The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Apr-05 | Source: International Crisis Group

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf


Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and marginalisation of secular democratic forces. Co-option and patronage of religious parties by successive military governments have brought Pakistan to a point where religious extremism threatens to erode the foundations of the state and society. As President Pervez Musharraf is praised by the international community for his role in the war against terrorism, the frequency and viciousness of sectarian terrorism continues to increase in his country.

Instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition. By depriving democratic forces of an even playing field and continuing to ignore the need for state policies that would encourage and indeed reflect the country's religious diversity, the government has allowed religious extremist organisations and jihadi groups, and the madrasas that provide them an endless stream of recruits, to flourish. It has failed to protect a vulnerable judiciary and equip its law-enforcement agencies with the tools they need to eliminate sectarian terrorism.

Constitutional provisions to "Islamise" laws, education and culture, and official dissemination of a particular brand of Islamic ideology, not only militate against Pakistan's religious diversity but also breed discrimination against non-Muslim minorities. The political use of Islam by the state promotes an aggressive competition for official patronage between and within the many variations of Sunni and Shia Islam, with the clerical elite of major sects and subsects striving to build up their political parties, raise jihadi militias, expand madrasa networks and, as has happened on Musharraf's watch, become part of government. Like all other Pakistani military governments, the Musharraf administration has also weakened secular and democratic political forces.

Administrative and legal action against militant organisations has failed to dismantle a well-entrenched and widely spread terror infrastructure. All banned extremist groups persist with new labels, although old names are also still in use. The jihadi media is flourishing, and the leading figures of extremist Sunni organisations are free to preach their jihadi ideologies. Leaders of banned groups such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Sipahe Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed appear to enjoy virtual immunity from the law. They have gained new avenues to propagate their militant ideas since the chief patrons of jihad, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), have acquired prominent and powerful roles in Musharraf's political structure.

The Islamisation of laws and education, in particular, graphically illustrates the Sunni sectarian bias of the Pakistani state. General Zia-ul-Haq's Islamic penal code, retained by General Musharraf, is derived entirely from classical Sunni-Hanafi orthodox sources. The same is true of "Islamic" textbooks in public schools and colleges. The Shia minority -- and, in some cases, even the majority Sunni Barelvi sect -- is deeply resentful of this orthodox Hanafi Sunni bias in state policies. Within Sunnism itself, the competition for state patronage and a share in power has turned minor theological debates and cultural differences into unbridgeable, volatile sectarian divisions. After decades of co-option by the civil-military establishment, Pakistan's puritanical clergy is attempting to turn the country into a confessional state where the religious creed of a person is the sole marker of identity.

Except for a few showcase "reformed" madrasas, no sign of change is visible. Because of the mullahs' political utility, the military-led government's proposed measures, from curriculum changes to a new registration law, have been dropped in the face of opposition by the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal) and its madrasa subsidiaries. Instead, financial and political incentives to the mullahs have raised their public profile and influence. The government's approach towards religious extremism is epitomised by its deals with extremists in the tribal areas, concluded through JUI mediation after payment of bribes to militant leaders.

The anomalous constitutional status and political disenfranchisement of regions like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northern Areas have turned them into sanctuaries for sectarian and international terrorists and centres of the arms and drugs trade.

Parallel legal and judicial systems, which exist in many parts of the country with the blessing of the state, undermine the rule of law. The reform of discriminatory laws and procedures has, at best, been cosmetic -- they remain open to abuse by religious fanatics. Bereft of independence, the judiciary is unable to check the rising sectarian violence. Subjected to political interference, an inefficient police has become even more incapable of dealing with sectarian terrorism.

President Musharraf's lack of domestic legitimacy has forced the military to rely on alliances of convenience with the religious right, based on the politics of patronage. In the absence of international support, moderate, secular and democratic parties will remain in the political cold. The choice that Pakistan faces is not between the military and the mullahs, as is generally believed in the West; it is between genuine democracy and a military-mullah alliance that is responsible for producing and sustaining religious extremism of many hues.

Given the intrinsic links between Pakistan-based homegrown and transnational terrorists, the one cannot be effectively contained and ultimately eliminated without acting against the other. The government's unwillingness to demonstrate political will to deal with the internal jihad could cost it international support, much of which is contingent upon Pakistan's performance in the war against terrorism. The U.S. and other influential actors have realised with regard to their own societies that terrorism can only be eliminated through pluralistic democratic structures. Pakistan should not be treated as an exception.


To the Government of Pakistan:

1. Recognise the diversity of Islam in Pakistan, reaffirm the constitutional principle of equality for all citizens regardless of religion or sect, and give meaning to this by taking the following steps:

(a) repeal all laws, penal codes and official procedures that reinforce sectarian identities and cause discrimination on the basis of faith, such as the mandatory affirmation of religious creed in applications for jobs, passports and national identity cards;

(b) repeal the Hudood laws and the blasphemy laws;

(c) disband privately-run Sharia courts in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and take action against religious organisations operating them;

(d) do not use zakat or other sources of government funding to finance the activities, educational or otherwise, of any sect; and

(e) purge Islamic Studies textbooks of sectarian material that promotes or undermines specific sects.

2. Disband, in furtherance of Article 256 of the constitution, all private militias, including those organised for sectarian and jihadi causes.

3. Make curbs on sectarian leaders and extremist groups more effective by:

(a) publicising the evidence for banning jihadi groups;

(b) implementing the laws against hate-speech and incitement of communal violence;

(c) taking legal action against the administration of any mosque or madrasa or religious leader responsible for verbal or written edicts of apostasy;

(d) taking legal action against the administration of any mosque or madrasa whose leader calls for internal or external jihad;

(e) cancelling the print declarations (licences) of jihadi publications and prosecuting the publishers;

(f) closing down madrasas run by sectarian and jihadi organisations; and

(g) ending registration of new madrasas until a new madrasa law is in place, and registering all madrasas under this new law, including those currently registered under the Societies Act.

4. Appoint prayer leaders and orators at mosques and madrasas run by the Auqaf Department (the government department of religious endowments) only after verifying that the applicant has no record of sectarian extremism, and dismiss those sectarian leaders who are employees of the Auqaf Department.

5. Review periodically the activities of all government appointed clergy and strictly enforce the ban on loudspeakers used in mosques other than for permitted religious activities.

6. Implement police and judiciary reforms, including the following:

(a) ensure institutional independence and guarantees against political interference;

(b) guarantee the physical security of judges presiding over cases of sectarian terrorism; and

(c) end the political and policing role of intelligence agencies and establish parliamentary oversight of their activities.

7. Use federal prerogative to veto the MMA's Islamisation agenda, including the Hasba Bill.

8. Provide constitutional and political rights to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northern Areas by:

(a) doing away with their special status and deciding on a final constitutional and legal status after negotiations with their directly elected representatives;

(b) granting decision-making powers and local administrative and legislative authority to the Northern Areas Council;

(c) setting up and linking courts in these areas to Pakistan's mainstream judicial institutions; and

(d) ending the practices of raising tribal lashkars and paying bribes to militants.

9. Regulate the arms industry in FATA to prevent the proliferation of weapons countrywide.

To the United States and the European Union:

10. Press the Musharraf government to carry out its commitment of introducing a madrasa registration regime and instituting a regulatory authority in conformity with international conventions on terrorism and extremism.

11. Urge the Pakistan government to repeal discriminatory legislation that targets women and minorities.

Islamabad/Brussels, 18 April 2005

Asia Report NÂș95