Pakistan's Sectarian Meltdown

Wide violence against religious minorities could tear Pakistan apart, and the government doesn't care.

Last month, militants murdered nine foreign mountain climbers at a base camp on Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat peak.

Many observers noted that it was the first attack of its kind. But in fact, one aspect of the attack—which received little news coverage—was depressingly familiar.

This is because there was a tenth casualty—a Pakistani porter named Ali Hussain. He was a Shia Muslim—a religious minority making up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s Sunni-majority population. Officials believe he was targeted because of his faith, and for good reason: At least four Sunni Muslims were reportedly also at the camp, and their lives were spared.

Sectarian strife is most often associated with the Middle East, but Pakistan is rapidly becoming one of its deadliest new fronts.

According to estimates, roughly four hundred Pakistani Shias were killed in sectarian violence last year—the highest number since the 1990s. There were more than five hundred overall deaths from sectarian strife in 2012, more than double the 2011 figure. A new U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report concludes that large numbers of attacks have targeted Pakistani religious communities over the last eighteen months. Shias and other minority communities are assaulted in their homes, at their centers of worship, in recreation centers and on public buses. In 2011, Pakistan’s minority-affairs minister, a Christian, was gunned down in his car in broad daylight.

Stability is Washington’s core interest in nuclear-armed, volatile Pakistan. This is why it agonizes over the Pakistani Taliban’s (TTP) vicious campaign of anti-state terror, and obsesses about the possibility of another military coup, a radical Islamist takeover, or nuclear weapons falling into extremist hands. Yet it’s arguably sectarian violence that poses the greatest threat to Pakistan’s long-term stability.

Consider sectarian militancy’s broad reach. One of its most powerful practitioners, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), has staged attacks in all four Pakistani provinces—prompting experts to describe LeJ as “more powerful in its countrywide presence” than the TTP. LeJ gets plenty of help from the Taliban, however. The TTP is increasingly targeting religious minorities and has claimed responsibility for several recent sectarian attacks (including the one that killed the porter on Nanga Parbat). These new tactics suggest a developing alliance between two of Pakistan’s most fearsome Sunni extremist organizations.

Then there’s public opinion. Few Pakistanis embrace the anti-state TTP’s vision of destroying the country’s political system, but many sympathize with the underlying views of sectarian extremists. In a recent Pew poll, 41 percent of Pakistanis said that Shias are not Muslims. In another poll, 60 percent of Pakistani youth contended that Ahmadis—who belong to another minority sect of Islam—are not Muslims. Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in 2011 for his public opposition to Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute religious minorities. Scores of Pakistanis—including many lawyers—rallied in support of Taseer’s assassin, at one point showering him with roses as he made his way to court. By expressing support for the basic ideas fueling sectarian violence, Pakistanis indirectly confer legitimacy on sectarian militants’ activities.

Finally, the Pakistani state has institutionalized sect-based discrimination. The second amendment of Pakistan’s constitution explicitly states that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has few laws that protect religious minorities—yet it does have the blasphemy laws, which produce the opposite effect. The assassination of Taseer has silenced much of the policy debate about religious minorities, and has made reform of the blasphemy laws—much less their elimination—a political nonstarter.