 96 per cent of Pakistan's population is Muslim. There is no official data on sectarian identity since the state prefers to paint a picture of religious homogeneity to justify having adopted Islam as the official religion. By an unofficial estimate, 75 to 80 per cent of the Muslim population is Sunni and 15 to 20 per cent Shia.

Sunnis can be divided into four broad categories: Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadith and revivalist, modernist movements like the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The first three Sunni sub-sects emerged as religious educational movements in the nineteenth century during British rule in India. The JI came into being in the 1940s. The Ahle Hadith is a small, ultra-orthodox, puritanical sect inspired by Saudi Wahhabism, which does not follow any of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. What is commonly called Sunni-Shia violence is more precisely a Deobandi-Shia conflict in which the Deobandis have appropriated the term Sunni for themselves and are supported in their anti-Shia jihad by the Ahle Hadith. Although the Barelvis and the Deobandis follow the Hanafi school of Sunni jurisprudence, their interpretations of it radically differ. "Barelvis represent oral orthodoxy cushioned by devotional practices; Deobandis represent literate orthodoxy with a strict adherence to the classical texts of Islam". These opposing Sunni sub-sects dominate Pakistan's religious sector. The Barelvi-Deobandi divide can be best understood by their differing attitudes toward the Islam of the Sufi orders that was prevalent in South Asia much before Pakistan or sects such as the Deobandis and Barelvis came into existence. The Barelvi school strives to preserve and promote this Islam of hereditary saints and its shrine culture. In this syncretic Sunni system, belief in intercession by the Prophet Mohammad and hereditary saints and initiation in a mystic order is the path to salvation. Shrines of saints are the centres of cultural and religious activity. The Deobandi and Ahle Hadith schools reject these beliefs and practices, dismissing Pakistan's shrine culture as a form of idolatry. They also condemn and prohibit traditional marriage and death rites borrowed from local South Asian cultures, calling these Barelvi practices deviations from the true path. Modernist Islamist movements, led by the JI, also seek to purify Islam and restore it to its pristine form. These movements, too, see the traditional multicultural Sunni beliefs and practices as un-Islamic.

The pan-Islamist JI, which claims a supra-sectarian stance, has evolved into a separate Sunni group, based on the teachings of its founder, Abul A'la Maududi (1903-1979). All other Sunni subsects criticise Maududi's school for its modernism and lack of adherence to any of the established orthodox schools, though in its theological orientation, the JI has much in common with the Hanafi school. These divergent Sunni religious movements have evolved over time into pressure groups, political parties and extremist organisations. The Sunni parties that represent Deobandi and Barelvi Islam in Pakistan were initially set up as associations of scholars educated at or affiliated with madrasas. The Deobandi ulema's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) is now divided into at least three factions. The Barelvi party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) also is faction ridden. The Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JAH) is the sect's main representative but dozens of other Ahle Hadith groups work independently. The Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the country's first anti-Shia militant group, and its offshoots such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), currently responsible for most anti-Shia acts of terror, are exclusively Deobandi.

Every religious sect is bent on gaining the largest numbers of adherents. The Deobandi and Ahle Hadith have made some inroads at the expense of the majority Barelvi sect, with the agents of "internal conversions" including the Tableeghi Jamaat and Deobandi madrasa networks. Some Deobandi leaders now claim a majority; others, such as Ajmal Qadri, believe that the "Barelvi and Deobandi populations are now roughly equal". Barelvis, whose shrine culture still dominates rural Punjab and Sindh, reject these claims. Pre-eminence in the madrasa sector, a long tradition of publishing religious literature and more sophisticated organisational structures have helped the Deobandi sect emerge as the most articulate and politically dominant representative of orthodox Sunnism. However, the divide within Sunni subsects remains as wide as that between puritanical Sunnis and Shias. In fact, Sunni scholars in each subsect have a history of issuing edicts of apostasy against one another. The Athna Ashari sect (the Twelvers) dominate Pakistan's Shia minority. Smaller variations of the Shia school include the Ismailis (followers of the Aga Khan), Daudi Bohras (followers of Syedna Burhanuddin) and their rivals Sulemani Bohras (followers of Masood Salehbahi). The Shias share a devotion to shrines and saints with the Barelvis and other adherents of Sufi Islam.

The Shia community, too, has evolved into pressure groups, political parties and religious organisations. The main Shia party is the Tehrik-i-Islami (earlier called Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan, until it was banned in 2002). The Sipahe Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) -- the army of Muhammad -- is the Shia militant counterpart of the Deobandi SSP. More than 70 per cent of those killed in sectarian violence since 1985 have been Twelver Shias, whose religious rituals and gatherings are prime targets of terrorist attacks. There was a brief period, following the Iranian revolution, when Shias, responding to the sponsorship of Sunni extremism by Pakistan's leader, General Zia-ul-Haq, quite aggressively promoted and defended their belief system. The zeal for an Iran-like Shia revolution has since died down. Shia militancy and political activism is now primarily a defensive response to Deobandi militancy. Though Shia Islam in Pakistan is sectarian, and can be both aggressive and rebellious in response to perceived threats to the faith, Shia political parties have generally supported mainstream secular parties. Shias backed the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the 1970s and entered into a more formal alliance with it in the early 1990s. Later, the main Shia party, the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan, joined hands with the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N). Today its newest incarnation, the Tehrik-e-Islami is a member of the MMA, an alliance with five Sunni politico-religious parties that is likely to be temporary, forged as it is on the grounds of political expediency. A distinct Shia communalism remains the basis of Tehrik-e-Islami' s organisation and activism.

In fact, all Sunni and Shia religio-political parties, movements and extremist organisations operate on the principle of exclusion. They compete for the souls of ordinary Muslims and aggressively proselytise through their dawa (preaching) organs. Each group has its own networks of madrasas, whose curricula are diametrically opposed to one another, thus serving to reinforce Pakistan's sectarian divide. Their mosques are mutually exclusive and the religious rituals of each sect/sub-sect are markedly different. They do not even pray together, except on the occasion of Hajj. Turf wars among rival clerics are the defining characteristic of Pakistani religious activism. More significantly, each sect and movement attracts followers from different social strata and regions. In a nutshell, all Pakistani "Islamic" movements are sectarian even if they claim otherwise. Sunni, particularly Deobandi, hostility toward Shias is fuelled by the latter's religious beliefs and practices. For Shias, Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet and the fourth caliph, is the central religious figure. They do not recognise the first three caliphs as legitimate successors of the Prophet. Public display of mourning is an essential part of the Shia faith, particularly during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when they commemorate the battle of Karbala (680, in Iraq) in which the Omayyads killed the Prophet's grandson, Hussain, and his family.

For Sunnis, especially Deobandis and Ahle Hadith, these Shia beliefs and ceremonies are an affront to their religious sensibilities. Barelvi Sunnis are generally more tolerant of Shia rituals and even participate in their ceremonies. However, with the rise of sectarian militancy and violence, such occasions have become rare. Deobandis have demanded a ban on all public Shia rituals. The more extremist among them, such as the SSP, have called for a constitutional amendment to declare Shias a non-Muslim minority, thus bracketing them with the Ahmadis, who follow a late nineteenth century Punjabi "prophet", Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, whom they believe was Jesus' reincarnation and Islam's promised messiah. Religious and social orthodoxy in the Ahmadi community is as intolerant of the shrine culture as are the orthodox Sunni sects. Shias as well as Sunnis have excommunicated the Ahmadis from the realm of Islam. After a sustained campaign by Sunni religious parties, the government designated the Ahmadis as non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment in 1974. This was insufficient to satisfy militant Sunni extremists. Since the 1980s, the Ahmadis have been the victims of violent sectarian strife. In terms of social boycott and official discrimination, the Ahmadis are Pakistan's most repressed religious community. Other religious groups who claim to have roots in Islam but are rejected by mainstream sects include the Zikris (in Balochistan) and Bahais. Given the complex nature of this sectarian landscape, where rival religious traditions representing Islam abound, sectarian violence in Pakistan extends far beyond the Deobandi-Shia divide.


A. Domestic Extremism and International Terror

Pakistan confronts al Qaeda as well as homegrown sectarian terrorists but the divide between the two is artificial at best. Both are motivated by a distorted religious ideology, rely on terror tactics and make no distinction between civilians and combatants. Most al Qaeda adherents, foreign or local, have close connections with domestic jihadi organisations and some members of religious parties. The trail of international terror has often led official investigators to the madrasas, mosques and offices of mainstream religio-political parties. Some of these parties are members of a broader political alliance, the MMA, which runs the government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shares power with the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) in Balochistan. Musharraf's former Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, has accused workers and leaders of the JI and JUI-F (Fazlur Rehman group), the two main MMA parties, of direct involvement with terror networks. Some key al Qaeda figures, notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, were apprehended at the homes of JI religious leaders and activists. The objectives and goals of Pakistani sectarian terrorists in the post-11 September world might be closer to those of transnational jihadis but the internal enemy still takes priority over the enemy without. "It is a two-track jihad", says a member of a banned Pakistani group. "The external enemy is known, his intentions against Islam and Muslims are no secret. But the internal enemy posing as Muslim, as Shias and others do, is more dangerous. Stopping internal enemies is our priority".

There is an additional, regional, dimension to this landscape of sectarian terror. Wahhabi-influenced Pakistani Sunni sects are as anti-Iran as their Shia counterparts are hostile to Saudi Arabia and its official creed. The Barelvis, too, are at odds with Wahhabism and resent the Saudi government's religious practices. And through their backing for their chosen Pakistani sectarian allies, external forces, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, have also been instrumental in deepening Pakistan's sectarian divide.

B. Spreading the Word: Madrasa and Mosque

The madrasa and the pulpit have been and remain the sectarian actor's instruments of choice. Indeed, the spread of sectarian movements and militancy is directly proportional to the size of the clergy-run sector of madrasas and mosques. Pakistan had 137 madrasas in 1947, increasing to 401 in 1960. The four madrasa unions ran 893 by 1971 (the JI had no madrasas till then), with the numbers increasing by 1979, according to official estimates, to 1,745 and then again to almost 3,000 by 1988. According to the latest official estimates (2003), there are now 10,430 madrasas in the country. Madrasa administrators, however, say that the largest clergy union, the Deobandi Wafaq al-Madaris, has 5,778 affiliated madrasas, with 2,573 smaller branches. Adding the numbers claimed by the other four unions and independent madrasas, the total is approximately 13,000.

Growing poverty and lack of access to public schools has helped the four unions to expand their madrasas. Two surveys, one in 2002 and another for 2002-2003, found that the vast majority of students came from economically deprived backgrounds. The number of madrasa graduates (maulanas) specialising in religious polemics to defend and promote their respective sectarian ideologies has grown exponentially. By 1995, Pakistan had 20,000 maulanas with the highest madrasa certificate, in addition to 40,000 local religious scholars. Since 1989, 30,000 more students have appeared for the final exams conducted by the Deobandi Wafaq alone. A quarter of a million have passed the Hifz (memorisation of the Quran) test since 1989. This swelling corps of maulanas has raised public consciousness of sectarian differences. There are 58 registered religious political parties and 24 known militant groups. Every major sub-sect has multiple political parties and subsidiary unions. According to an expert, Pakistan has as many as 245 religious groups, with over 100 focusing on external jihad and 82 on sectarian issues. Each sect, large or small, fundamentalist or modernist, has had one or more militant outfits at different times to wage the internal (sectarian) and/or external jihad.

Being a Muslim in Pakistan is no longer the sole religious identity; orthodox Sunni circles require a denominational prefix. Even Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz had to identify his religious sect at his inaugural press conference in Islamabad. "I am a Sunni Muslim", he said, confronting rumours that he was a Qadiani (a member of the Ahmadi sect) and thus constitutionally ineligible for the post. Aziz had to further identify his Sunni subsect by citing his family's religious rituals. Mosque pulpits are used to incite people against religious minorities as well as other Muslim sects. Media of all sorts -- newspapers, audiotapes, pamphlets, handbills, party literature -- disseminate sectarian views widely. Controversies over religious syllabuses in schools often take a violent turn. In particular, professing and practising minority faiths is hazardous in the face of crusading clerics and a biased state system. Minorities -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- live in fear of persecution and violence. Terrorism is merely one facet of religious intolerance. Terrorists are a tiny minority of Pakistani fanatics. Social discrimination, legal bias and cultural repression, based on an individual's or a family's sectarian identity, is commonplace. In some cases, it is institutionalised. Pakistani governments, elected or authoritarian, are subjected to pressure by religious lobbies to extend concessions to or take action against their sectarian rivals. Demands range from enforcement of their version of the Sharia (religious law), through rival claims over mosques, excommunication of heretics and the removal of officials because of their faith. The clergy has played this game most effectively with authoritarian leaders, whose lack of legitimacy makes them susceptible to their demands. While extremist sections of the Shia and Sunni clergy, represented by groups such as the SSP and SMP, are frequently embroiled in violence, it bodes well for Pakistan that their communities still live in relative peace. The hatred, hostility and violence that characterise militant sectarianism have yet to gain popular, grassroots support. Yet, this too could change if Pakistan's power brokers continue to exploit religion for political and geopolitical ends, opening up new vistas for sectarian extremism even as the political space of moderate forces continues to shrink.

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