Sectarianism has a definite connotation to religion since it is about discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion, class, regional or factions of a movement as opposed to actions that are generally against public interest or destructive in nature. Infractions of the universal right to freedom of worship and practice of religion are systematic and rampant in Pakistan. Sectarian violence was rife in Pakistan in the 1980s and early 1990s. Former military dictator General Ziaul Haq’s rule (1977 to 1988) sowed the seeds of sectarianism. His policies and statutes were directed at Islamising Pakistan and were devised in conformity with an orthodox adaptation of Wahabi Sunni Islam as expounded by Deobandi Darul Uloom, to the exclusion of Sunni Barelvis and Shia Muslims.
Notwithstanding the government’s repeated bans on sectarian groups, they are becoming more active and defiant across the country, particularly in Karachi, Quetta and South Punjab. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in Pakistan’s sectarian war in the last two decades of the 20th century, and the mayhem continues. Sectarianism coincided with the onset of the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and was meant to arrest the threat of its spreading to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states across the Gulf.
Pakistan has remained between the Arab shift and Indo-Persian culture in terms of state policies, more particularly the foreign policy. The changing political interests over a period of time have dragged Pakistani society into sectarian mayhem. The first bit of sectarian trouble in Pakistan arose during the month of Muharram in 1950 in the city of Hyderabad in Sindh, in which nine mohajirs (migrants) were killed. However, the first major sectarian agitation that gripped the country was the anti-Ahmedi movement in 1953, which led to the imposition of martial law in Punjab for the first time. The army had to be called in to control the riots that erupted in Lahore following a virulent campaign against the Ahmedi community led by the Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis-e-Khatme Nabuwwat, a Sunni pressure group.
A defining moment in Shia-Sunni radicalisation was the Iranian revolution in 1979 and General Zia’s promulgation of zakat (wealth tax) and ushr (farming tax) ordinances under Sunni Islamic law in 1980. As these laws conflicted with Shia law, General Zia’s move triggered the first mass demonstration, when thousands of Shias turned out in Islamabad and demanded the repeal of these ordinances. The protest gave birth to the TNFJ (Movement for enforcement of the Jafaria (Shia) Law) as a new force in Pakistan’s politics.
This breeding menace, which started way back in the 1980’s, remained dormant for a while but was revived in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks. The number of incidents related to sectarian violence is continuously increasing in the country. Moreover, suicide attacks are also being carried out during sectarian clashes, which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people across the country.
The Pakistan Security Report 2013, brought out by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) engaged in research to understand ongoing conflicts such as militancy, extremism, radicalisation and insurgency, makes for interesting reading. According to this report, the rise in sectarian violence started in 2011 and continued through subsequent years. The report maintained that there had been 208 incidents of sectarian-related terrorist attacks in the country in which 658 people were killed and 1,195 injured, while 11 incidents of sectarian violence have been reported till January 19, 2014 in which 24 were killed and 38 were injured.
The Pakistan Religious Violence Project, an undertaking of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, tracked over the past several months publicly reported attacks against religious communities in Pakistan. The findings are sobering: 203 incidents of sectarian violence resulting in more than 1,800 casualties, including over 700 deaths. The Shia community bore the brunt of attacks from militants and terrorist organisations, with some of the deadliest attacks occurring during holy months and pilgrimages.
Today, sectarian competition is rife in Pakistan. Diverging from the actual role of madrassa (seminary) education, students and clerics in a majority of these madrassas are engaged in attracting followers of other sects into their own. They believe that only the sect followed by them is right and true while others are heretic and will burn in hell. Reforms to madrassa education are important for mainstream madrassas, and their curriculum is required to be changed to prevent the spread of hatred against other sects, religions, and societies.
Due to the narrow-mindedness of religious leaders, the level of intolerance among religious groups in our society is growing. The dilemma in Pakistan is that religious intolerance and extremism have assumed militant overtones. Bitter hatred towards members of diverse sects is not only preached but also overvalued. Thus, it threatens the peace and security of the country. Sectarian strife is a real threat to the security of Pakistan. It has shaken the basic foundation of Pakistan and has created disturbance, violence, hatred and disorder in society. For the last many decades, sectarian conflicts have resulted in increased suicide bombings, bomb blasts, assassinations and terrorist attacks.
Pakistan is not just a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic state but represents a significant mosaic of cultural, sectarian and religious diversity. This diversity needs to be recognised to promote unity. There is a need to promote education among misguided youth to convince them that violence is not a solution to their demands. The education system of Pakistan needs to be overhauled. It should teach tolerance, human rights, respect for other religions and how important it is to live in love and peace with fellow beings. Religion should not be used for political gains because exploitation of religious sentiments is highly sensitive and a very effective tool for public mobilisation. Some of the worst crimes against humanity have been committed through such manipulation. There is a dire need for just and expeditious solutions to sectarian conflicts around the world before we become embroiled in total anarchy and self-destruct ourselves.
The writer is a freelance columnist and independent researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @JanjuaHaroon