Pakistan's Sectarian Meltdown

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.

The most troubling aspect of the state’s complicity in sectarianism is the nexus between sectarian extremists and the security establishment. Human-rights groups believe Pakistan’s intelligence agency leverages these organizations to take on separatist insurgents in Balochistan province. There are also links between sectarian fighters and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)—the political party that has long run Punjab’s provincial government, and now leads the central government. In 2011, Punjab’s law minister admitted his government provided financial assistance to the family of LeJ’s supreme leader, Malik Ishaq. Last year, he campaigned with the leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, LeJ’s parent organization. Given that the PML-N’s bastion in Punjab is also the stronghold of most sectarian extremist groups, such linkages, while disturbing, are unsurprising.

Predictably, sectarian militants operate with impunity in Pakistan. Ishaq, the LeJ leader, lives freely in Punjab (he is periodically detained, before being promptly released). Suspects are rarely arrested, much less prosecuted. Last year, after tombstones at Ahmadi cemeteries were desecrated, police took no action. In many cases, police refuse to come to the aid of victims. After a mob set fire to homes in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore this year, a report produced by Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission concluded that police had been aware of an arson threat in advance, yet neither preempted the attack nor sought to save the homes. Last month, according to media reports, as Christian women were paraded naked by an armed mob, police arrived only “after much time”—and offered little assistance. Later, a PML-N legislator ordered police to back off because the perpetrators supported his party.

Compare this to how the state responds to the Pakistani Taliban. The TTP may operate with impunity (it waged a months-long assault on three major political parties during this year’s election campaign), but Pakistan’s army has been fighting it for years—with many lives of soldiers lost—in the country’s tribal belt.

In essence, Pakistan’s sectarian militants enjoy nationwide reach, considerable public support for their views, and protection from the state. Given these circumstances, minorities’ future prospects are grim. Already, some Pakistani commentators are referring to repeated attacks on Shias as “genocide.” Shias have fled to Europe and Australia. Hindus, describing their plight in Pakistan as “worse than hell,” have gone to India. A Christian girl falsely accused of blasphemy recently received asylum in Canada.

Yet most embattled minorities refuse to leave. Most are peaceful. Ominously, however, the militant network in Pakistan—where the Shia presence is larger than any country outside Iran—features two powerful Shia extremist groups, Sipah-e-Mohamadi and Tehrik-e-Jafria, which often avenge anti-Shia attacks with their own violence.

In a nation as fractured as Pakistan, where so many citizens define themselves by their ethnicity or religion instead of nationality, and where sectarian tensions flare on so many levels (from violence between Barelvi and Deobandi Sunni Muslims to bans on beverages produced by Ahmadi companies), sectarian warfare—even outright Balkanization—is a very real threat.

Can Pakistan’s sectarian nightmare be averted? Because so many necessary policy fixes are non-starters, it’s tempting to say no. Given the clout and tactical utility of sectarian organizations, Pakistan’s security establishment isn’t about to crack down on them—much less sever ties with them. Given its close relations with Riyadh, Islamabad won’t soon scale back its ties to a Saudi regime that has long exported its hardline Wahhabi (and anti-Shia) ideology to Pakistan. And given the lack of a public clamor for more religious tolerance, it’s unlikely policy makers will take the politically risky step of introducing new laws that protect minorities.

Yet all is not lost. Not long ago, analysts lamented how Pakistanis were “in denial” about their sectarian strife, and how they shrugged off the problem as another example of “foreign hands” making mischief—in this case, Saudis and Iranians using Pakistan as a proxy battlefield for their sectarian competition. Today, however, thanks to the violence’s scope, denial is no longer an option. The heightened violence also obscures an encouraging reality: Pakistan does enjoy some interfaith cooperation. Earlier this year, Sunnis intervened to try to stop LeJ gunmen from massacring Shias on a bus; a nineteen-year-old Sunni was shot for his brave efforts.

Unfortunately, these tales of tolerance may prove no match for Pakistan’s sectarian-driven jihadist juggernaut. So while today Washington’s anxious eyes are wisely fixated on the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban (which attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas), as NATO troops continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan over the next eighteen months, American eyes should also be trained on the likes of the LeJ. Sectarian militancy will persevere in Pakistan long after the last American soldier has left Afghanistan—and with devastatingly destabilizing consequences.

Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

Image: Flickr/Daniel Schmidt. CC BY 2.0.