Understanding the Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan: Future Prospects

Shiism and Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan: Identity Politics, Iranian Influence, and Tit-for-Tat Violence
By Hassan Abbas, May 02, 2011, Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point

Executive Summary: Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has been accustomed to conflict, but in recent years the regime in Islamabad had to contend with new waves of militancy, including violence that directly challenges the country’s leadership from within. Among groups involved in internal conflicts in Pakistan, Shia militant groups have received relatively scant attention, even though sectarian violence can have direct ramifications on the security of the country, and South Asia at large. This Occasional Paper examines the sectarian landscape in Pakistan, the growing potential for Shia-Sunni violence, and the implications of simmering sectarian tension for domestic Pakistani and regional security.

The Pakistani Shia community—the second largest in the world after that of Iran—has played an influential role in Muslim history and politics in the Indian sub-continent and in Pakistan in particular. Before the arrival of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1977, the relationship between Pakistan’s Shia and Sunni communities was mostly amicable. But Pakistan’s fateful involvement in the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq’s controversial ‘Islamization’ policies, and a sense of Shia empowerment in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 had the combined effect of limiting the Shia’s freedom to practice their religion and challenging their loyalty to Pakistan. Those developments also contributed to the persecution of many Shia at the hands of a number of militant anti-Shia organizations. A minority of Shia groups turned to violence in order to defend the community, engaging in tit-for-tat terror attacks against militant Sunni groups. Henceforth, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, Pakistan became the theater for a proxy Saudi-Iran war.

The September 11 attacks ameliorated the situation for the Shia, at least temporarily. In the aftermath of the attacks, Pakistan’s then-President, General Pervez Musharraf, banned both Sunni and Shia sectarian militant groups. Since Musharraf’s departure, some have expressed fears of a reemergence of anti-Shia militant groups, such as Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP).One of the most vulnerable elements of the Shia community are the Shia tribes of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Taliban and al-Qa’ida have been gaining ground in recent years, killing many Shia—especially in Parachinar (Kurram Agency). So far, the Shia response to these attacks has been relatively restrained, despite a number of Shia retaliatory strikes against local Taliban. Elsewhere, a banned Shia militant group called Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan (SMP) reportedly resurfaced in 2008 and 2009. 

Pakistani Shia perceive the rising trend of sectarian attacks as a major threat to their identity—a vulnerability compounded by the failure of traditional Shia political movements to provide effective leadership. Whether the Shia will adopt a militant posture as a response to anti-Shia violence remains an open question. Though Shia have likely internalized lessons from the past regarding the futility of militancy, a resurgence of the SMP or other Shia militant groups cannot be altogether ruled out, especially if outside support should become available.

Western analysts can no longer afford to ignore the growing potential for sectarian violence in Pakistan, for uncontrolled sectarian violence can destabilize Pakistan and the region at large. Internally, sectarian groups prefer to conduct their attacks in the Punjab, the center of gravity of the country’s military and political elite. Attacks against Pakistan’s Shia are also bound to have regional implications, since they can further stoke tensions between Pakistan and its neighbor Iran, a Shia-majority state.

For complete paper (pdf), click here


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