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Islam and Sectarianism ( 1 March 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Rise of Violent Sectarianism

By Raza Rumi

March 02, 2012

Denominational differences are not new to Islam, just as they are not to other religions. However, the history of sectarian violence in Pakistan is a phenomenon that, while drawing on old differences of faith, has unfolded in a modern context. The recent rise in sectarian killings, for instance, is a continuation of the trends already gathering pace in Pakistani society from the 1980s. They indicate the growing retreat or failure of state and law enforcement agencies against the expanding power of militant groups that deploy guerrilla tactics to achieve their goals. Sectarianism in its contemporary manifestation, therefore, cannot be delinked from the larger growth of Pakistan-based terror groups and their alliance with the global Jihadist project negotiated by the loose conglomerate known as Al Qaeda.

Three developments are most worrying for Pakistan. First, as Khaled Ahmed in his various TFT articles has noted, the widespread acceptance of Al Qaeda's anti-West stance has permeated large swathes of the population. Second, the US policy of targeting Al Qaeda and its affiliates through drone strikes has forced its leaders to spread out and find new operational bases within urban Pakistan. Karachi, for instance, has been cited as a major ground for the continuation of its operations, in addition to Faisalabad, Lahore and other areas. Third and most dangerously, in the past decade, Al Qaeda may have entered into an alliance with home-grown militants such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and old sectarian outfits.

The Roots of Modern Sectarianism

The Pakistani state needs to protect and enable religious plurality and repeal or amend laws and official procedures that reinforce sectarian identities such as the mandatory affirmation of faith in application for jobs, passports and national identity cards

Sectarian conflict in Pakistan traces its roots to the Pakistani state's attempts to forge a national identity based on Islam. Muslim nationalism in India at the start of the Pakistan movement was broadly pan-Islamic in nature and aloof to sectarianism. However, as early as the 1950s when new textbooks were commissioned for junior classes, the official narrative began to shift. The Pakistani state, as a matter of policy, decided to formulate a new identity was based as much on constructs of Pakistan's Islamic identity as it was on a virulent anti-Indianism. In making public education the site for building a non-inclusive identity, the state privileged the history and teachings of a number of religious personages, including Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Shah Waliullah, who abhorred Shiaism. Decrees of apostasy against the Shias of Pakistan in the '90s would refer to the works of the same religious figures to justify their pedigree.

In addition to the emphasis on a singular Muslim identity, which excluded the Shias, the 1974 constitutional amendment stoked fresh fires of sectarianism by launching apostasy verdicts against the Ahmadi community of Pakistan. The amendment did not explicitly mention the Ahmadi community and has been used by hardliner Sunni clerics to also target the Shia community in Pakistan. Sectarianism in Pakistan reached its pinnacle under the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq. In his nine years in office, Zia proceeded to impose a rigid interpretation of Islamic law on Pakistan, in part to legitimize his illegal rule and in part as a result of his own ideological inclinations. A gradual movement from the more tolerant, pluralist expression of Islam to a more austere and puritanical Deobandi Islam had already begun in the country earlier. Khaled Ahmed in his book (Sectarianism, OUP, 2011) calls this phenomenon a movement from the 'Low Church Islam', native to the unsettled plains of the Punjab and Sindh to the 'High Church Islam' of the seminaries of Northern India and Afghanistan.

Once the nation's policy elite decided that Islam was to be the primary factor around which Pakistan's identity would be constructed, it was clear that the more rigid 'High Church' Deobandi creed would dominate the ideological landscape of Pakistan, with its influential seminaries in urban centers and its emphasis on laws and punishment. The 'Low Church' Barelvi clerics, who were tolerant of the rural Shrine culture and of Shiaism, were gradually sidelined.

The Deobandi creed was further strengthened with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Afghanistan had always practised the Deobandi variant of Fiqh Hanafia and the 'jihad' against the Soviet Union increased the charisma of the Deobandi seminary. The geopolitics of Shia-Sunni tensions in the Middle East after the Iranian revolution also added to the hardening of religious identities.

In Pakistan, the local Shia population mobilised in protest when Zia made the payment of Zakat, the Islamic poor due, obligatory. All Muslims, regardless of their sectarian affiliation were to pay the Zakat, 2.5% of the value of their annual savings and assets, to the state. The Shias, who differed in their interpretation of the Zakat edict, refused. Zia eventually had to announce an exemption for the community. The Zakat law, specifically on the Sunni population of the country, further strengthened the hand of the High Church clergy in the country. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was reported to have given seed money for Zia's Zakat fund on precondition that a part of the money would be donated to the Ahl-e-Hadith, an Islamic party closely allied with the puritanical Wahabi movement of Saudi Arabia. The number of Deobandi Madarsas shot up exponentially following the imposition of the Zakat law, from 401 in 1960 to 1745 in 1979. Zakat money was an important factor in this growth, though not the only one.

Letting the monster grow

Evidence points to the fact that Zia was informed of the sectarian trouble brewing in the Jhang district of the Punjab, but chose to ignore it. In 1986, a year later, a prominent Indian Muslim cleric funded by Saudi Arabia asked Deobandi Madarsas in Pakistan to say whether the Shias were Muslim or not. The seminaries sent him fatwas that declared the Shias non-Muslim. These fatwas later led to the death of many Shias in Pakistan. This, too, was ignored by the Zia government. Also, in 1986, General Zia allowed "a purge of Turi Shias" in the city of Parachinar, in the Kurram agency of the Tribal areas.

The sectarian situation in the country continued to worsen even after the advent of democracy in Pakistan in the 90s. The governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif haplessly tolerated their growing sectarian militancy. During 1996-98, for instance, sectarian violence in the Punjab resulted in 204 terrorist attacks, killing 361 people. Lahore alone had shared the 64 attacks.

When things became unmanageable, Nawaz Sharif, then Prime Minister, initiated a clean-up operation against the SSP but stopped when the SSP tried to assassinate him. Today Nawaz Sharif's party, the PML-N, have been accused of forming an electoral alliance with sectarian elements in the Punjab.

Is Sectarianism Gaining Strength?

It is now widely recognized that sectarian killings are on the rise in contemporary Pakistan. Several research-based commentaries argue that sectarianism is growing in affiliation with Taliban franchises in Pakistan that in turn are linked with Al-Qaeda remnants. For instance, Ahmed Rana says: "Eleven major sectarian terrorist attacks have been reported in Punjab during [the] last five years [2005-2010]. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and its affiliate groups have claimed responsibility for these sectarian attacks. This trend reveals the close nexus between the Taliban and several major sectarian and militant groups in Punjab, which are now labeled as 'Punjabi Taliban'. This alliance between the Taliban and sectarian outfits is now expanding its targets. The killing of Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi was the first indication, and the horrific terrorist attack on Data Darbar is a manifestation of the expanding sectarian agenda."

Statistics point to a worrisome trend. Since September 2010, an average of three or four incidents of sectarian violence took place every month in the country. The number of attacks peak during the time of Ashura (seven attacks in December 2010). Data that isolates the number of sectarian attacks by location demonstrates that most sectarian attacks took place in Balochistan, followed by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas. Sectarian violence in the northern areas can be attributed to the pervasion of extremist Salafist ideology in the region, implemented by these armed groups. Statistics indicate that sectarianism is also still persistent, albeit to a lesser degree, in Sindh and Punjab. All of this reflects continued government and state inability to erode their capacity.

Policy Implications:

The Pakistani state needs to protect and enable religious plurality and repeal or amend laws and official procedures that reinforce sectarian identities such as the mandatory affirmation of faith in application for jobs, passports and national identity cards. The state should not use Zakat revenues to finance the activities of a particular sect or creed within the country. The Pakistan Studies and Islamic studies textbooks should be purged of material that promotes sectarianism or spreads hatred.

The state should disband all armed militias and militant organisations under Article 246 of the constitution. Existing bans on sectarian organisations should be strictly enforced. The government should publicise evidence of sectarian organisations' involvement in violent or criminal activities. Laws against hate speech should be strictly implemented. Jihadi publications supporting supra-state ideologies and sectarian agendas should be banned and the license of such publications should be revoked.

There is a dire need to reform the Madrasa network in the country. The government should draft a new Madrasa law and register all Madarsas under the same law. The government should appoint prayer leaders and orators at mosques and Madarsas run by the Auqaf department only after verifying their credentials. Prayer leaders with known involvement in sectarian activities should be removed from positions of authority.

Government officials and politicians accused of maintaining links with sectarian organisations should be investigated and, if found guilty, should be prosecuted. The government should ensure a competent prosecution team for those being tried for sectarian violence. The security of judges who oversee sectarian cases should also be ensured.

In addition, the Pakistani state policy of allowing space for militant organisations needs a serious overhaul. The militarization of Pakistani society and the havoc wreaked by rogue 'strategic assets' on the country should be evidence enough that the state cannot continue to support militant organisations at the cost of dividing Pakistani society.

Excerpted from author's paper included in " Extremism Watch: Mapping Conflict Trends in Pakistan 2010-2011 recently published by Jinnah Institute, Islamabad

Source: The Friday Times