The Politics and Dynamics of Violent Sectarianism

Abbas Rashid


Understanding the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan must begin with the crisis of the liberal-democratic order that was envisioned for the country at the time of its creation. The political consensus underlying the establishment of this order broke down soon after the creation of Pakistan when East Pakistan was denied fair electoral representation. Instead of building a federal framework with a pluralist ethos that was implicit in its creation, Pakistan moved rapidly towards becoming a unitary, centralised state. The imposition of martial law in 1958 indicated the ruling elite was not willing to manage political and economic resources democratically. This resulted in the ethno-nationalist movement which led to the creation of Bangladesh and sub-nationalist movements in other parts of former West Pakistan.

A democratic order was eventually restored and so was a measure of political consensus, as illustrated by all the key political parties endorsing the 1973 Constitution. But, in practice, it turned out that there was little sharing of power by the executive, either with the other institutions of the state or the leadership of the other provinces. There was a rise in the level of alienation in Baluchistan, NWFP and urban Sindh.


In 1977, an imperfect democracy was replaced by something worse: a military dictatorship that used religion to legitimise its rule. To some extent, the Zia regime's actions in this respect were a continuation of an elite tradition of manipulating religion for narrow political ends that dates back to the early years of Pakistan. Consider, for instance, Punjab Chief Minister Daultana's role in the 1953 Anti-Ahmadiya agitation, President Ayub's campaign against Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah in the 1962 elections using religion to question a woman's candidacy, or Bhutto's 'Islamic' concessions to save his government in the last days of his rule. But the Zia regime's contribution was qualitatively different from anything that preceded it. In seeking legitimation and a social base for his rule, General Zia's policies encouraged fundamentalism, strengthened its institutional base and provided a fertile base for sectarianism to grow and prosper.


The less charitable would contend that this was always part of the plan of divide and rule by a junta that lacked a constituency. Creating this was a task that the Zia regime set about with great enthusiasm while it engineered a more divided polity. In Sindh, the MQM was supported if not created as the urban counterweight to the Pakistan Peoples Party, whose base was seen to lie in rural Sindh. Similarly, the deepening of sectarian divisions, a corollary of Zia's policy of using law and the state for privileging religion as understood by one sect, rendered it more difficult for a unified political opposition to emerge and civil society less likely to challenge the appropriation of the state by those who had no popular mandate to do so. It is no coincidence that the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Fiqh-Jafaria, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the MQM all emerged during General Zia's rule.


The sectarian and ethnic essentialism that came into its own in an organised, militant form in the Zia years now threatens the very fabric of society and poses an ever more serious challenge to the state. The dynamic of exclusion and minoritisation that had informed state policy, starting fairly early on with the Bengalis and moving to the Ahmadis in the 1970s, had moved under Zia from the periphery to centre-stage, as it were. The amended blasphemy law, the Hudood Ordinances, the public hangings and whippings created an ethos of brutality in which weaker sections of society became fair game by way of serving as instruments to establish the 'Islamic' credentials of the state as well as the 'privileged' claims of the more powerful mainstream sections of society. Religiosity rather than religion had been placed at a premium under Zia and had a significant bearing on the rise of a certain class to a point where it had access to the resources of the state and learnt to manipulate the levers of power.


Zia's rule fostered the growth of sectarianism in a number of ways. It created among the Shia community a perception that his government was moving rapidly towards the establishment of a Sunni Hannafi state in which the 'Islamisation' of laws was seen to reflect the 'Islam' of the dominant community. The 1980 'gherao' (siege) of the government Secretariat in Islamabad by tens of thousands of Shias protesting against the Zakat and Ushr ordinance was a clear indication of their apprehensions regarding Zia's 'Islamisation' project. The selective backing of the Afghan groups resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan again corresponded to a sectarian pattern of preferences that reinforced perceptions on both sides of the divide.


Under Zia, with the promulgation of the Zakat and Usher Ordinance of 1979, the religious establishment was considerable strengthened. On joining Zakat committees, maulvis became responsible for distributing money to the poor. In rural areas, maulvis became Usher collectors and this changed their status considerably as it put them in touch with the district administration and local government. The government's decision to provide Zakat funds to madaris resulted in their mushroom growth. The induction of their graduates into government service created the prospect for upward social mobility rendering them a more attractive proposition. Meanwhile, they dove-tailed nicely into a system of recruitment and cadre-building on the part of politico-religious parties. Not least, Zia made it difficult for his divisive policies to be countered by systematically undermining institutions of state and society that had the potential to do so, such as political parties and the judiciary.


Organised Sectarianism and Sectarian Violence

By the end of Zia's rule the consequences of his policies were fairly obvious. Over the last decade there has been a major escalation in sectarian tension, the number of sectarian killings and armed sectarian groups. Among those that have gained particular prominence are the Sipah-i-Mohammad Pakistan (SMP), which is an off-shoot of the Tehrik-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria (TNFJ), the main politico-religious Shia party in Pakistan, later renamed the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TFP); the Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba, later renamed the Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan (SSP), an off-shoot of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a leading politico-religious Sunni Deobandi party. A further off-shoot of the SSP is the even more militant Lashar-e-Jhangvi.


The present state of organised sectarian conflict can be traced to the murder of TNFJ leader Arif Hussain Al-Hussaini in 1988. Others date it to 1987, when Ahl-e-Hadith leaders, Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer and Maulana Habib ur Rehman Yazdani, were killed, along with six others, at a meeting near the Minar-e-Pakistan. Prior to this there were serious anti-Shia riots in Lahore in 1986. In any case, the spiral of violence registered a sharp rise in February 1990 with the murder of Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, founder of the SSP. This was followed by violent clashes resulting in dozens of casualties and burning down of numerous houses and shops in Jhang. In December that year, Iran's Counsel General in Lahore, Sadeq Ganji, was killed and the phenomenon of sectarian violence in Pakistan began to receive international attention.


By 1992 it was clear that the SSP had access to sophisticated arms, had acquired the ability to use them and could do so even against the law enforcment agencies. In June of that year, a rocket launcher was used by its militants in an attack that killed five policemen. In terms of militancy and defiance of the state the SMP is not far behind. An attempt by police to storm the SMP Headquarters in Thokar Niaz Beg on the outskirts of Lahore resulted in the loss of about five police vehicles and a hasty withdrawal. SMP activists involved in serious crimes fled from police custody in Bahawalpur in May 1996. The fleeing persons fired rockets at the police chasing them.


In Punjab, 1994 was one of the worst years in terms of sectarian violence when such incidents claimed 73 lives and more than 300 people were injured. Many of these killings were the result of indiscriminate firing on people saying their prayers. The chief minister at the time ordered a crackdown and more than 200 people were arrested. Many were later released at the intercession of the Milli Yakjeheti Council, created in March 1995. The level of violence also registered a decline that year, after the loss of 140 lives in February.


In any case, the relief, of sorts, was to be short-lived. The latter half of 1996 saw bloody sectarian fighting in Para Channar and parts of Kurram agency that left hundreds of people dead. The government machinery was found badly lacking yet again in its ability to deal with the issue. Two things were brought out most clearly as a result of these clashes. Firstly, the inability of the government machinery to anticipate trouble and identify and apprehend the key actors. Secondly, the administration in this case did not co-opt local elders and other influential people who might have helped diffuse the situation. The political agent for Kurram agency and the Assistant Political Agent for Upper Kurram were both non-Pakhtoons, and lack of communication between them and local peopel appeared to be a significant factor in their inability to move quickly enough to avert the clashes.


The resurgence of sectarian killings in the second half of 1996 indicated that senior government officials were also going to be targeted. Among those who were murdered were the Commissioner of Sargodha and the deputy commissioner of Khanewal. There were, in fact, fewer incidents but on average more people were killed per incident. Ten people were killed in indiscriminate firing at a mourning procession in Mailsi in Vehari district in July. The SSP was blamed for the incident. Twenty-two were shot dead in a Multan mosque during morning prayers in September. This time, the TJP was blamed.


Last year, 1997, saw no let up in the spate of sectarian killings. In January, a bomb blast at the Sessions Court left 30 people dead, including 22 policemen, a journalist and the SSP chief Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi. In the same month, the Iranian Cultural Centre in Lahore was attacked and set on fire, while in Multan seven peopel were shot dead including the Iranian diplomat Muhammad Ali Rahimi. The death toll for 1977 had risen above 200 well before the end of the year.


The dead included senior government servants and foreign nationals. Among the government personnel killed was a secretary to the provincial government who was murdered near the civil secretariat in February, followed by the murder of Guranwala's Senior Superintendent of Police, a brother-in-law of the interior minister. As for foreign nationals, apart from Mr. Rahimi, five personnel of the Iranian armed forces who were in Pakistan for training were murdered in September. These killings came at a time when the anti-terrorist legislation was being celebrated for its effectiveness by the Punjab administration


The attack on the Iranian Air Force officers was the second attack on Iranian officials in less than a year. It came at a time when relations between Pakistan and Iran were already at a low ebb due to conflicting interests in Afghanistan of the two countries. The Iranian foreign office claimed that the killings had occurred only because Pakistan's government had failed to punish the killers of the Iranian diplomat, Mohammed Ali Rahimi. Other foreign victims included four American executives murdered in November of that year. While this attack cannot be called a sectarian killing, it was part of the dynamic of violence that can be categorised as fundamentalist. It was certainly aggravated by the perceived high-handedness of the United States in particular, and the West in general, towards the Muslim world.


The pattern and scale of violence indicates some key features. The contending groups are well organised and well armed. Their ability to maintain their effectiveness and to elude the law enforcement agencies also has to do with an extensive support network that includes madaris, political parties, bases across the border, and financial support from foreign countries if not foreign governments. It is a fairly common belief in Pakistan now that something of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is going on in Pakistan, with different groups in Afghanistan weighing in as well.


The authority of the state has been challenged by the sectarian groups in various ways. Their hate literature and cassettes -- easily available across the country -- obviously violate the law of the land but seldom invite sanction. Offences such as murder and destruction of property do get a state response but it lacks the will to take the difficult steps necessary to deal with the phenomenon. A narrow law and order approach, with a police force unequipped to deal with highly motivated, well trained and well organised militants, has obviously not had much of an impact, particularly when the latter have state of the art weapons. In any case, the organisations' decision to target state functionaries, and institutions such as the courts, is a clear indication that sectarianism is now no longer confined to a societal framework but informs state-society relations.


There is evidence of a considerable level of intimidation directed at state functionaries responsible for law and order. For instance, a Lahore Jail Superintendent, Syed Sibte Hassan Naqvi, was killed in September 1994 in what appeared to be retaliation for harsh treatment of prisoners of one sect. Similarly, judges of the lower judiciary, and even some of the Superior judiciary, are said to avoid hearing cases that involve sectarian violence and the more powerful sectarian groups. In November 1977, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sajjad Ali Shah, was reported to have asked the registrar of the court to send him a list of all the judges who appeared to be avoiding such cases.


The increasing militarisation and brutalisation of the conflict has meant that there are virtually no sanctuaries left. Neither the home nor the mosque, nor the hospital. Not even the jail. And being innocent is not the issue. Just ‘being’ is enough -- being Shia or Sunni, Barelvi or Deobandi. And, of course, in the realm of secular divisiveness, being Sindhi or Mohajir or more often a Mohajir with one kind of political affiliation rather than the other. People have been killed while praying, while taking part in funeral processions and while sleeping in their homes.


One explanation for this is that in a situation where different sectarian groups are vying to prove themselves the standard bearers of Islam one option is to stand out as being closer to 'true Islam' by displaying extreme hostility and intolerance to those designated as being un-islamic by virtue of belonging to religious minorities and minority sects.


The rise of militant sectarianism can also be viewed in terms of the quest on the part of a relatively deprived section of the population for a proximate identity, security in an environment in which the state cannot be relied upon, economic betterment, and a bid for political power. This is reflected in the profiles of sectarian activists put together by the police; they had little education, belonged to poor families, were young and mostly unemployed. A number of them had no religious education either and had never been to a madrassa.


Militant sectarianism may also be converging with militant ethnicity in certain ways. There is, for instance, some evidence to suggest that a level of interaction has come to exist between ethnic and sectarian organisations. According to a report published in an Urdu weekly, an armed group was arrested in Lahore in February 1996 and on 25 March the police brought three of them before the press. Fahim Bihari, Mohammad Asif and Asghar it turned out were members of the SSP as well as the MQM (Altaf). They had started off as members of the latter, but over time had been inducted by the SSP. They were provided with cassettes and inflammatory literature and offered a small amount of money, Rs. 2000-5000, for doing the group's bidding. They were to kill members of the rival sect. Allegedly, they started doing this in Karachi but then moved to Lahore, where they were eventually caught. The advantage to both sides of such an arrangement is obvious. The terrorists were able to evade the Sindh police by coming under the cover of a different organisation and operating in a different province. At the same time, the Punjab police was obviously going to find it difficult to track them down as they would be unknown in the province.


There may be deeper common aspects to the rise of ethnic and sectarian militancy. Pakistan has by and large adhered to a doctrine of 'functional inequality' in terms of its approach to economic growth and development. This has created tensions among competing groups. This competition is further aggravated when these differences or divisions conform, or can be made to appear to conform, to distinct sectarian or ethnic identities. These identities may, in turn, be accentuated either as a matter of course or as the outcome of deliberate policies. For example, the ethnic conflict in Sindh serves to obscure class divisions between the respective communities, while in Jhang the sectarian conflict has superimposed an active sectarian identity on an existing divide between the landed elite and the middle and lower middle classes, including a strong presence of the bazaari element.


Sectarian and ethnic militancy may both be responses to the social pressures generated by a type of modernisation that results in alienation, marginalisation, and unemployment. The process disproportionately affects the young who are readily swayed by simplistic ideas and are quick to embrace a proximate identity in which they can feel more secure.


The case of Jhang, to which the present-day state of political violence and conflict can be traced in large measure, illustrates this phenomenon. Home base to the SSP, Jhang is located in a region that divides Central from Southern Punjab and still has a significantly high proportion of large land holdings, leaving feudalism relatively undisturbed. Most of the larger landlords belong to the Shia community and have dominated both society and politics. But, over the years Jhang has developed as an important mandi (market) town gradually increasing the power of traders, shopkeepers and transporters serving the rural areas. This class has been seeking a political voice and role and is now challenging the traditional feudal hold. The most potent political challenge, so far, has been articulated in the form of virulent sectarianism, with the formation in September 1985 of the ASS -- now SSP. This has meant, however, that the contest for access to resources and status is not framed in terms of class divisions, or the imperatives of modernisation, but confrontationist sectarian identities.


This has created its own contradictions. In Jhang a sizable proportion of traders and shopkeepers have continued to fund the SSP. Though many no longer condone the violence associated with the party it is also now a matter of buying security. Nevertheless, there may have been some decline in their support for the SSP over recent years as a result of the economic consequences of sectarian strife.


Another feature shared by ethnic and sectarian groups is the way they project the local issue as part of a larger concern. The MQM, for instance, does not limit itself to the urban areas of Sindh and has switched from being the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to the Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz. Similarly, in the case of a sectarian group such as the SSP the local problem is consciously linked to the international arena of Shia-Sunni confrontation by reference to Iran and Saudi Arabia and the battle for the soul of the Muslim world.



The institution of the madrassa needs to be considered in greater detail, given the impact it has had on the strength and salience of sectarian organisations and politico-religious parties in Pakistan. The role of the madaris is important in terms of providing the manpower to sustain the sectarian conflict and as an institution for reproducing the ideology in which such conflict has its moorings. Often these institutions themselves have a sectarian orientation which they impart to their students. Some of these institutions go further and impart military training.


Sometimes the state has been indifferent to this, and at other times consciously looked the other way, when it suited its purpose. The training of the Taliban in many of our madaris is by now a well known fact. Whatever Inter-Services Intelligence and other concerned institutions of the state saw as the role of the Taliban in the context of the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan, it is not clear if they perceived with the same clarity the consequences of this policy within the country.


These madaris were supported by the JUI which is also linked to the SSP. At the same time the JUI is a mainstream political party with a relatively strong base in the provinces of Baluchistan and the Frontier. Its head, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, has been the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly under the Benazir government. It has now renounced the path of elections and seems to have joined the broader effort of politico-religious groups to attack democracy, which they can, unfortunately, argue has delivered very little to the common man. The case of the JUI provides a telling illustration of the links between madaris, mainstream politico-religious parties, sectarian organisations and representative institutions.


The rise in the number of madaris has been phenomenal. At the time of Partition, besides a few Shia madaris, there were 137 traditional Sunni madaris. By 1950, there were 210, and the number nearly doubled in a decade, reaching 401 in 1960. The number continued to rise, reaching 563 in 1971. Around this time the total number of big and small madaris was estimated to be at least 893 with more than 3000 teachers and more than 30,000 regular students.


In 1979, a committee set up under the secretaryship of Mohammad Yusuf Goraya and commissioned by General Zia-ul-Haq estimated the number of madaris in Punjab as being over 1000. Today, in Punjab alone, according to one estimate, the number of madaris exceeds 2,500. There are about as many spread throughout the rest of the country. The Barelvis have approximately 1200 institutions, the Deobandi about 1000. About 200 belong to the Ahl-e-Hadith. The Shias have about 100 institutions. Bahawalpur division has the highest number, about 900. D.G. Khan, Multan and Lahore divisions follow with nearly 400 for the former and over 300 for the latter two. Generally, Southern Punjab has the highest number of madaris. In all, these institutions are estimated to have about 200,000 students and their number is about evenly split between the Deobandi and Barelvi madaris with the former being in a slight lead.


Most of the students studying in these madaris are aged between five and eighteen. Most come from low income families in rural areas and semi-rural towns and cities. Among the prominent towns and cities in this regard are Kabirwala, Muzzaffargarh, Khanewal, Bhawalpur, Bhawalnagar, Leiah, Karor, Shuja Abad, and D.G. Khan. According to a survey conducted by an agency of the Punjab Government, about 36% of the deeni madaris were getting financial aid from the government out of Zakat fund. The rest were being run by their organisations either using foreign funds directly provided to them by foreign countries/organisations or on the basis of regular subscriptions. Some of those getting funds from the government of Pakistan could also be getting funds from abroad.


Bahawalpur division provides an interesting insight into this dynamic. Here the government provides aid to less than a quarter of the madaris. It does not seem possible for them to generate much funding through local resources in this relatively economically depressed area. But it has a very large number of madaris. This suggests most sectarian madaris may no longer be in great need of government assistance. Former students and well off sympathisers settled abroad or in big cities seem to be providing funding.


The survey included an investigation into madaris involved in sectarian activity. In Sargodha, Faisalabad, and Rawalpindi, the percentage of such madaris is reported to be particularly high: 105 out of 149 in Sargodha, 87 out of 112 in Faisalabad and 90 out of 169 in Rawalpindi. In Bahawalpur, D.G. Khan and Multan it is closer to 25%, though it should be kept in mind that the absolute number of madaris here is higher. In Gujranwala and Lahore it is considerably lower, though the number of students is relatively high. Bahawalpur and Lahore in that order, account for almost 50% of the students of deeni madaris in Punjab, with approximately 64,000 and 42,000 students respectively.


The madaris have also been consolidated as an institution in another manner. General Zia’s government took a decision in 1984-85 to induct the graduates of deeni madaris into the education department as Arabic teachers in BPS-9, if they were in possession of a Wifaq-ul-Madaris degree. Every sect has its own Wifaq to which madaris belonging to its own school are affiliated. There is no official regulation or monitoring system for these Wifaq. The degrees are bestowed without any formal examination.


Besides the local students young people from about six Muslim countries were studying in these schools. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has gone on record as saying that some of these countries were funding terrorist organisations. He also said that there were demands of dispensing with government financial assistance to madaris, announced the closure of some but then back-tracked. About 750 madaris were said to have a sectarian orientation. Around 100 madaris were imparting military training. Successive governments have talked of a 'foreign hand' fanning sectarian differences.


Factionalism and sectarian militancy

Until the 1980s Pakistan had only three mainstream Sunni parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat ul Ulema-i-Islam, and Jamaat-Ulema Pakistan. At this point a new set of militants entered the scene partly because of socio-economic conditions, partly through the factionalising of the existing politico-religious parties.


The JUP, a Barelvi politico-religious party split into five groups. The Sunni Tehreek in Karachi is the largest of these. It is headed by Maulana Saleem Qadri. Another big faction is the Dawat-e-Islami headed by Maulana Ilyas Qadri (former Punjab president of Anjuman Tulaba-e-Islam, the JUPs youth wing). Another smaller group is the Punjab Sunni Tehreek. In 1982, Maulana Ilyas Qadri declared himself Amir-e-Ahle-Sunnat and founded the organisation in Karachi. Until 1994 the Dawat held its annual congregation in that city but since then it has become more active in Punjab and the congregation is now held in Multan for the last three years. The DI puts its own strength of activists at over 100,000. The DI runs scores of madaris all over the country. It is planning to set up an Islamic university in Karachi. Another breakaway faction of the JUP is run by Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri. Apart from the Minhaj-ul-Quran which is a forum for teaching the Quran. the political wings of his establishment are Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat and Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat.


According to the Barelvi ulema the Deobandi sect was a minority until 1970. Subsequently, Maulana Mufti Mahmood’s government in NWFP patronised Deobandi mullahs and appointed them to head official mosques which were looked after by the provincial Muslim Auqaf (Trust). This led to the growth of Deobandi madaris in NWFP (from where the Taliban derive their strength). General Zia also patronised Deobandis, and Saudi Arabia helps them financially. All this has led the Barelvis to come up with a response.


The JUI was split into the Sami, the Darkhwasti and the Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman groups. Later the SSP was founded. A number of other factions also emerged from the base of the JUI. Among them were the Tahaffaz-e-Khatm-e-Nabwwat under Maulana Khan Muhammad of Kundian Sharif and the Harkat-ul-Ansar under Maulana Saadat Ullah Khan. The latter’s involvement in Kashmir and Afghanistan is well known. The relationship between the JUI and the other factions (as in similar cases of breakaway groups) is not necessarily one of sustained antagonism. This is illustrated by Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s volunteering to negotiate with the Harkat when it was alleged that it was the organisation responsible for the kidnapping of the five foreigners in Kashmir. It may at times may be more of a division of labour arrangement wherein the primarily political is separated from the primarily militant so that each side can work effectively in its own sphere.


The SSP, of course, has emerged over the years as one of the key militant factions. It was established by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Zia-ur-Rehman Farooqi, Maulana Eesar-ul-Haq Qasmi and Maulana Azam Tariq in 1985. It now organised in virtually all 32 districts of Punjab. Its reported number of workers is over 100,000.


The Jamiat Ahle-Hadith split up as well. The Jamaat Ahle Hadith was founded by Maulana Habibur Remain Yazdani and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Ahle e Hadith by Maulana Abdul Qadeer Khamosh. Another significant faction is the Al-Dawah-wal-Irshad.


The Shia party, the TNFJ, also split into two groups. Now Tehreek-e-fiqh-e-Jaffaria is the main Shia politico-religious party led by Allama Sajid Naqvi. The move was not endorsed by Allama Hamid Ali Moosvi. Subsequently, the Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), headquartered at Thokar Niaz Beg, was created out of the TJP probably by Maulana Mureed Abbas Yazdani in 1993 and adopted a more militant stance against the SSP than the TJP would allow.


The sects and sub-sects also seem to be trying harder to mobilise followers at a mass level. In 1997, within almost exactly a month there were three major gatherings of Sunni sub-sects in the Punjab. The Barelvi Dawat-e-Islami held a 4 day gathering in Multan starting 17 October. The Al-Dawah-wal-Irshad held its annual 3 day convention at Muridke in the first week of November, and the Tableeghi Jamaat held its annual moot in the second week of November. The attendance at each of these three gatherings ran into lakhs with young people, significantly, making up a sizeable number of the participants. The Shias have yet to hold this kind of a meeting but it is almost certain that they can mobilise large numbers not least by pointing to the harsh nature of the continuing sectarian conflict, the kind of large gatherings that the rival Sunni organisations are arranging and by emphasising the need for a minority to close ranks in such circumstances.


In such annual meetings organised by Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith groups most participants come from the urban lower-middle and middle classes. The DI’s case is different. Most of its followers are from the working classes, rural areas and there is remarkable participation on the part of the young. These meetings, requiring arrangements for tents to house half a million people, a perfect loudspeaker system, etc. have demonstrated that the sectarian groups have a remarkable ability to organise.

The meetings, however, are sometimes occasions for violence. At the Dawat-i-Islami congregation six Deobandi students who had come to attend, for whatever reason, were kidnapped and tortured, and four were killed. Two escaped and later on identified their assailants. The police has apprehended them and is keeping their inquiry secret.


The SSP and SMP have alleged that the state is involved in aggravating sectarian differences. This seems far fetched, but it is worth recalling that some years ago the local administration had encouraged the formation of the Barelvi Anjuman Sipah-e-Mustapha (ASM) as a counterweight to the SSP. Of course, it is fairly well known that in the case of the MQM a strategy of building up a rival faction was actively pursued by state agencies, as a way to cut the MQM down to size. Meanwhile, the SSP, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (a further militant off-shoot of the SSP) and the SMP remain the key actors in the ongoing sectarian conflict.


A key feature now of sectarian militancy is that it is not the province of a few extremists acting in isolation. Their support system extends well beyond their own organisation. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, for instance, could look to the JUI or the Taliban in time of need. The SSP itself is considered a legitimate political party, participates in the elections and has been part of the governing coalition at the provincial level. The JUI, for its part maintains its linkages with the Taliban in Afghanistan and, it seems, to some degree with Harkat-ul-Ansar in Kashmir. This means, among other things, that the militants have sanctuaries just beyond Pakistan’s borders and that makes it that much more difficult to counter them. The JUI wields considerable influence with the government at home and in some measure externally with countries such as Saudi Arabia. At another level it is linked with a mass base which is sustained and extended through forums such as the Tableeghi moot.


The JUI has now renounced the path of elections. Clearly, what the Taliban, albeit with more than a little help from Pakistan and the United States, have managed to do in Afghanistan appears now to be a model that promises far richer dividends than continued struggle within a democratic framework. Other sectarian and sub-sectarian groups as well as politico-religious parties of different hue are taking an equally hard look at the experience of Afghanistan and Iran. For instance, the Jamaat-e-Islami has been linked to the Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar in Afghanistan (26) and in Kashmir to the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen which is said to be supported by the local Jamaat-i-Islami. To the extent that the activities of these politico-religious parties across the border may coincide with the foreign policy objectives of the government, it becomes that much more difficult to restrain them on either side of the border.


A telling example of how borders have become porous in many ways for such organisations came in Karachi. When the principal of Jamia Islamia (Binori Town), Dr Habibullah Mukhtar was shot dead in Karachi in November 1977, the protest strike called by the Deobandi ulema led by the JUI’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman was reportedly enforced by the Taliban. Whether the ISI or other policy-making sections of the establishment anticipated such a dynamic is not entirely clear.


It goes without saying that, so far, there has been no systematic administrative, political and economic effort to counter the menace of sectarianism or for that matter an intellectual one to counter the appeal of fundamentalism. Over time various law enforcing and intelligence agencies have made numerous recommendations to meet the challenge of sectarianism. These can be summarised as follows:


1. Review the law regarding registration of deeni madaris. There is already a committee at the district level for giving a no objection certificate. It should not make exceptions and violations should be strictly punished.


2. Credentials of the Mohtamim and the executive body of such madaris should be verified through intelligence agencies.


3. Sources of funding should also be ascertained before allowing registration


4. Zakat funding to existing madaris should be rationalised


5. Government should consider establishment of a regulatory body to supervise the functioning of all deeni madaris


6. Foreign involvement must be exposed and steps taken by the government to discourage these elements.


7. The policy of inducting holders of Wifaq-ul-Madaris into the education department must be reviewed.


8. Peace committees should be established down to the district level to maintain sectarian harmony.


9. A code of conduct should be negotiated which should be strictly enforced.


10. Effective legal action should be taken against those delivering objectionable

speeches or publishing such literature.


11. An operation clean-up should be carried out to arrest Proclaimed offenders and criminals who operate under the cover of religion and on behalf of sectarian organisations.


The government response appears to have been piece-meal and half hearted most of the times, and to have had no major impact so far, though there are more positive assessments of its efforts. According to one newspaper report, both SMP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi had suffered major damage as a result of the government offensive against sectarian groups in the months preceding the incident. Among the hit men arrested during the course of the operation was Malik Ishaque, the chief of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, believed to be responsible for masterminding many killings and responsible for the activities of the organisation in Faisalabad, Multan and Bahawalpur divisions and Bhakkar district. While in Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and Sargodha divisions the command is held by the most wanted terrorist Riaz Basra. Incidentally, this suggests the government’s failure in eradicating the organisation completely has to do with its multi-cellular structure -- it is divided into small groups which are not in touch with each other all the time.


Another reason underlying government failure to curb sectarians is that successive governments have sought the support of politico-religious parties and sectarian groups. The occasional crackdown and arrest of some of the militants in the absence of other measures is unlikely to have any significant impact. Then there are measures such as the Anti-Terrorist Act, under which special courts are supposed to hand down speedy justice and police powers are increased. But even given the narrow scope of this approach, so-called speedy justice cannot be a substitute for wide-ranging judicial, police and intelligence services reform needed to tackle the problem at this level. Efforts such as the formation of the Milli Yakjeheti Council have only provided temporary relief in the past. Now, the Punjab government has reportedly nominated 72 religious leaders as emissaries of peace and, under the auspices of Ittehad Bain-ul-Muslameen, they will seek to promote sectarian harmony in the province.


Meanwhile the alternative, a liberal democratic model, has been thoroughly devalued in Pakistan by a grasping, incompetent and corrupt establishment and a ruling elite that has shown itself incapable of leadership and of recognising even its own enlightened self-interest. As population has grown and expectations have risen larger sections of the population are becoming marginalised. They have continued to vote but with less and less commitment to the political parties to which they belong. This seems particularly true for the two major parties.


The mainstream political parties themselves continue to pay lip service to Islam in a way that has little to do with its spirit or ideals with the result that the politico-religious parties gain more space to expound their own particular understanding and interpretation of Islam. The NWFP Assembly through unanimously adopted three identical resolutions asked the Federal government to enforce the Islamic system in the country without further delay:


Since Pakistan came into being in the sacred name of Islam and the relevant provisions of the Islamic system are also incorporated in the Constitution, therefore, this house recommends to the federal government to make an early announcement about the enforcement of the Islamic system and carry out dispensation of justice in the courts according to it. Similarly, all civil and criminal laws be also made in accordance with the Islamic spirit of the Constitution and enforced in the country.


At its best, the secular-democratic order in Pakistan has provided ample room for the most deplorable inequities between regions and classes. It has allowed for the worst kind of feudal excesses. The process of democracy has been repeatedly blocked by military intervention and its institutions gravely undermined. The massive allocation of resources for our external defence has meant that we have been left vulnerable to internal conflicts. A process of globalisation externally and a policy of privatisation internally can only add fuel to the fire by marginalizing more and more people, reaffirming the growing belief that they are the victims of a deep-rooted conspiracy and have no option but to fight back as best as they can.


It is a miracle that the people of this country have continued to bear allegiance to a system of democracy. But we may now be at a turning point in this respect. The question is are there sections of civil society and the state with the will and the ability to change the substance of democracy in Pakistan? This would have to be the point of departure for a meaningful response to the issue of sectarian and ethnic extremism, and the rise of a fundamentalist creed which, even if it does not become dominant, has already begun to pose a very serious challenge to state and society in Pakistan. The short answer is that the ability may well be there but the will, so far, is clearly missing.