Sectarianism: Pakistan’s Greatest Security Threat
Pakistan is experiencing a sharp resurgence in sectarian violence and targeted sectarian killings are taking place even in twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. On 12 March 2014, 2 activists of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) were killed in Rawalpindi. In January 2014, two other activists of the same group were killed in Islamabad and Sargodha.
This wave of violence is not dying down since November 2013 when large scale violence broke out in Rawalpindi during Muharram and the Government had to impose curfew. The law enforcing agencies then got success in maintaining the law and order with the help of Army however, sectarian tensions are still heightened by killings of local leaders of sectarian outfits and protests of their activists.
According to ‘Pakistan Security Report 2013’ launched by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), total 208 sectarian-related terrorist attacks were reported in 2013 across Pakistan, which claimed lives of 658 people and injured 1195. The report claimed that nine suicide attacks in 2013 were related to sectarian clashes and were mainly carried out by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a proscribed extremist group.
The worsening sectarian situation in the country is also engulfing Punjab which had comparatively good record in recent years in this regard. In August 2013, large scale violence took place in central Punjab and the government had to impose curfew in district Bhakkar to control the sectarian riots. The capital city of the province Lahore also experience targeted killings of some of the senior leaders of rival sectarian groups in 2014. It indicates that we need to take some extra ordinary steps to deal with this type of threat besides tackling the problem of Pakistani Taliban.
No doubt, hostile agencies are also responsible for this sectarian situation in the country. According to investigation reports anti-state elements are staging assassinations of rival sectarian parties to disrupt inter-sect harmony in the country. This finding is based on forensic investigations of sectarian killings which indicate that same weapons and killing patterns are used in targeting the leaders of various sects in the country.
The attacks on Hazara Shia community of Balochistan have also been a major contributing factor in overall sectarian tension in the country. In January 2014, the protests of this community brought the whole country to standstill. Balochistan shares border with Iran and Afghanistan and attacks on Hazara Shias are mainly linked with their influence and the presence of hostile agencies. The overall deteriorating situation of law and order in the province is also contributing factor for the brazen attacks of LeJ on the members of Shia sect. In fact, it is the part of strategy of Al-Qaeda, TTP and LeJ to break the social fabric of Pakistan through sectarian violence and Balochistan is feeling the heat.
Unfortunately, the country became a battleground in a proxy sectarian war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the two countries offered financial and logistical support to Sunni and Shia groups, respectively, as part of a wider tussle for influence in the Muslim world. Other Arab Muslim states are also involved in promoting and strengthening of sectarian based medrassah system in the country as well. Iran is backing Shia organizations and Arab states are financing Sunni sectarian groups to further their own interests. The Western countries are also providing funds to moderate religious groups as part of their strategy to counter radicalization in Pakistan since 9/11. These foreign interventions are major agents of sectarianism in the country, which are eventually harming the cause of national integration.
The sectarian violence remains limited only to the members of sectarian groups and the general public in Pakistan is living in religious harmony. In fact, people never became involved in religious riots on community level. However, the heightened sectarian violence is becoming the greatest security threat for Pakistan. Most frequently, such violence involved clashes between members of the two main sects of Islam Sunnis and Shias. But violent incidents between the Barelvi and Deobandi sub-sects of Sunni are also on the rise after 9/11. Sunni Tehreek’s militant and political wings are major Barelvi organizations which are increasingly becoming involved in the sectarian violence. Hundreds of Barelvi (Sufi) worshippers were killed in more than 70 suicide attacks at shrines since 2007.
Escalation of country’s sectarian conflits is needed to be tackle at all levels. The sectarian terrorist organizations can be countered through effective strategy. However, the organization that has operational relations with TTP and Al-Qaeda needs to be neutralized through intelligence operations. Extremist organizations working under the clout of Punjabi Taliban are such complicated threats. Finally, Madrassah reforms with special emphasis on removing hate material from the curriculum are essential for achieving sectarian harmony in the country. The government needs to expedite this process so that the threat of sectarianism can be tackled appropriately and inter-sect harmony can be maintained throughout the country.