Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Trouble Grows for Pakistani’s Shia Community | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – It is clear that the only thing in common between the Pakistani Shia community and Western diplomats based in Islamabad is that they both face a common threat. Like Western diplomats, the Pakistani Shia community is increasingly being targeted by suicide bombers and other terrorist and militant organizations in urban regions of Pakistan.

Since the beginning of 2009, three major suicide attacks have targeted Shia religious gatherings in Pakistani cities causing dozens of deaths. Two of these suicide bombings took place in the small towns of Dera Ghazai Khan and Chakwal in the Punjab; both towns have a large Shia community and a history of sectarian tension. The third suicide attack took place in the small town Dera Ismail Khan in the North-West Frontier Province [NFWP] which borders Pakistan’s tribal areas, and where sectarian tensions have recently reached alarming levels.

Suicide bombings are not the only threat to the Shia community in Pakistan; the Taliban have also led armed attacks against Shia communities in remote areas. Shia religious organizations claim that eight prominent Shia leaders and public figures have been assassinated in various parts of the country since the beginning of 2009.

In general, sectarian tension is not a new phenomenon in Pakistani society; however the 1979 Iranian revolution led to a transformation in the nature of the Pakistani Shia community, compelling it towards political action which has only served to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Pakistan.

Since the establishment of the Pakistani state in 1947, the Shia community has attained all the characteristics of a religious minority in the Sunni dominated country. They have separate religious institutions and ceremonies that evolved over centuries in the Indian subcontinent, and they also maintain a distinct religious identity, despite the fact that they have never been declared an official religious minority in Pakistan.

The population of the Shia community in Pakistan remains a matter of conjecture because in the official census Shia are counted in the same group as the mainstream [Sunni] Muslim population. General estimates put the Shia population as standing between 5 percent and 15 percent of the total [Pakistani] population.

Abdul Jaleel Naqvi, spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Jafaria political organization, which claims to represent the Pakistani Shia community said, “It is a matter for conjecture, and we cannot accurately determine the total population of the Shia community in Pakistan. Some say that they make up 15 percent of the population, while others believe that it is more than this.”

On the political level, the Shia community was extremely well integrated into Pakistani society during the early years of the Pakistani state, primarily because some of the leading figures of the Pakistani Muslim independence movement were Shia Muslims. Culturally, the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent during British rule were strongly influenced by Shia ideology. One obvious example of Shia influence on the cultural life of the Muslim community under British rule can be seen in the use of Shia religious imagery by Urdu poets in their work. Even today Pakistani poets make use of Shia religious imagery and metaphors in their romantic, political, and revolutionary poetry.

In modern-day Pakistan, the Shia community is well represented in all leading professions. They occupy top positions in military or civil organizations, as well as being present as prominent political figures in mainstream [Pakistani] political parties. There are also a number of leading Shia journalists.

But matters began to take a dramatic turn in the wake of the political upheaval caused by the 1979 Iranian revolution, which encouraged the Pakistani Shia community to participate in politics and form political organizations of their own. The majority of these organizations were active in the political sphere, in addition to undertaking sectarian activities.

One of these organizations was the Imamia Students Organization [ISO], which developed close ties with the Iranian religious establishment in the wake of the 1979 revolution, and which has often been described as the most influential Shia organization in Pakistan. ISO was founded by a number of medical and engineering students in Lahore in 1972, and is still very active within Pakistani educational institutions. According to an expert, the ISO was the first Pakistani organization to provide support to the Iranian revolution, and during the late 1970s the ISO staged demonstrations against the Shah of Iran in a number of Pakistani cities. The ISO also sent a number of its members to study in Iran following the revolution.

After being strongly influenced by the Iranian revolution, the Pakistani Shia community attempted to gain a distinct political identity when Shia organizations made plans to put forward religious and political demands to the Pakistani government in the 1980s.

When General Zia ul-Haq, the former military ruler of Pakistan, introduced new laws to make Zakat deductions mandatory for every Muslim during the 1980s, Tehrik-e-Jafaria held a large public demonstration in Islamabad to compel the government to exempt the Shia community from this law. This protest resulted in the ‘Islamabad Agreement’ in which the government agreed to introduce a separate syllabus for Shia students in public schools, as well as exempt the Shia community from the Zakat law. According to one senior Pakistani journalist who witnessed these events, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini played an important role in this agreement being reached, and he sought assurances from General Zia al-Haq that Shia demands would be met. A message from Ayatollah Khomeini was also read out to the Shia protestors in Islamabad in which he called for them to keep up their spirits.

After this protest Tehrik-e-Jafaria emerged as a representative of the Shia community that had the backing and support of the Iranian government. This is precisely the time that Pakistan witnessed the rise of Sunni militant organizations with anti-Shia ideologies.

During the 1990s, Pakistan witnessed an intense wave of sectarian violence, with Sunni militant organizations leading a campaign of violence that resulted in the death of a number of prominent Shia leaders in Pakistani urban areas such as Karachi and Lahore.

In this violent climate, some members of Tehrik-e-Jafaria decided to form a military wing of their own. In 1993 a group from within the ranks of Tehrik-e-Jafaria wished to embark upon a course of military action. Allama Ghulam Raza Naqvi, President of Tehrik-e-Jafaria in the Jhang district, [semi-urban district with a long history of Shia-Sunni clashes] announced the establishment of Sipah-e-Mohammed [SPM] in 1993. In his book, ‘A-Z of Jehadi organizations in Pakistan,’ Muhammed Amir Rana revealed that Sipah-e-Mohammed was involved in 250 terrorist incidents between 1993 and 2001.

The Shia community in Pakistan had its fair share of internal conflict and differences, which often led to factional fighting and even assassinations and murder over religious and doctrinal conflicts.

The SPM leadership established its headquarters in Thokar Niaz Beg, a semi-urban area located on the outskirts of Lahore. Thokar Niaz Beg has a predominantly Shia population who would provide sanctuary to wanted members of SPM during the early 1990s. According to media reports during the police raids on the area in the 1990s, there were heavy exchanges of gunfire between the police and SPM gunmen.

In August 1996, SPM began to disintegrate following the death of one of its leaders, Murid Abbass Yazdani in the city of Rawalpindi. Police investigations revealed that the murder was due to differences between Yazdani and another of its leaders Ghulam Raza Naqvi, and that the murder had been ordered by Naqvi. The police arrested the murderer who publicly confessed to the crime. Due to the internal conflict within the SPM, residents of Thokar Niaz Beg turned against the group and its members, and began to drive the group out of the area.

SPM was one of the militant organizations banned by the Pervez Musharraf government in 2001, however according to experts, the SPM that was banned in August 2001 was a very different organization from that which was established in 1993, and the group had already lost much of its strength.

Faced with the severe internal security problems due to the Shia-Sunni conflict taking place in Pakistani urban areas, Pakistani government and security agencies were critical of the Iranian influence on Shia political and militant organizations during the 1990s.

Security officials revealed that there were direct links between these Shia organizations and the Iranian government. Security experts fear that Pakistani society is on the verge of witnessing the same scenes of sectarian violence that were witnessed during the 1990s.

In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, Muhammed Amir Rana, who is an expert on Pakistani militant organizations said, “There is a strong possibility that there will be a violent and military reaction from some members of the Shia community to the wave of assassination and suicide bombings directed against them. In the 1990s when there were widespread killings of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, some Shia youth reacted by forming Sipah-e-Mohammed. This could happen again.”

However most of the [Pakistani] Shia leaders see this recent wave of terrorism in a different light. Qazi Naiz Hussein, a Shia religious leader said, “We do not see this as a sectarian problem or a problem relating to the Sunni-Shia divide. Although the perpetrators of these acts belong to militant Sunni groups, we do not blame our Sunni brothers for this.”

Abdul Jaleel Naqvi, a spokesman for Tehrik-e-Jafaria, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his organization views the present wave of terrorism directed against the Shia community as part of the general national security problem [in Pakistan]. He said “We are facing great difficultly in convincing members of the Shia community to remain calm in the face of this wave of terrorism.”

In the view of expert Muhammed Amir Rana, most Pakistani militant organizations are Sunni groups who espouse an inherently anti-Shia ideology. He added that signs of sectarian tension have already started to appear in remote towns in NWFP and the Punjab, which are both home to large Shia populations.

Muhammed Amir Rana told Asharq Al-Awsat, “You can see the sectarian tensions increasing in remote towns of Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and the tribal area of Kurram.” However he did say that the major urban areas including Karachi and Lahore, have remained largely unaffected by sectarian tension, before adding “but the situation could potentially explode, and there is a possibly – God forbid – that these tensions will spread to the major urban areas.”