Religious extremism: fringe or mainstream?

Suroosh Irfani

Three men who led the anti-Ahmedi movement (including Maulana Maududi, then head of Jamaat-i-Islami) were tried by a military court and sentenced to death, later commuted under pressure from Muslim countries, to life imprisonment. Even so, the writ of the state had prevailed, it did not submit to any of the agitators’ demands, and the campaign remained dormant for the next twenty years

Pakistan’s 57th independence anniversary was as much marked by concern about the threat of religious terrorism as confusion about what exactly the extent of such a threat amounts to. On the eve of Independence Day, the interior minister, Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, told parliament that religious parties were supporting the terrorist activities of Al Qaeda. “All the Al Qaeda operatives arrested recently”, he said, “were picked up from the regional headquarters” of the religious parties. However, in a PTV interview on August 16 President Musharraf ostensibly contradicted the minister’s statement, saying he “did not believe any political party was involved in terrorism”. For his part, Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain told a press briefing at his party’s headquarters in Islamabad on August 17 that “terrorists had had only individual level links with some Jamaat-i-Islami leaders”. Commenting on Mr Hayat’s statement that terrorists were arrested from the JI offices, the prime minister stated that only “a few JI leaders had links with terrorists and had helped them in their individual capacity”.

The president, prime minister and minister for interior seem thus to widely differ in their assessment and articulation of a fundamental problem threatening the country today: The problem of religious terrorism, the degree to which it finds support among the religious parties, and sympathy for the religious extremists in the mainstream society. The vast majority of Pakistanis, the president insisted in his PTV interview, “were moderate and religious”, the fundamentalists, he went on, were “in the fringe”, of which an even smaller fringe “were extremist”.

One would like to share such an optimistic reading of religious extremism in a country that has morphed from a frontline sponsor of international jihad in Afghanistan to a frontline state in the international war on terrorism. However, a cursory glance at recent history indicates that religious violence in Pakistan today reflects a more organised and broader avatar of sectarian violence that has plagued the country for well over half a century. Of this, the following is a partial track record:

Pakistan witnessed its first sectarian flare up in 1950 in Hyderabad, during the holy month of Muharram. Nine people were killed when police opened fire on a rioting mob that was trying to force its way into the police station, where some people of the rival sect had taken refuge. The violence followed a rumour that a Sunni mohajir child had been kidnapped by the Shias during an ashura procession. The day long disturbances were underpinned by strong mohajir-maqami tensions.

The first organised sectarian agitation that gripped the country was the movement against the Ahmedi community in 1953. It led to Pakistan’s first experience of martial law when the army was called in to control the riots that had erupted in Lahore. Led by the Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, a Sunni pressure group, the rioters demanded that Ahmedis be declared a non-Muslim minority, employment of Ahmedis in government services be banned, and Pakistan’s Ahmedi foreign minister, Zafrullah Khan, be removed from office.

Martial law was imposed after rioters in Lahore went on a rampage on March 5, 1953, burning post offices, buses and a police station, besides shooting dead a deputy superintendent of police. Twenty people had been killed by the time the army restored order four days later. Hundreds of activists barricading themselves in mosques were arrested — as many as 597 of them from Lahore’s Wazir Khan mosque alone. The three men who led the movement (including Maulana Maududi, then head of Jamaat-i-Islami) were tried by a military court and sentenced to death, later commuted under pressure from Muslim countries, to life imprisonment. Even so, the writ of the state had prevailed, it did not submit to any of the agitators’ demands, and the anti-Ahmedi campaign remained dormant for the next twenty years.

However, in an atmosphere marked by Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war with India, the break up of the country, and the coming to power of the secular government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the religious parties stepped up their anti-Ahmedi campaign. The pressure bore fruit when Ahmedis were declared a non-Muslim minority following a constitutional amendment passed by Pakistan’s National Assembly in 1974.

By the mid-1980s, however, the focus of sectarian politics had shifted to Shia-Sunni violence amidst an atmosphere marked by Shia activism and Sunni extremist demand for declaring Shias a non-Muslim minority. Before long, Shia-Sunni violence was endemic in both the tribal and urban areas of Pakistan. In Parachinar and Hangu, in the areas bordering Afghanistan, sectarian strife assumed the form of a virtual tribal civil war, with “free use of missiles, mortars, and rocket launchers”. When the army restored order and carried out a house-to-house search in Parachinar, it recovered huge amounts of illegal weapons.

The Parachinar paradigm of sectarian violence — use of heavy weapons by both sides, support of Afghan settlers and Taliban for the local Sunnis, and the deployment of army for restoring order — was replicated in several other clashes in the Tribal Areas during the years that followed.

Speaking in the National Assembly during the second Benazir government, the interior minister, Naseerullah Babar, expressed his dismay at the situation, saying: “two neighboring countries (Iran and Afghanistan) are fighting their war in Pakistan” (Dawn, 16 September, 1996). He also blamed the religious schools calling them “the main cause of bloodshed in Parachinar”, and regretted that the government had given land to two countries (Afghanistan and Iran) for building their madrassas.

In urban Pakistan, Shia-Sunni violence became a contest for body counts among rival death squads, claiming 1,287 victims between 1990-2002.. Initially, the violence was restricted to target killing of sectarian leaders and activists, teachers and students. The scope of the violence then expanded exponentially, with attacks on police patrols, jail superintendents, high-ranking government officials and judges carrying out investigations against sectarian terrorists. At the same time, worshippers in mosques and mourners in cemeteries also became victims of sectarian gunmen, indicating that the hatred underpinning such violence was virtually taking the form of indiscriminate slaughter. By the start of the new millennium, doctors were added as a high-value category in the sectarians’ death list: the militants believed that “a doctor presented a strategic target because of the publicity his killing generated”, a report in Newsline (August 2001) reported.

With the coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996, the Sunni sectarian groups got a massive boost: They plugged in their lot with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan on the one hand and the jihadi groups fighting in Indian held Kashmir on the other. Following the rout of the Talibanic state after 9/11, many of these sectarians and their sympathisers morphed into voluntary foot soldiers of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Suroosh Irfani is co-director of the Graduate Programme in Communication and Cultural Studies at National College of Arts, Lahore. This is the first of a two-part series