Following the unilateral declaration of an Islamic ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, the self-declared ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reviling the Shia Muslims as Rafada (rejectionists), announced their campaign against the Shias of the region. While a lot of it has to do with al-Baghdadi’s imprisonment in an Iraqi prison after his serving time at Camp Bucca, and is more about political ambition than ideological differences, this has fuelled the already simmering issue of sectarian strife in the delicate societal structures in West Asia.
Repercussions are felt in South Asia, where Pakistan has witnessed similar but more worrisome crises over the past few years. What is the nature of the connection between the rising Islamist militancy in the region and sectarian violence? Do Islamist jihadists residing in the country fuel sectarian differences and as a result, violence, or do they merely exploit the existing differences for their benefit? What is the role of the State institutions in this issue? What implications does this phenomenon hold for Pakistan?
Pakistan’s Sectarian Schism
The anti-Shia nature of Sunni Islamist militants in Pakistan and their regional counterparts stems from the hard-line Sunni Wahabbi interpretations of the Quran and the Sharia law several of these militants learn in the Madrasas along the Durand line – funded by fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia to strengthen the Sunni wall around a Shia Iran. In addition to the Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nexus, Islamabad’s own paranoia that Iran might influence its Shia population has led to it not eliminating the hard-line Deobandi militant groups entirely. Furthermore, the sectarian nature of these jihadist militants does not stop at Shia killings. Other groups, especially the Ahmadiyyas and the Sufis, and some minority Sunni sub-groups, are heavily targeted.
Pakistan: The Role of Sectarianism in the Islamist Jihadist Agenda
Although numerous Islamist jihadist groups in Pakistan have varying endgames and work in silos, their agendas converge on various levels – especially as a result of the origins of their funding sources. Sectarian violence by Sunni Islamist jihadists intensified in 2007, alongside the rise of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), after a comparatively peaceful period from 2002-2006. The jihadists in an attempt to escape US military strikes started taking shelter in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in North-western Pakistan. The timeline of the pattern can be traced alongside the leadership of the TTP under Baitullah Mehsud, and later, under Hakimullah Mehsud – whose relationship with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat helped establish a strong Wahabbi Islamist jihadist network across the country.
There are considerable Shia settlements along the country’s north, western and south-western borders, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, and Balochistan. These areas share international borders with Afghanistan and Iran, where too there are significant Shia settlements. While there is a back-and-forth movement of Afghan Shias, especially Hazaras from Afghanistan into Pakistan in the north, Pakistan’s Balochistan province borders Iran’s Sunni majority Sistan Baluchestan province.
The jihadist groups, while generally anti-Shia in character, have a more practical reason to exploit the sectarian schism. Their access routes into Afghanistan, especially ones via Khurram Agency, pass through Shia-controlled areas, where Shia extremist groups have banded together to fight the Taliban’s anti-Shia campaigns. Sunni Islamist Jihadists from Sistan Baluchestan often interact with similar groups based in Balochistan.
Sustenance of Sectarian Violence
The escalation of sectarian violence in the Af-Pak border region, and in the rest of Pakistan, finds greater fuel in the Pakistani governance and justice systems than terrorists alone. The Pakistani State’s Sunni Islamic leanings have muddled the functioning of state structures. Often, investigations carried out following incidents of sectarian violence are either never thoroughly followed up or are laced with a sectarian bias. The conviction rate of perpetrators and/or aides in such acts is extremely low and as a result, external actors fund groups within Pakistan to provide solidarity. This results in a vicious cycle of funding for opposing militant groups by entities with vested interests. The problem intensifies when sectarian organisations find their way into the politics of the country. The increasing political clout of these actors, coupled with the government’s treatment of terrorist groups as equals during negotiations, has further entrenched the problem.
Sectarian violence in Pakistan is therefore primarily a product of misinformed political manoeuvres than purely ideology. The Islamist jihadists simply exploit the phenomenon to their benefit.
Unless the Pakistani State takes comprehensive measures to undo the political clout enjoyed by sectarian actors and regulates the funding of the tens of thousands of Madrasas, sectarian violence will only escalate in the country. Additionally, those battle-hardened Pakistani-origin jihadist returnees of the Syrian war will try to force their writ in the region, regardless of sectarian definitions, and will bring heavy losses not limited to just religious minorities. The vicious cycle with continue, and the militants’ attempts to turn Pakistan into a Salafist Wahabbi nation will not only destabilise Pakistan internally, but also fuel a larger regional instability involving Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Therefore, given the developments in West Asia, Pakistan, if it seeks stability, must clamp down on terrorists of “all hue and colour,” especially the ambitious TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, and the relatively unknown Jaish-e-Khurasan group, to crush Pakistan’s own Khurasan movement – and in alliance with Afghanistan, weed out those militants hiding in Afghanistan’s Khost, Kunar and Nuristan provinces to escape Operation Zarb-e-Azb.