Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
The Shia-Sunni Conflict In Pakistan

The Shia-Sunni Conflict In Pakistan

Yoginder Sikand
The Weekend Observer
March 25, 2000
Title: The Shia-Sunni Conflict In Pakistan
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Publication: The Weekend observer
Date: March 25, 2000

In recent years, Pakistan has been witness to a remarkable upsurge of sectarian violence between Sunnis, who account for some 75 per cent of its population, and its Shia minority. Wild blood-letting has caused the killings of many hundreds of people, with several senior religious figures having been killed, and bombs going off in mosques at prayer time, resulting in tragic loss of life.

Many Pakistanis discern a foreign hand in these developments, and some have even accused the Indian intelligence agencies of attempting to foment Shia-Sunni strife in the country.

However, it appears that the roots of the present spate of killings are more deeply embedded than that.

The eleven year reign of Zia ul Haque saw a dramatic mushrooming of Islamist parties and-madrasas all over Pakistan.

Zia attempted to cultivate the religious lobby as part of his Afghan policy as well as to attempt to build up a strong bloc against India.

Large sums of money and armaments began to pour into Pakistan from the USA, Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as private sources in the name of the Afghan jihad.

Only a fraction of the aid reached the Afghans. A large part of it went into the hands of locals, triggering off a veritable I gun-culture' that first manifested itself in street fighting in Karachi and then in the form of Sunni-Shia battles, particularly in the Punjab.

The Afghan war bred large hordes of Pakistanis trained in the use of sophisticated weaponry, and with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Kabul, they were left with, literally, nothing to do.

Their jihadist passions needed an outlet, and they began training their sights to newer pastures.

Some of them headed for Bosnia and later Chechenya, others to Tajikistan, Sinkiang and especially Kashmir. Yet others took up the gun to wage war against sectarian enemies within Pakistan itself in the name of establishing an Islamic system in the country.

Many of these jihadists were the products of the large number of Islamic madrasas that had mushroomed in Zia's years, especially in Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab.

The sudden spurt in the number of madrasas must be related to the collapse of the state education system, and the lavish patronising of the mullahs by the Zia regime.

The vast majority of the madrasa students came from poor families, attracted by the free education provided therein.

According to a report titled 'Role of Dini Madars [Madrasas] in Fanning Sectarianism in Punjab', from 1947, when Pakistan was established, to 1975, only 868 madrasas were set up in Punjab, while in Zia's time, from 1976 to 1985 the number of new madrasas was 1644.

Zia carefully cultivated the madrasas as a strong support of his illegitimate regime. In 1979, he passed a law making maulvis responsible for distributing zakat funds to the poor.

In rural areas, the maulvis were appointed as collectors of the ushr tax. Thus, the maulvis were given a new sense of legitimacy and positions of power.

This was also reflected in the rise in the number of maulvis elected to the provincial assemblies.

As the power of the mullah lobby increased, they began setting about trying to impose their own agendas. Large sums of money began pouring in from Saudi Arabia to set up Sunni madrasas preaching a particularly puritanical Wahhabi form of Islam that was fiercely opposed to the Shias as well as the Sufis.

Saudi funding seems to have been Principally motivated by a desire to counter Iranian-style radicalism in the region. On the other hand, not to be left out, the Iranians began sponsoring Shia madrasas in various parts of the country.

This, naturally, gave rise to increasing Sunni-Shia tensions. To add to this was the fact of the sudden increase in the number of madrasa products, whom the economy could not absorb into productive occupations.

It was estimated that in the mid-1990s, there were over two lakh students in various madrasas in Punjab. Only a small fraction of these would be able to get jobs, and for many of the rest, militant sectarian outfits provided a source of income and an outlet for their anger and frustrations.

The report on the role of the Punjabi madrasas in fanning Shia-Sunni violence warns that, 'Violent sectarianism is damaging the very fabric of society and is becoming a potent threat to the very existence of the country'. It goes on to say that there has been a definite change in the pattern of Shia-Sunni conflict in recent years.

While earlier it was sporadic, unplanned and generally occurred on the occasion of Muharram, now it has taken the form of planned, selective and systematic killings accompanied by attacks on religious shrines like mosques and imambaras.

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements