Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sectarianism and Sects - VIII


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


President Musharraf's reform agenda includes eradicating religious extremism and sectarianism. He has pledged to undo Zia-ul-Haq's legacy by transforming Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state. However, his performance in the past five years is not dissimilar to that of General Zia, who empowered the clergy to counter his secular, civilian opposition. Under Musharraf, Islamic extremists continue to thrive because of his reliance on the religious right to retain power. In Pakistan's chequered history, the mullahs have never been as powerful as now, controlling two of four provincial governments and also influencing national politics through their presence in the National Assembly. Under Musharraf, Zia's Islamisation measures, the primary source of religious extremism and sectarian conflict, also remain virtually untouched. And much like the Zia period, madrasas are again the recipients of large public funds, albeit with a different justification. Then, a section of madrasas was rewarded for producing jihadis for Afghanistan. Now they are provided incentives, at least ostensibly, to abandon the jihad. The international environment also resembles the Zia era, as influential governments choose to back a military regime, although the motivation differs. In the 1980s, many influential players, including the U.S., supported the military government for its role in the Afghan jihad. Now they back the Musharraf government for its role in the war against terrorism. Now as then unconditional diplomatic, military and financial support for the Pakistani military is proving counterproductive.

A. Practising Moderation

Justifying his decision to retain the dual offices of President and Army Chief until 2007, Musharraf said, "Pakistan needs unity in order to deal with the internal sources of extremism and to remove the misperception that we are a militant, intolerant society". His reformist rhetoric remains just that, even as the military's preferences undermine the few safeguards that exist.

1. Enforcing the peace

Officials insist that most leaders of sectarian groups, banned after they were designated as terrorist organisations, have been either captured or killed and their workers are on the run. These claims are at best partially true. The offices of banned organisations have been sealed but most have reopened or relocated. In fact, the repossession of these offices has sparked factional fighting among sectarian groups. The infrastructure of banned terrorist groups and thus their capacity to mount terrorist attacks also remains intact, as was evident in the surge in sectarian attacks during 2004. Judges have become the target of terrorist threats and are, therefore, hesitant to hear cases involving religious militants. In anti-terrorism courts, judges presiding over cases of sectarian militancy are often forced to hold trials in jails. The police, too, have proved ineffective, and their inaction is not for lack of information. In the Punjab, for instance, the police maintain updated lists of Shia and Sunni sectarian activists, most of whom have criminal records. Yet law enforcement agencies mainly keep watch on these terrorists, pursuing cases usually only after a high profile terrorist attack forces them to act. This passivity can be partly attributed to fear of sectarian retaliation. Terrorists have killed many police officers investigating sectarian killings in Punjab and Karachi. In 2002 police inspector Mohammad Jamil of Jhang's elite police force was killed after arresting several LJ activists. In July 2004, a Rawalpindi police inspector was assassinated on his way to court to give evidence in the hearing on an anti-Shia sectarian attack. The rising graph of sectarian violence is also linked to police inability to pre-empt and investigate sectarian crimes. The Sialkot suicide bombing at a Shia mosque in October 2004 illustrates the limitations. A day after the attack, officers asked mosque leaders to hire private security firms for protection. "There is not enough force to protect all potential targets", a senior official said. It is doubtful if police security would have helped. The police guard at the mosque's gate had failed to search the Sialkot suicide bomber. Police bodyguards have failed to prevent other ambushes and attacks, and have, at times, themselves become victims of sectarian terror, as in the January 2005 murder of a sectarian Sunni leader, Haroon Qasmi. Weak prosecution cases filed by the police often fail to hold in court. This inability of the police to curb sectarian terror effectively underscores the need for urgent measures to enhance the force's organisational, technical and human capacities. As a starting point, the police should be free of political interference and organised and trained along modern professional lines. An officer says, "What we need are more resources, better training and modernisation" . The penetration of the law enforcement agencies by terrorist organisations is particularly troubling. The terrorist responsible for the attack on the Shia Hyderi Masjid in Karachi in May 2004 that killed eighteen turned out to be a police constable who was a member of the banned Sipahe Sahaba. At least two policemen are said to have been among the terrorists responsible for the attack on a Shia procession in Quetta in March 2004, which killed 45. An al Qaeda suspect was detected among the bodyguards of the Punjab chief minister and removed from duty. He, too, was a member of the Sipahe Sahaba. Investigation into these cases has resulted in a verification process of low-ranking police personnel by intelligence agencies but this is as yet restricted to Punjab. The use by the police against high profile terrorism suspects of "encounter" killings or rival groups to eliminate suspects is also counterproductive. Decapitating an organisation does not result in its elimination. It only encourages the formation of splinter groups and promotes factional violence.

2. The politics of sectarianism

Religious parties frequently use their political clout and official contacts to influence the outcome of sectarian cases. "Why is it that when a high-profile arrest is made, the police spell a detailed indictment to the press but end up filing a toothless challan (prosecution case) in the court?" asks a news magazine after scores of arrest in terrorism cases in Karachi in 2004 produced few indictments and convictions. Police crackdowns on sectarian terrorists are also ineffective because often action cannot be taken against suspects with links to the mainstream religious parties. On many occasions, law-enforcement agencies have been unable to act against MMA activists, even when terror suspects have been detained at the homes and offices of JUI and JI members. Security agencies have raided sectarian seminaries only to have the government back down under pressure from an MMA component and protests by the religious right. In August 2004, the police raided a mosque and madrasa in Islamabad to arrest the prayer leader and his brother for their involvement in terrorist activities, including collaboration with al Qaeda. The two brothers were not only released and charges dropped, but they also retained their government jobs, despite a long-standing history of inciting sectarianism.

3. Flawed laws and legal loopholes

Stillborn madrasa law

The ranks of sectarian extremists continue to expand countrywide as madrasas preach sectarian hatred. In sheer numbers alone, these unregulated seminaries are booming. The total of madrasa students is also likely to grow even further as the government pours money into the sector, hoping to cajole the religious right to abandon the jihad and accept internal reform voluntarily. Instead of enforcing the proposed madrasa registration and regulation ordinance of 2001, the government has withdrawn the ban on madrasa registration imposed by the PPP government in 1996. Madrasas can now register under the Societies' Registration Act of 1860 or other existing law. Madrasa administrators say this constitutes a retreat by the government "under pressure by the clergy", and thus "a conspiracy to undermine Islamic education through curbs on new madrasas has failed". Emboldened by government inaction, the mullahs are challenging the basic premise of the ban's removal, which is to "integrate religious education with formal education". They insist they will use only their own versions of English, mathematics and other textbooks. As money pours into the madrasa sector, it will encourage proliferation. The lifting of the ban on the plea of facilitating the "mainstreaming of madrasas" has also given the government the opportunity to finance its chosen madrasas. This process of co-option will intensify the competition for resources among the clergy of the five sects. The lack of meaningful madrasa reform is matched by an equally inadequate effort to improve the deteriorating education system, which has radicalised many young people while failing to equip them with the skills necessary for a modern economy. Until adequate resources are provided and the public education sector is reformed, the madrasas will continue to flourish.

Discriminatory legislation and religious bias

Religious bias is built into official procedures. Employment rules and regulations of government departments require affidavits of religious correctness. A national identity card cannot be obtained without a sworn statement of Islamic credentials and denial of heretic beliefs. Having initially deleted the religious column from the new machine-readable Pakistan passport, the government, giving in to MMA pressure, reinstated it. The Pakistani state will therefore continue to identify its citizens by their faith. Religious discrimination is so deeply embedded that when the public sector Sui Southern Gas Company offered stock shares for sale in February 2004, the application forms asked prospective buyers to declare whether or not they were Muslims, an attempt to identify potential Ahmadi buyers. Minorities and women are the main victims of discriminatory legislation. Giving in to MMA pressure, the Musharraf government has yet to repeal such laws despite repeated pledges. On the contrary, Minister for Religious Affairs Ijazul Haq categorically denies that the government has any such intention. Where amendments have been made, they have done more harm than good. In October 2004, for instance, the government amended the procedure for registering blasphemy cases. Investigations of blasphemy are now supposed to be carried out by a senior police officer before a charge is brought. But two adult Muslim witnesses can press charges, and hence easily counter the condition that a blasphemy case can be registered only in the presence of a high-ranking officer. Human rights organisations and legal experts have criticised both the manner in which the amendment was pushed through and its contents. The bill was passed immediately after it was tabled, without debate. "The basic flaws in the law have not been resolved….Capitulating to pressure from those threatening violence and failing to make essential changes in the law can only encourage the forces of obscurantism" , the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) notes. Most blasphemy cases are motivated by personal grudges and business or professional rivalries. Disputes over the possession of mosque and graveyard lands, family feuds and commercial interests often result in the filing of blasphemy charges. Religious extremists use the cases to target minorities, settle personal vendettas, and spread religious hatred. From 1987 until December 2004, 4,000 people were accused and 560 formally charged, mostly Ahmadis and Christians. More than 100 persons were detained for blasphemy offences in 2004 alone; half were prosecuted from January to October 2004; all were convicted by subordinate courts but later acquitted by higher courts. The ordeal of the accused does not begin or end with court trials. Religious extremists threaten them, and some have even been killed after they were acquitted. Many, including judges hearing such cases, have been forced to leave the country. "The long delay in blasphemy trials", the HRCP notes, is "largely due to the reluctance of judges to issue decisions in such cases or even take them up for hearing given risk to their own security". It recommends that instead of changing procedures, all laws that provide legal sanction for such discrimination against minorities be repealed. Three official review commissions, one each under the Zia, Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf governments, found the 1979 Hudood laws repugnant to Islamic injunctions and basic human rights and urged their repeal. The 1997 Report of the Commission of Inquiry for Women observed, "The relevant test [of a law] is not whether it can ever be misused but whether it is worth enacting at all given the potential for its abuse and the results its enforcement would produce". Justice Majida Rizvi, Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, appointed by Musharraf himself, believes that the law has "so many defects that it will have to be repealed if the government is really serious". The Musharraf government has ignored these recommendations. Where the government has amended Islamic laws, such as those relating to murder in the name of honour (honour killings), its amendments are superficial. It has rejected proposals, such as by the PPP, to rectify the most glaring flaws. Honour killings have become rampant since the promulgation of the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of 1990 that allows a victim's heir (vali) to pardon a killer in return for compensation, thus in effect encouraging and legitimising murder in the name of honour. Motivations behind such murders can range from fiscal, i.e. retention of family property, through tribal disputes, to preventing a woman from exercising her free choice in marriage. According to official figures, 2,774 women and 1,327 men have been victims of honour killings since 2000. In 2003, 1,261 women were killed, and more than 500 such cases were documented from January to October 2004. According to a PPP member of the National Assembly, Sherry Rehman, the law, as presently amended by the ruling party, still "allows the murderers to continue to be forgiven by the heirs of the victim, who are usually in collusion with the murderers". Her party's bill, she says, had asked that the state act as the murdered woman's heir:

The vali [heir] of the murdered woman should be the state. As long as heirs and valis like sons, husbands, brothers, uncles and grandfathers are allowed to "forgive" the murderer, the crime will continue to be perpetrated with impunity. In its effort to please international donors, the government has thrown words like blasphemy, Zina offences and "honour" killings into the bill, whereas it deals with none of the above.

Anti-terrorism laws

In 2004, the government twice amended the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997: in January to bring terrorist financing within its purview as well as the "supporting structures" of the banned groups; and in October, to enhance punishments for certain crimes and include certain specific actions in the definition (such as using explosions to kill people in mosques). In the absence of political will, this amended law will have little impact. "No country in the world has been able to fight terrorism with legal instruments. Laws are not a substitute for political will and effective administrative action. In any case, it is not because of any inadequacies in the existing laws that sectarian violence continues to escalate", says a former president of the Pakistan Bar Council. But while it is essential to enforce existing legislation such as the laws against incitement of violence and incitement of sectarian hatred, the Anti-Terrorism legislation defines terrorism too
sweepingly, covering even political strikes. It is, therefore, open to abuse and has been used to target political dissidents and even religious minorities such as the Ahmadis.

Militarising civil society

As mentioned earlier, the state's capacity to prevent and resolve sectarian conflict in the Northern Areas is hampered by the absence of constitutional status for that territory. In Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are run by a federally appointed political agent rather than an elected government, the writ of courts and normal Pakistani laws do not apply. However, customary tribal law is applied through the jirga system (tribal courts), allowing the government to justify rival tribal groups settling their sectarian and political differences through arms. Article 256 of the constitution states that "No private organisation capable of functioning as a military organisation shall be formed, and any such organisation shall be illegal". But the government has accepted and even encouraged tribal lashkars, many run by religious militant groups. This is more than evident in South Waziristan where the military has used tribal lashkars in its operations against al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists. In its dealings with local pro-Taliban militants, the government has offered substantial financial rewards for good behaviour, which is only likely to encourage other militants. Through JUI mediation, a peace was brokered in February 2005 with militants from the Mehsud tribe, who were given large sums of money to end their support for foreign militants and to accept the government's authority. The justification given was that the militants needed the money to pay off al Qaeda debts. The government is also planning to "buy back" heavy arms from the militants. Sub-state actors are heavily armed in Pakistan's most conflict-prone regions and urban centres, including Balochistan, NWFP and Sindh's provincial capital, Karachi. This easy access to sophisticated weapons has contributed to the militarisation of the religious sector and is directly linked to an escalation in sectarian violence. In 2001, the Musharraf government started a drive that recovered some 210,000 illegal arms over the next two years but this was only a fraction of the estimated number of such weapons in the country. According to the Interior Ministry, there are approximately 18 million illegal weapons, in addition to some two million legally acquired. Clearly, the government's drive and the official ban on the sale and purchase of non-licensed weapons have failed to prevent the free flow of unauthorised arms and ammunition. The illegal arms trade continues to flourish in places such as Dera Adam Khel in FATA.

Preaching jihad

Although President Musharraf speaks often of "enlightened moderation", his government has yet to invoke existing laws banning hate speech. On the contrary, the jihadi media operates with impunity. Hate-inciting audio, videotapes, books and pamphlets are freely available, with banned terrorist groups propagating their views through any number of publications.

The lawyer Syed Abrar Haider points out:

Legal and administrative action can be launched against them as laws against hate-speech and incitement of violence already exist. Besides, it is a violation of constitutional provisions of public policy which make it a crime to persecute or harass any individual or community on the basis of religion, sect, gender or race.

Such statements are also subject to relevant provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code, such as Sections 295-A and 298-A, that prescribe punitive action against the use of derogatory words about someone's religious beliefs and speech that offends anyone's religious sensibilities. While these sections of the law should be used to prosecute those who issue statements and decrees of apostasy against perceived religious foes, the government is more concerned about speech that offends the armed forces. A leading opposition politician and parliamentarian, Javed Hashmi, remains imprisoned for criticising the armed forces, while the head of the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Hafiz Saeed, continues to preach jihad at public rallies. At one of his regular Friday sermons at Qadisia Mosque in Lahore, he defiantly said, "We are not afraid of crackdown. No one can check the spread of jihad all over the world".

B. Foreign Hands and "Agencies"

Dismissing the role of madrasas in promoting sectarian strife, the religious right would rather pin responsibility on domestic and external conspiracies hatched to undermine Pakistani Muslims. A researcher at the Jamaat-i-Islami' s think tank insists, for instance, that sectarian extremism is externally driven:

At the operational level, terrorists do come from sectarian and jihadi groups. Police arrests show that. But their masterminds are somewhere else. The pattern of events suggests that sectarianism is masterminded by internal and external forces that use the indoctrinated youth to further their own interests.

Whether the victims are Shias or Sunnis, the aggrieved parties invariably accuse the U.S. of aiding the perpetrators to advance what they regard as their agenda of global domination. Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan. Following Mufti Jameel Khan's murder in Karachi in October 2004, leaders of the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-i-Nabuwwat (World Council to Protect the Finality of Prophethood) refused to lodge a formal murder case but asked the government to focus its investigations on the Ahmadis and other anti-Islam forces. Another Lahore-based group, the Islamic Defence Council, accused Pakistan's "secret agencies" of plotting the murder to divert attention from opposition to General Musharraf. Yet others saw the murder as a Shia backlash for the attack on a Shia mosque in Sialkot a week earlier. Ajmal Qadri of JUI (Q) is certain that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's intelligence agency, is responsible for the spate of sectarian attacks in Pakistan. "No Pakistani agency can be involved in terrorism. I am certain of that. It is RAW", he said. Pakistani authorities, too, are prone to shift the blame to the "foreign hand", a euphemism for India, after every sectarian terrorist attack. This might be the easy way out but it would serve the state far better if its law-enforcement and intelligence agencies concentrated on apprehending the perpetrators. The increase in anti-Shia violence in Pakistan could conceivably drive Tehran to intervene again, as in the past, to protect its religious compatriots. Pakistan's relations with Iran have improved, relative to a troubled past. "Tensions have gradually de-escalated since the late 1990s. Though Tehran remains worried about the state of the Shias, it has scaled down its direct involvement, and an atmosphere of trust is building up", a senior official claims. Yet, Iran's response is still likely to be shaped by the manner in which Pakistani authorities respond to Sunni sectarian terrorism. And that response has been far from effective. If there is a serious "foreign" connection, it might be traced to Pakistan's foreign and security policies, including interventionist policies in Afghanistan and support for the Kashmir jihad. Most Pakistani sectarian militants are the by-products of these conflicts. Many Pakistani jihadis received their military training and political education at dozens of jihadi camps inside Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. While the fall of the Taliban has deprived them of their Afghan bases, they are still armed, trained and indoctrinated by their parent bodies not just for the Kashmir jihad but also for an internal jihad against their sectarian rivals.

C. Engaging the Clergy

Every now and again, especially when sectarian terrorists strike, the government gathers a group of ulema and asks them to promote harmony among their followers. Provincial Ittehad Bainul Muslemeen (Unity among Muslims) committees and ulema boards under the Auqaf Department are activated during crises. Religious leaders, acting on their own initiative, have also set up solidarity committees and councils in the aftermath of sectarian attacks. But, like the government-sponsore d interfaith bodies, the results of these initiatives, if any, have been modest.

On 15 October 2004, in the wake of a spree of sectarian attacks, including suicide bombings in Sialkot and Lahore, President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz met a delegation of ulema of major sects. The president asked the religious scholars to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring that such suicide attacks were not an Islamic means of waging jihad. Though an aide to the president announced that the ulema had agreed to issue such a fatwa, the mullahs refused to oblige. "A fatwa against suicide bombings will have implications beyond Pakistan", said Hanif Jallundri, chief of Pakistan's largest madrasa union, mentioning Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and Afghanistan. The ulema, he said, would consult senior scholars before committing themselves to issuing a binding edict on the matter. Only the Barelvi member of the delegation, Muneebur Rehman, is reported to have given his assent, and even that was conditional. The fatwa would be "operative only in Pakistan and not in other countries", he said, implying that suicide bombings other than in Pakistan were within the bounds of Islam. Though such a fatwa would have little legal or political value, the ulema were unwilling to make even a symbolic commitment to religious moderation.

VII. Conclusion

Sectarian terrorists in Pakistan are thriving in an atmosphere of religious intolerance for which its military government is largely to blame. General Musharraf has repeatedly pledged that he would eradicate religious extremism and sectarianism and transform Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state. In the interests of retaining power, he has done the opposite. Instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition. By depriving democratic forces of an even playing field and continuing to ignore the need for state policies that would encourage and indeed reflect the country's religious diversity, the government has allowed religious extremist organisations and jihadi groups, and the madrasas that provide them an endless stream of recruits, to flourish. It has failed to protect a vulnerable judiciary and equip its law-enforcing agencies with the tools they need to eliminate sectarian terrorism. The government's co-option of segments of the religious right has also intensified sectarian competition for state patronage, while the pronounced pro-Deobandi bias in state policies continues to fuel conflict between disparate religious movements, each of which claims to be the bearer of true Islam. Constitutional preference for Muslim citizens feeds controversies over the definition of who qualifies. Indeed, it is now difficult to draw clear lines in a theological debate in which, in a given context, each sect or sub-sect can be the other's nemesis. Because the Musharraf government's principal civilian allies are also organised along sectarian lines -- their politics based on the principle of exclusion -- sectarianism has crept into the national mainstream. This is most notable through the MMA's presence in the National Assembly and its control or dominance of two provinces bordering on Afghanistan. The expansion of Deobandi madrasa networks have also spread sectarian extremism in regions such as Balochistan that were, until now, relatively immune to such violence. Regulating madrasas, reforming the public education sector, invoking constitutional restrictions against private armies and hate speech, and removing all laws and state policies of religious discrimination are essential and overdue first steps to stem this tide of religious extremism. They have not been taken because the military has prioritised alliances of convenience with the religious right. Private lashkars continue to settle sectarian scores, the leaders of banned organisations openly preach their sectarian jihad, and discriminatory laws still threaten the most vulnerable segments of Pakistani society -- women and religious minorities -- even as they provide extremist elements yet another means of targeting perceived foes. While the tentacles of sectarianism in Pakistan are spread far and wide, terrorism is its most pernicious expression. Militarisation of religious questions is a further consequence of a strategy that weds religious symbols and ideology with foreign and defence policy, using rightwing religious parties for geo-strategic goals in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Because the Musharraf government has failed to curb, much less eliminate, the products of the military's jihad enterprise, numerous sectarian and jihadi organisations continue to employ their skills and weapons against their perceived enemies within Islam, as well as against the external enemy. Given the intrinsic links between Pakistan-based homegrown and transnational terrorists, the one cannot be effectively contained and ultimately eliminated without acting against the other. The government's unwillingness to demonstrate political will to deal with the internal jihad could cost it international support, much of which is contingent upon Pakistan's performance in the war
against terrorism. The U.S. and other influential actors have realised with regard to their own societies that terrorism can only be eliminated through pluralistic democratic structures. Pakistan should not be treated as an exception.

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