Sectarianism and Conflict the View from Pakistan

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DIIS · Religion and Violence
Edited by Manni Crone and Mona Kanwal Sheikh

ShEhRyaR FazlI

Sectarianism and Conflict: The View from Pakistan
June 2012

Pakistan’s tribal belt that borders Afghanistan is widely believed to be the epicentre of militancy in Pakistan, its immediate neighbourhood, and even beyond. The largely Pashtun Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is frequently identified as the source of any major terrorist plot in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and indeed even Western cities – most recently New York in the May 2010 Times Square bombing attempt. And if the crisis is either confined to, or largely emanates from, FATA, it takes no great effort to link it to events in Afghanistan following the U.S.-led intervention there in 2001, and the solution appears to be classic counter-insurgency. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there has been significant international backing to the Pakistani military’s innumerable operations – quickly followed by peace deals with militant groups – in FATA, which have provoked massive internal displacement, death, and destruction of infrastructure. Alternatively, some observers argue that the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan would reduce the incentive and recruitment options for jihad. These easy theories neglect a critical aspect of the various forms of religious violence in South Asia and the nature of the most violence extremist groups, which are indeed obscured by the frame-

work of occupation and resistance/insurgency. The purpose of this paper is to use Pakistan’s experience with religious violence, given the country’s centrality in the global discussion on terrorism, radicalisation and extremism, to illustrate the shape that this kind of violence assumes, and the urgent tasks for often fragile governments confronting it. The primary source of terrorism in Pakistan is in fact not a Pashtun-led insurgency, but sectarian conflict; and the most dangerous and resourceful organisations are radical Sunni outfits headquartered not in FATA but in the country’s largest province, Punjab. Briefly, an estimated 96 per cent of Pakistan’s population is Muslim, around 75-80 per cent Sunni and 15-20 per cent Shia.1 Sunnis are divided into four broad categories: Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadith and, modernist movements represented by groups such as the Jamaat-iIslami. While the statistics are limited, the majority are believed to belong to the Barelvi sect, and influenced by traditional rites and practices associated with Sufism, shrines and hereditary saints. Deobandi parties are strongly critical of these practices, as well as of Shia strands of Islam. The majority of Pakistani extremist outfits espouse, or claim to espouse, a form of Deobandism. These include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and its parent Sipah-e-



DIIS
Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Jihadul Islami (HUJI), and most so-called Pakistani Taliban groups. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, renamed Jammat-ud-Dawa, identify with the similarly orthodox Ahle Hadith creed. Most of these have links to regional international networks like the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Focusing on Punjab-based organizations is by no means to refute the enormous challenges in the tribal belt, in large part fuelled by a colonial-era legal framework that consigns FATA to political and socio-economic underdevelopment, and by a military that has for decades used the region as a strategic space to train and provide sanctuary to militant proxies. But if the government in Islamabad is to successfully confront the spread of religious extremism and terrorism, its primary task will be to tackle the organisations operating in its heartland. Other briefs in this paper series justifiably raise questions about the process of radicalization and its links to political and religious violence, inferring from this some of the potential starting points from where we begin on planning remedial strategies. While supporting such a project, my...
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