Pakistan’s sectarian rifts are unlikely to heal in the near future. The results of the February 2008 elections showed that even though the support base of religious political parties—both Shia and Sunni—is shrinking, instances of sectarian violence, which are perpetrated by a minority on both sides, have increased in recent years. The PPP-led coalition that took power in Pakistan in 2008 is considered sympathetic to Shia Muslims and other minority groups. Still, the Shia perceive Sunni radicalism as a major threat, especially the prevalent anti-Shiism of Deobandi groups and the Ahle-Hadith sub-sect. The targeting of major Shia gatherings in 2008, 2009, and 2010, which began in the NWFP and gradually expanded into Quetta, Karachi, Southern Punjab, and Lahore indicates a rising trend of sectarian attacks. For instance, out of 944 sectarian attacks since 2001, over 50 percent of the attacks took place in the last three years. Unprecedented attacks on Sufi shrines in Peshawar (Rahman Baba), Islamabad (Bari Imam), and Lahore (Data Ganj Bakhsh), which are revered by Shia and Barelvi Sunnis alike, further underline the gravity of the problem. The vulnerability of Shia communities across Pakistan is also compounded by the failure of TNFJ and TIP to provide effective leadership. The rise of Tehrik-iTaliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistani Taliban) whose leadership includes ardent anti-Shia militants, could mean that conditions for the Shia in the FATA may deteriorate further. That said, the majority of Shia continue to be associated with the major political forces in the country and are well represented in parliament and government. The return of democracy has further strengthened this trend. The decrease in Shia retaliatory attacks against anti-Shia militant groups is a positive development in this context. A reversal of this trend would serve as an important indicator of resurgence of Shia militancy. Although Pakistan’s Shia are largely directionless and leaderless at the moment, they are unlikely to adopt a militant posture as a response to anti-Shia violence because they have learned the lesson that militancy is counterproductive and compromises their security interests in Pakistan. Still, a resurgence of SMP or the rise of similar militant groups is entirely conceivable, especially if Iranian or other external support becomes available. Renewed targeted killings of Shia in Karachi in June and July 2010 further intensified pressure on the Shia to respond to aggression in kind. There are a variety of reasons why the state of Pakistan has failed to tackle the menace of sectarianism since the 1980s, when it emerged as a serious issue.
First, military dictatorships institutionalized authoritarianism and discouraged the role of mainstream progressive and centrist political forces, with the result that religious extremist forces expanded their space and influence in the country. Sectarianism is a by-product of religious activism and bigotry.
Second, gradually the sectarian outfits developed organizational linkages with regional and global terrorist groups, rendering them more lethal as a result.
Third, Pakistan’s convoluted and misdirected regional policy, especially towards India and Afghanistan during the 1990s, provided a cover to sectarian militants.
As in many previous instances, such groups supplied warriors for sabotage operations in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in turn earning the gratitude of the country’s security establishment. In some instances, this phenomenon remained active until recent years. Last, but not least, Pakistan’s poor law enforcement capacity continues to seriously undermine its ability to confront sectarian militancy in the country. Even when police apprehend sectarian terrorists, they evade justice because of a failing criminal justice system.
The combination of these factors has made this bad problem worse. It is important to mention that the Shia are not the only sect facing violence at the hands of extremists and terrorists in Pakistan. The Ahmiddiya community, Hindus, Christians and even Barelvi Sunnis are all at the receiving end of this on slaught—evidence that over the years, Pakistan has become an epicenter in a war of ideas that is taking place within the larger Muslim world. There is a widespread realization in Pakistan that this state of affairs is eating into the vital organs of the state. The political leadership seems to recognize this view, often expressing its commitment to defeat sectarianism. Solving this problem, however, is easier said than done. In terms of tactics and tools, sectarian terror groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba are now increasingly indistinguishable from terrorist organizations like Tehrik-i-Taliban and even Al-Qaeda. Recent developments show that these sectarian groups are also being targeted as part of the anti-terrorism drive in the country. Despite these efforts, it is unlikely that Pakistan will be able to sustain this counterterrorism strategy in the absence of major structural changes in its law enforcement system and of a major overhaul of prosecution proceedings.
Although in recent years a movement for the rule of law in Pakistan has emerged and strengthened, more time is needed for this movement to gain momentum and dividends, and become part of the solution to this problem. The sectarian fault lines in Pakistan are deep and dangerous. But the threats posed by sectarian tensions compete with a number of other problems, ranging from rehabilitation and reconstruction work after the massive 2010 flood devastation, deepening economic crisis, rampant corruption, and an exploding population growth rate to violent ethnic tensions. In terms of immediacy, chances of nationwide Shia-Sunni sectarian riots are rather low when compared with prospects for food riots or the specter of widening street riots to protest recurring breakdowns of electricity. Pakistan’s political and military leadership must promote sectarian harmony—the sine qua non for peace in South Asia, and a goal that can still be attained. To achieve this end, however, the country’s leaders will need to tackle the abysmal education sector in a revolutionary manner, with the goal to promote pluralism and tolerance; introduce deradicalization programs with the help of modernist religious scholars to eliminate sectarian hatred promoted by many madrassas; and stabilize Pakistan by waging an effective, balanced, and sustained campaign against terrorists in the Pakistan-Afghan border belt, Karachi, and in South Punjab.