It follows the pattern that is evident countrywide and it is linked to the Taliban finding new havens and areas of control
It seems that Pakistan is heading towards another purge – this time a violent process of cleansing the Shia population. There is a mysterious wave of terrorism that is killing Hazara population on a daily basis in Balochistan, Shias in Gilgit-Baltistan, Kurram Agency and elsewhere.
In the last one-month, dozens of Shias have been targeted and killed as if Pakistan was a medieval land, practicing witch-hunting. The ‘banned’ organisations have taken responsibility for most of the attacks in Balochistan.
The case of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), on the other hand, has faced a virtual media blackout. Not long ago, GB was touted as the fifth province but when it comes to the vital question to protecting its population, the state is miserably failing.
The most gruesome incident took place when 15 passengers of the Shia community were taken off the buses in Chilas, Diamer district, and shot. People from the region say that GB is under attack by the Taliban insurgents from Malakand division and Waziristan. The Darel and Chilas Valleys provide them refuge. The stronghold of Salafis and Wahabis on Pakistan’s Afghan and, consequently, Taliban policy cannot be delinked from the ongoing massacre.
GB is a plural society where Muslims from different sects – Shia, Ismaili and Nurbakhshis and Sunnis – have coexisted for long. Sectarian tensions started in the area during Gen Zia’s rule when militant organisations such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan were formed and nurtured.
But the targeted killings of Shias this time is not business-as-usual. It follows the pattern that is evident countrywide and it is linked to the Taliban finding new havens and areas of control. Such was the mayhem in GB that the cellular services were down and a whole region was cut off from the rest of the country. Curfew was in place for days and the local population continues to live in fear of violence. Most notably, the Shias of the area are under attack.
In the tribal areas, Parachinar has also witnessed the re-emergence of sectarian tensions and Talibanisation in recent years. In 2008, the local Sunni population sided with the Taliban and laid siege to an enclave of Shiites in the area. Subsequently, Shia residents fled to the city of Peshawar.
Since then, the Taliban have been successful in exploiting the generations-old sectarian conflict in the region as a way of challenging the government’s writ in the Kurram agency. The spillover of the Talibanisation has also been witnessed in the settled district of Hangu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Parachinar’s Shiite population has been subjected to abductions, violence and murder. Sunnis perceived as being too friendly to the Shias have also been targeted. Reports of Shia militias have also appeared in the media in retaliation to the attacks by the Taliban.
The efforts of Pakistani state to use religion to construct a national identity have come home to roost. Since the 1950s, the textbooks and public education were used to develop a non-inclusive identity; and glorification of historical characters who hated Shiaism such as Shah Walliullah and Emperor Aurangzeb.
The sectarian decrees of apostasy against the Shias of Pakistan in the ‘90s cited such religious figures to justify their pedigree. Zia proceeded to impose a rigid interpretation of Islamic law on Pakistan, in part to legitimise his illegal rule and in part as a result of his own ideological inclinations. A gradual movement from the more tolerant, pluralist expression of religion to a more austere and puritanical Deobandi Islam had already begun in the country earlier.
I have written elsewhere on how the Deobandi creed was further strengthened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Afghanistan had always practised the Deobandi variant of Fiqh Hanafia and the ‘jihad’ against the Soviet Union increased the charisma of the Deobandi seminary. The geopolitics of Shia-Sunni tensions in the Middle East after the Iranian revolution also added to the hardening of religious identities.
The strategy of using Deobandi militia proxies in Kashmir further alienated the Barelvis. Barelvi mosques began to be forcibly taken over by Deobandis with state patronage. Today, bolstered by the support lent to them by the Saudis and radicalised further by the presence of Al Qaeda commanders of the likes of Al Zawahiri and their Salafi teaching, the Deobandis dominate the ideological landscape of Pakistan.
Al Qaeda continued to operate from the Pak-Afghan border despite the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and its leadership found safe havens in Pakistan. Although over the years Bin Laden and his partners were successful in creating a structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan that attracted young recruits, it was never established as a cohesive network. Instead, Al Qaeda continues to operate like a “venture capital firm”, providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to militants from all over the Islamic world. In Pakistan, Al Qaeda is known to have links with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and several other extremist groups.
The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) is the new ally of Al Qaeda; and the mayhem caused by this network indicates that its demise as touted by the global pundits is far from true.
We are gradually moving towards the term ‘genocide’ when it relates to the Shia population. Of course, the term genocide has legal implications and well defined parameters. But there is a ‘cleansing’ of sorts underway in the case of Hazara. Indeed, the term ‘sectarianism’ that has been in currency is now outdated for the largely one-sided attack on Pakistani Shias.
Many bloggers in the social media have denounced the use of term sectarianism for the current spate of killings. But the term sectarian is also used to define what happens when large sections of society are brainwashed with a sectarian worldview, i.e. Wahabi-Salafi version, courtesy the generous grants by Middle Eastern countries to Pakistani madrassas.
Pakistan has the second-highest Shia population in the world and to witness this slaughter amid a dark, culpable silence is deeply disturbing to say the least. If Shia killing is an offshoot of a state policy, then it needs to be challenged by the intelligentsia and the media. The political parties must not be silent about it as they have been. The deepening divisions within the society and continued legitimisation of Shia killing at the subaltern level by militant organisations, is a trend which will destroy Pakistan.
Sectarian organisations like the SSP/Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat continue to operate out of brick and mortar offices in the Punjab with impunity. The state should disband all armed militias and militant organisations under Article 246 of the constitution. Existing bans on sectarian organisations like the SSP should be strictly enforced.
The government should publicise evidence of sectarian organisations’ involvement in violent or criminal activities. Laws against hate speech should be strictly implemented. Jihadi publications supporting supra-state ideologies and sectarian agendas should be banned and the license of such publications should be revoked.
Human Rights groups have already recommended that the government officials and politicians accused of maintaining links with sectarian organisations should be investigated and, if found guilty, should be prosecuted. The government should ensure a competent prosecution team for those being tried for sectarian violence. The security of lawyers and judges who oversee sectarian cases should also be ensured. We need witness protection programmes in the larger context of counter-terrorism efforts of the state.
Most importantly, Pakistani state policy of allowing space for militant organisations needs a serious overhaul. The militarisation of Pakistani society and the havoc wreaked by rogue ‘strategic assets’ on the country should be evidence enough that the state cannot continue to support militant organisations at the cost of dividing Pakistani society.
The provincial governments which have all the legal powers must now clean up the Pakistan Studies and Islamic studies textbooks of all contents that promote sectarianism or spread hatred.
Raza Rumi’s writings are archived at www.razarumi.com