US Invasion of Iraq Fueling Anti-Shia Violence in Pakistan

** this article is available in the March 2013 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Subscription to the digital copy is only $10 a year; print is only $44 a year! I highly recommend it as an excellent source of progressive political reporting and analysis on South Asia and the Middle East! ——

The massacre of 19 Shia pilgrims in Pakistan in final week of 2012 ushered a grotesque conclusion to a bloody year that claimed over 600 lives in the country’s Shia community. The latest tragedy, dealt via a car bomb, came on the heels of 6 murders in the week prior.

Having become the “relocated battlefield” of the sectarian confli19 Shias Killed in Car Bombct unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq, the fallout of the War on Terror on Pakistani Shias seldom attracts international attention. It is violence that Pakistan, ravaged by a separatist movement and an insurgency, and flanked by a hostile neighbor, can ill-afford. Should it stumble from this precipice, it “will see more bloodshed than it can take and survive”, commented the English-language Daily Times.

At over thirty million, the second largest national population after Iran’s, peace was not always elusive for Pakistani Shias. The community was central in the cultural and political movement for the country: Pakistan founder, its first Governor General and its first Prime Minister were all Shia. Denominational harmony prevailed in Pakistan’s incipient decades and intermarriages and cross attendance of ceremonies were common.

The first rifts appeared in the mid-1960s, initially restricted to infrequent episodic violence. Communitarian tensions were ameliorated by the 1971 ascension to President of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-leaning Shia, whose socialist rhetoric found resonance among the disproportionately progressive Shia youth.  Unfortunately, the hope engendered by Bhutto was snuffed a few years later when he was deposed via a military coup and executed.  Bhutto’s successor, the now-notorious Zia-ul-Haq, initiated an “Islamization” program heavily influenced by the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. His marginalization of Shias clashed with the political vivacity recently injected in the community by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, where the new regime began courting its eastern neighbor’s Shias with alacrity. Soon, trained in Iran’s holy city of Qom, a new, politically active crop of Shia youth returned to Pakistan with Ayatollah Khomeini’s posters to adorn their mosques and his rhetoric blaring from loudspeakers.

Pakistan’s junta, meanwhile, prompted by its participation in the US-led development of the Taliban, became increasingly exclusionary. Finding the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam most expedient for the ends, Pakistan, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, began to install Deobandi madressas in the country’s northwest, home to significant Shia populations. The influx of militarily trained and state favored Deobandis displaced local Shias from their positions of socio-economic power, the latter expressing political disquiet through popular protest. To suppress Shia dissent, the Zia regime accorded official sanction to anti-Shia militias in the community’s burgeoning intellectual hub of Punjab. Deobandi militias – Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi most prominent among them – enjoying state countenance, unleashed murderous campaigns of virulence unprecedented in sectarian strife in South Asia.

In response, Shias mobilized community organizations. Previously pro-establishment organizations such as the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafria eschewed political quietism for vocal assertion of community rights, rhetoric that attracted Shia youth organizations. The activism did not go unchallenged, and faced with ever increasing anti-Shia violence, the movement splintered. A faction, calling itself Sipha-e-Muhammad, took to reciprocal killing. Sectarian conflict wrought the country for the next two decades; Shias remained overwhelmingly the victims.

Pervez Musharraf’s coup of 1999, with its ban on sectarian militancies, brought respite from the massacres. However, the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq a short few years later introduced new shocks to the nascent calm.

American war in Afghanistan caused the rapid arrival of the Taliban into Pakistan’s tribal west in the early 2000s. Seeking access to Kabul – routes controlled by Shias on the Pakistani side of the border – the Taliban exploited the sectarian divides created by General Zia and the US in the 1980s to galvanize Sunni opposition against local Shias. The mobilization met the approbation of anti-Shia Deobandi militias active in Punjab and Sindh. Shia response – the organization of local retaliatory militias – exacerbated the conflict, and a redoubled anti-Shia campaign gripped Pakistan’s western provinces. The growing organizational assistance provided by trans-national groups such as Al Qaeda to the Taliban and anti-Shia militancies, too, worsened the violence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. invasion of Iraq – the intellectual compass for Pakistani Shias prior to the Iranian revolution – provided the political landscape to bring Shia-Sunni tensions into relief. As Najaf saw violence, and Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar saw Deobandi protests rock the streets in support of Middle-Eastern Sunnis. Shias, initially supportive of Saddam’s ouster, whose oppression of Shias they had been protesting since the 1970s, recoiled from the sectarian carnage unleashed by American ineptitude. Perceiving Sunni persecution in their holy lands, Shia response in Pakistan was to increasingly assert political identity through greater participation in religious processions and ceremonies, activities that invariably attracted the violent attention of Deobandi militants.

Buffeted by these international winds, communitarian conflict in Pakistan has been worsening since 2001. In 2007, Pakistan, with the exception of Iraq, became the only country where a majority of the suicide bombings were driven by sectarian strife.

2012 proved a particularly harsh year for the Shia community. In Pakistan’s tribal northwest, the Taliban imposed an economic blockade on Shia tribes to wrest control of routes to Kabul from them. Car bombs, bus attacks and targeted assassinations claimed over eighty Shia lives in the tribal regions of Pakistan. In urban centers, the sectarian outfits of Zia’s time continued their killing spree. Karachi saw the violent murder of over a hundred and fifty Shias, among them were prominent leaders such as Allama Aftab Ahmed Jaffery, Head of the Palestine Foundation of Pakistan. The garrison town of Rawalpindi saw the killing of 24 Shias when a procession was attacked by unidentified gunmen.  In the western province of Balochistan, among the systematic persecution of Shias of all sorts, Hazara Shias have faced unrelenting violence, and lost over a hundred community members in the last year.

“[T]here are significantly more Shias in Pakistan than Iraq,” reports the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, “giving a rationale for the continuation of both outside Sunni and Shia involvement in sectarianism in Pakistan.” With Iraq left in sectarian turmoil, and Syria’s pro-Shia strongman Bashar Al-Assad battling a Saudi and Sunni backed insurgency, developments in the Middle East indicate an exacerbation of the conflict in Pakistan. Trans-national and extra-national movements shall be quick to exploit these developments to arm and deploy sectarian militias in the country, the consequences of which could be disastrous.

Shia response in the country has hitherto been overwhelmingly pacifist, but attacks like the one on December 30th raise the specter of retaliatory violence, increasingly seen as the sole option available to the community. In a recent speech, a Hazara woman warned: “When hope is lost, all is lost. We are reaching that point where we lose hope permanently. Save us before that day comes.”

Inflamed by the War on Terror, this relatively untold story could be, as a Norwegian think tank termed, “Pakistan’s greatest security threat.”