By: Asad Munir
Until the late 1970s Shias and Sunnis lived in complete harmony in this country. There were sporadic, minor incidents of Shia-Sunni violence but generally there was no hostility between the two sects. Muharram was sacred for Sunnis as well. Many attended Shia majalis, and on the tenth of Muharram cooked special foods, participated in Shia processions and revered the Zuljinah.
These good times were changed by three major events that took place in the late 1970s: Zia’s martial law, Khomeini’s revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets. Pakistan was no more the same moderate and tolerant country. Zia, after hanging an elected prime minister, wanted to use religion as a tool to prolong his rule. He tried to introduce Islamic laws as per the concept of the Islamic state envisioned by Maulana Maudoodi.
Shias – invigorated by the Iranian revolution – assembled in huge numbers in Islamabad, paralysed the city, refused to accept laws against their own fiqh. Zia never expected such a response and thereafter considered Shias a hindrance to his so-called Islamisation.
In the early 1980s Muslims from all over the world converged on Pakistan to take part in the CIA-sponsored jihad against the Soviets. This jihad was propagated in theory by Maudoodi, Hassan Al-Banna and Syed Qutb. The US, with the support of the ISI, put that theory into practice in Afghanistan. Most of the jihadis who landed at Peshawar were Arabs who were followers of Abdul Wahhab and Salafi Islam. They influenced Afghan and Pakistani jihadis, who mostly believed in pluralism.
The Afghan jihad changed the mindset of many Pakistani jihadis and they were made to believe that violence against Shias was a religious obligation.
The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), formed in 1985, was initially a localised political movement confined to Jhang where many landlords were Shias. Some of the leaders who formed the SSP had taken part in the Afghan Jihad. The organisation started preaching violence against Shias and initiated the killing of prominent Shia leaders. Zia’s government did not take action against them so as to neutralise Shias’ opposition to his rule. All four founder members of the SSP were killed, probably by the Shia militant outfit Sipah-e-Muhammad.
In 1996 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) was formed and introduced a new trend of violence by killing prominent Shia professionals, including doctors, lawyers, government officials and successful businessman. It let loose a reign of terror – killing witnesses, threatening judges, and killing investigating police officials.
The Sipah-e-Muhammad even admitted its crimes but state functionaries were reluctant to take action against the group because they thought that the state was either unwilling or incapable of protecting them. Known murderers were acquitted by courts and eyewitnesses, due to fear, retracted their statements. During the Taliban regime, the SSP and LeJ established training camps in Afghanistan and developed links with Al-Qaeda. After 9/11 they crossed over into Waziristan. With the introduction of suicide bombings, they started to kill people in the hundreds.
There are those who think that RAW/CIA and other foreign agencies want to destabilise Pakistan and that they are planning and executing these killings. There is not much evidence to support this claim. Even if LeJ is supported by foreign agencies, the fact remains that Malik Ishaq, Akram Lahori, Usman Kurd, Daud Badani, Basra, Qari Zafar etc are all Pakistanis.
Then there are those who accuse the army of supporting LeJ/SSP as assets to achieve their objective of ‘strategic depth’. That does not make sense either. The army would never support or protect groups who kill Shias since that would directly affect it and may lead to divisions within it. And why would the army support an organisation that is killing Shias? What could be the motive?
How do we handle this issue and save the lives of Pakistani Shias? First and foremost, we need efficient coordinated intelligence efforts with input from all agencies. An anti-sectarianism cell should be created in all intelligence agencies. These cells should concentrate on sectarian issues and should report to the ISI’s anti-sectarian cell. They should be provided with the best available technical equipment. The CID, FC, and Elite Force should be placed at their disposal for conducting operations.
There is no other option but to attack sectarian terrorists. A witness-protection programme and provision of security to ATC judges and their families should be legislated. We are at war; all those nations that were confronted with such situations took measures that temporarily curtailed basic human rights, and eventually handled terrorism.
The centre of gravity of terrorism in Pakistan is North Waziristan. Shias have been targeted simultaneously in Peshawar, Lahore and Quetta. Such organised attacks can only be executed through a central command authority and, in all probability, that authority is based in North Waziristan. The army should secure North Waziristan without waiting for a national consensus. The nation will probably absorb the expected backlash, as the TTP is already killing people without respite.
Once the operation is initiated, terrorism may intensify for a year or so, but in the long run it is likely to dilute terrorist abilities to a great extent. We have already lost more than 40,000 people, we may lose a few more, but Pakistan can become a secure country worth living in once terrorists are evicted.
The writer is a retired brigadier. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org