Pakistan's low-grade civil war
Anti-Shiite violence by Sunni extremists has been spreading

Shashwat Nagpal/Wikipedia

Masjid Jahan Numa in Delhi, one of largest mosques in Asia Pacific

Article Highlights

  • Three decades of Sunni aggression towards Shiites

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  • The rest of the world needs to pay attention to the Sunni-Shiite conflict

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  • Without protection for Shiites, extremists likely to prevail over moderates

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Is Sunni-majority Pakistan in the midst of a low-grade war against its minority Shiite population? Scarcely a month goes by without word of a new atrocity: a car bomb outside a Shiite mosque in Quetta during Ramadan, a suicide bombing of a Shiite procession in Lahore, Shiite doctors mysteriously shot in Karachi.

In July, after prosecutors failed to find evidence of his alleged involvement in the murders of scores of Shiites, Parkistan's Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, leader of the banned Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. He promptly received a hero's welcome from his followers. The Pakistani government has allowed Sunni-ruled Bahrain to openly recruit Pakistani mercenaries to put down a restive Shiite majority demanding democratic rights in the oil-rich kingdom.

The country's Shiites are worried. In July, hundreds took to the streets of Quetta to protest the killings. In private, some Shiites wonder whether over time they will meet the same fate as the heterodox Ahmadiyya community, stripped of their recognition as Muslims and hustled toward the margins of national life.

To be sure, compared to Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus, the Shiites have so far faced no battery of discriminatory laws, and their exposure to violence is both relatively recent and somewhat limited. But this position of comparative privilege is precisely why the Shiites matter so much to Pakistan's future.

"The 36-million-strong community is a bulwark against the violent Sunni fundamentalism of groups..." -- Sadanand Dhume

The 36-million-strong community is a bulwark against the violent Sunni fundamentalism of groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Punjab-based Sipah-e-Sahaba. And reverence for Islamic shrines and other practices considered impure by Sunni extremists make them among the fiercest opponents of the intolerant Taliban.

The country's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, belonged to a Shiite sect, the Khoja, whose followers are famous in the subcontinent for their business acumen. Many of Jinnah's top lieutenants in the Pakistan movement were also Shiites.

Unlike much of the Arab world--where Shiites have traditionally constituted an underclass--the community in Pakistan began with a seat at the head table of power. In the early decades of independence, Pakistan had two Shiite presidents and at least one Shiite prime minister. The list of prominent generals, businessmen, ambassadors and newspaper editors from the community is too long to recount.

Only in the 1980s, under the fundamentalist Sunni dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, did the compact between Sunnis and Shiites begin to fray. Partly to protect their distinct identity, Shiites protested the general's clumsy attempt in 1980 to impose a uniform alms tax on all Muslims.

Around the same time, Pakistan was sucked into a shadowy proxy war for influence between two rival strains of radical Islam: the messianic Shiite variety propagated by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, and Wahhabism, an austere, back-to-basics form of Sunni Islam championed by Saudi Arabia.

The explicitly anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions), born in southern Punjab in 1985, took up the cause of Sunni peasants in a region dominated by large Shiite landowners. Over the years, a clutch of Shiite rivals, including the banned Sipah-e-Muhammad (Soldiers of Muhammad), have attempted to fight back.

Over the past three decades, violence between Sunnis and Shiites has ebbed and flowed, but two things are clear. First, despite spawning banned violent sectarian outfits of their own, the Shiites have largely been on the receiving end of violence. In a 2005 report, the International Crisis Group estimated that Shiite victims accounted for 70% of sectarian deaths over the previous 20 years. In recent years, the violence has spread from southern Punjab and (sporadically) Karachi to Quetta in Balochistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on Pakistan's troubled border with Afghanistan.
Second, the space to be publicly Shiite in Pakistan has shrunk dramatically. This is most obvious in the tale of the Bhutto family. Though not overtly pious, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who ruled from 1971 to 1977, is described by Vali Nasr of Tufts University as marking "the pinnacle of Shiite power in Pakistan."

But by the late 1980s, Bhutto's daughter Benazir, who herself became prime minister, had begun to call herself a Sunni. Her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, maintains a studied silence on the subject, an apparent attempt to attract Shiite support without tempting fundamentalist Sunni ire.

For Pakistan, founded as a homeland for all Indian Muslims, the Sunni-Shiite divide is an awkward subject that many would rather ignore. But the rest of the world needs to pay more attention to this conflict. If Pakistan can't even protect its numerous and well-connected Shiites, then the odds of moderates prevailing over extremists in an ongoing battle for the country's future look exceedingly slim.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI


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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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