The Takfiri Deobandi violence against Shias in Pakistan – by Khaled Ahmed

LUBP Editor’s note: Adapted with some changes from the Economic and Political Weekly. The changes reflect the fact that target killing of Shia Muslims at the hands of Takfiri Deobandi militants cannot and must not be described as Sunni-Shia sectarian violence, which we consider a false neutral term.


 Khaled Ahmed is the consulting editor of Newsweek, Lahore, Pakistan.

Khaled Ahmed is the consulting editor of Newsweek, Lahore, Pakistan.

Pakistan always had the seeds of a Sunni-Shia schism but the conflict was suppressed until the 1980s; it came out into the open under the Islamising dictatorship of General Zia when the state became involved in sectarianism. The violence is now open with many observers arguing that Pakistan will need the Shia-killing non-state actors for the Afghan civil war expected to start after the US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.

[However, what is currently happening in Pakistan since 1980s cannot be described as Sunni-Shia sectarian violence. Deobandi militants of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (ASWJ, who also operate as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat ASWJ and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi LeJ) are a 100 per cent Deobandi phenomenon. In addition to killing thousands of Shia Muslims, Deobandi militants have also slaughtered thousands of Sunni Barelvi (Sufi) Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Christians and other communities.]

A terrorist bomb blast at Abbas town in Karachi on 3 March 2013 took over 40 lives, most of them Shias, while injuring hundreds and depriving hundreds of their housing. Earlier, on 16 February, a similar blast had taken the lives of 91 Shias including Hazara Shias and non-Hazara Shias in Quetta in Balochistan. A little more than a month earlier, Quetta had seen its Shia massacred in an attack owned by a Taliban and Al Qaida-affiliated Punjabi organisation called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

Al Qaida practises Shia-killing in Iraq and Syria. It backs the Shia-killing Taliban of Pakhtun and Punjabi variety with funds that come from Arabs in the Gulf region that is scared of Iran as it completes its journey of becoming a nuclear power and seeks to come to the help of Shia minorities in Arab lands living in taqiyya (state of disguise) for fear of being killed by people subject increasingly to a salafi trend of contesting the legitimacy of Shia Islam. Al Qaida-led Wahhabi-Salafist sectarian war in Iraq annually claims 1,600 lives; Pakistan comes second with 1,400.

Handbills found in the tribal areas of Pakistan called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) depict Al Qaida flags with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jandullah and LeJ written on its four corners. The current leader of TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud Deobandi, has been killing Shias before he was elevated to his office. The ongoing massacres in the FATA agencies Kurram and Orakzai, and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa cities of Kohat and Hangu, are carried out by his faction under his lieutenant warlord Tariq Afridi Deobandi of Darra Adamkhel between Kohat and Orakzai. The Quetta massacres are being carried out by LeJ which regularly owns them. Its headquarters are located in Rahimyar Khan in south Punjab.

Out of a population of 180 million in Pakistan, fully 30% are estimated to be Shia because the national census does not count Muslim sects. They are in a majority in certain areas like Kurram tribal agency and the Gilgit-Baltistan region in the north. The largest number of Shia lives in Karachi. Because of targeted violence against them a measure of ghettoisation of their habitation has taken place in Karachi and Quetta, making the two cities the killing fields of a challenged faith.

Pakistan always had the seeds of Sunni-Shia schism, but conflict was suppressed in the past in the “afterglow” of the British raj which had remained neutral. But, as Islamisation picked up, the split – so far clerical – started showing. It was under the Islamising (in fact Deobandi-izing and Wahhabi-izing) dictatorship of general Zia-ul-Haq that the state became involved in sectarianism under pressure from regional developments.

Saudi Arabia vs Iran in Pakistan and India

[The target killing of Shia Muslims is often rationalized as an outcome of Saudi-Iran proxy war which is both factually and analytically wrong. The first major massacre of Shia Muslims took place in 1963 in Therhi Sindh while the otherization of Shia Muslims started right in 1948 when Pakistan’s founder Jinnah’s funeral was not allowed to be led by a Shia cleric.]

In 1979, Imam Khomeini brought Islamic revolution to Iran and immediately put the Sunni Arab across the Gulf under challenge. General Zia took over in Pakistan almost at the same time and was compelled to join the Arabs – led by Saudi Arabia – in this confrontation. In 1980, he caused the first Shia street protest in Pakistan when he imposed the Islamic taxation of zakat on both Sunnis and the Shias. (Under Shia law the state cannot collect the poor-due tax.) The zakat law was literally imposed by Saudi Arabia through an Arab scholar Dualibi sent to Pakistan to help Islamabad legislate the tax. General Zia simply translated the law as composed by Dualibi and enforced it through an ordinance.

Five years after the Shia protest against General Zia’s zakat ordinance, Sipah-e-Sahaba (a Deobandi outfit) was caused to be born with the slogan of saving the companions (Sahaba) of the prophet from Shia insult. But this came in parallel to a move made by Saudi Arabia in India through the rector of the Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow, Maulana Manzur Numani. Author Vali Raza Nasr in his book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (W W Norton & Company, 2006, p 165), traces the Shia extermination campaign in Pakistan to regional politics. Saudi Arabia’s Rabita al Alam-e-Islami organisation funded a compilation of Pakistani fatwas under the authority of Numani in 1986. The latter wrote to the Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan and asked them the question: Are the Shia Muslims or not? These answers, supplied in the form of fatwas, and most likely further funded by Saudi Arabia, led to the systematic use of violence against the Shia community. The fatwas came from the most revered madrasas of Pakistan like Jamia Banuria, Jamia Ashrafiya, Darul Ulum Akora Khatak, etc, putting the “apostate” Shia on notice about what was going to happen to them.

A number of Deobandi clerical leaders of Pakistan co-signed or confirmed the fatwa against the Shia in 1986. Among them were two well-known names: Muhammad Yusuf Ludhianvi Deobandi and Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai Deobandi. Both were to die in the sectarian upheaval that overtook Pakistan during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s and the jihadi reaction to American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. [Some reports suggest that both and other Deobandi clerics were killed because of intra-Deobandi rivalry and also because intelligence agencies were unhappy due to their role in abetting Taliban’s attacks on army.] Fatwas of apostatisation were issued from time to time from all the prominent Deobandi madrasas of Pakistan. Darul Ulum Haqqaniya Akora Khattak of Maulana Samiul Haq Deobandi (the seminary where the assassins of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto have confessed to staying before the attack on her in 2007) issued its own fatwa of apostatisation of the Shia in 1986 saying that eating food cooked by them, attending their funeral and burying them in Sunni graveyards stood banned. Another fatwa from Jamia Ashrafia Lahore, whose leader Maulana Muhammad Malik Kandhalwi Deobandi, known to be a relative of general Zia, declared the Shias kafir because “they held that the Quran had been tampered with and gave Hazrat Ali a status equal to Prophet Muhammad, claiming that angel Jibreel had made a mistake while taking wahi to the Prophet”.

The above fatwas were circulated in Quetta, Balochistan in 2003, before the massacre of the Shias there on two occasions. [The massacre of Shia Muslims in Quetta is often given Hazara specific ethnic color hiding the fact that at least 30 per cent of the Shias killed in Balochistan belong to non-Hazara ethnic backgrounds.] Since no madrasa is required by the state to register all the fatwas it gives out to the people, the information given by the Shia Hazara leaders on TV fell on deaf ears. However, a compilation of all the Shia-related Pakistani fatwas was made in Lucknow India in 1987, thus offering research workers in Pakistan a glimpse into the activity of the madrasas which mostly disclaim that they are involved in anti-Shia crimes.

Lack of knowledge of the Deobandi-Shia conflict of the past is yet another proof of the non-sectarian nature of the general public in Pakistan. It is not generally known that the founder of the state Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was an Ismaili who chose to become Shia in the 1920s to help along his political career. (Shia faith was then more acceptable among Sunni Muslims than Ismailism.) It is also not known that Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani Deobandi who led the prayer of Jinnah’s public Sunni funeral (a secret Shia funeral having already taken place at night) had earlier signed a fatwa declaring all Shias as kafirs.

The Taliban regime [mostly Deobandi Muslims who equally despise Shias and Sufi Barelvi Sunnis] coming to power after the exit of the Soviet army from Afghanistan was recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but not by Iran (and rest of the world). In 1998, the Taliban attacked the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and massacred the Shia there. Accompanying them were the mujahideen of Sipah-e-Sahaba from Pakistan who were accused of killing the Iranian consular diplomats in Mazar. Iran saw it as a hostile act and brought its forces up to the Afghan border, strangely eliciting from the Taliban the threat of a nuclear strike. Most probably, this threat was delivered clandestinely by Pakistani trainers then preparing warriors in Al Qaida camps inside Afghanistan.

Shia Killers of South Punjab

Punjabi Taliban (Urdu) by Mujahid Hussain (Nigarishat, Lahore, 2009) describes the dominance of Shia-hating non-state actors of Pakistan in southern Punjab: the truth is that LeJ-Sipah – counted together with fellow-Deobandi Shia-hating Jaish-e-Muhammad – are the de facto masters of south Punjab and no one can survive, let alone win elections there, without the cooperation of these overtly sectarian outfits once known for supplying cannon fodder for Pakistan army’s covert wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir. South Punjab where landholdings are large was once dominated by feudal strongmen who ruled “through police station and the court”. Today they are powerless in the face of the state’s non-state actors. Before exercising their feudal muscle, they now have to be on the right side of the powerful local clerics.

Senior journalist Shireen Mazari, who hails from D G Khan wrote in The Nation (29 April 2009) about the dominance of the more jihad-oriented madrasas in D G Khan in south Punjab, significantly pointing out the “foreign funding” they were receiving: “In D G Khan, there are 185 registered madrasas of which 90 are Sunni-Deobandi (with a total of 324 teachers), 84 are Sunni-Barelvi (with a total of 212 teachers), six are Sunni-Wahhabi Ahl-e-Hadith (107 teachers) and five are Shia Fiqh-e-Jafaria (10 teachers)”.

Reuters on 6 March 20131 reported on the headquarters of LeJ and its leader Malik Ishaq in Rahimyar Khan, observing: “A former cigarette dealer, Ishaq co-founded LeJ in 1996 with the support of Pakistani intelligence, which nurtured an array of hardline Sunni Muslim groups as proxy forces”.

The Shia in Quetta have been vocal about who is actually killing them, in contrast to their earlier blanket accusation of America that was meant to rebuke the Taliban that they were America’s hired killers. This time they are accusing “the Arabs” of funding LeJ from Dubai.

In January this year, the Kurram Shia were among the 1,000 Pakhtun workers that the UAE deported simply because their names were Shia-sounding. Fear of Iran drives the sparsely populated Arab states across the Persian Gulf; and fear of an American-Arab joint action against them affects the Shia communities in Pakistan. In Bahrain, when the Shia majority population was recently mauled by their Arab rulers, Pakistani participation on the Arab side – in tandem with Saudi Arabia – was suspected.

Many observers think Pakistan will need these Shia-killing non-state actors for the Afghan civil war expected to start after the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces leave Afghanistan in 2004. The Afghan Taliban who could not muster more than 30,000 men under arms when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 would need Al Qaida-connected men from Pakistan to fight the Hazara-Uzbek-Tajik part of the fully trained and battle-worthy 3,50,000 strong Afghan army the Americans plan to leave behind. Shia leader Amin Shaheedi in Quetta knows this and accuses the state of Pakistan of looking the other way as its non-state actors kill his people.

Ex-commissioner of Peshawar and later attached as an expert to the FATA secretariat, Khalid Aziz stated in a paper:

Southern Punjab comprises 13 districts having a total population of approximately 27 million. These districts include Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Bhakker, D G Khan, Jhang (sic!), Khanewal, Layyah, Lodhran, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Rahimyar Khan, Rajanpur, and Vehari.

The dominance of the Punjabi Taliban working for Al Qaida in these districts has compelled the ruling party in Punjab, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN), not only to blink at their terrorist-sectarian activities but to seek to win elections in the southern region by aligning itself with Sipah now deceptively calling itself the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The Spokesperson of Al Qaida in Punjab, Asmatullah Muawiya Deobandi, who recently issued praise for Ajmal Kasab, a Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist executed in India for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, has declared that the leadership of PMLN will be spared any terrorist attacks while the Pakistan People’s Party and other parties will remain in Taliban’s cross-hairs.

Jihadi publication daily Islam (23 February 2010) reported that the Punjab Law Minister, Rana Sanaullah visited Jhang and paid his respects at the tomb of the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba: Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. He led a delegation of the ruling PMLN which also counted parliamentary secretary Iftikhar Baloch and member of provincial assembly from Jhang, Sheikh Yaqub. He visited the tombs of other Sipah-e-Sahaba martyr leaders like Maulana Isarul Qasimi and Allama Azam Tariq. The News (27 February 2010) in a report titled “PMLN Sees No Harm in Seeking Banned Outfit’s Blessing” observed:

A defunct sectarian organisation, Sipah-e-Sahaba, is rearing its head again and its leaders’ participation in an election rally in PP-82 constituency, along with Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, has sent shivers down the spines of citizens here, who have seen sectarian bloodshed for over a decade before it subsided in 2002.

Islamic World Fights Its Sectarian War

The Islamic world is busy fighting its sectarian war in 2013. Sunni Turkey is set to topple a Shia-offshoot Alawite government in Syria because the Alawite sect is equally under attack in Turkey. At the same time, while coming to the help of the Sunni majority in tandem with Al Qaida, it has endangered the ethnic-sectarian-religious minorities of Kurds, Christians and the Shia. In Iraq, democracy after Saddam Hussein has meant a free-for-all sectarian war killing nearly 2,000 annually. Neighbouring Lebanon with its dominant Shia population is bringing its Sunni community under pressure. The Arab states around the Gulf are focusing on the Shia in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan even as they stand behind Turkey in Syria.

Pakistan is expected to fight the next civil war in Afghanistan after 2014-15. Its clearly stated policy in the past has favoured the dominant Pakhtun population which forms less than 50% of the population which also includes three other ethnically different identities: Sunni Tajiks, Sunni Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras. Iran favours Persian-speaking Afghan Tajiks on the basis of linguistic nexus and the Afghan Hazaras on the basis of religious nexus. Turkey and Uzbekistan favour the Afghan Uzbeks and will equally find themselves in confrontation with Pakistan.

In a recent Washington revelation, Pakistan’s army chief, general Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been reported as opposing President Obama’s policy of establishing a large Afghan National Army (ANA) because “it will splinter after the Americans leave and become distributed among the warlords of Afghanistan”. Unfortunately, the Pakistani non-state actors who will challenge ANA inside Afghanistan will also comprise jihadi splinters headed by Pakistani warlords. Pakistan, with another war with India on its mind, is showing “neutrality” on the question of Shia killings on its soil because it is the extension of a “neighbouring conflict” indirectly involving India.

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