Sectarian schism and state policy

Published: August 24, 2012
The writer is a former foreign secretary and Pakistan’s ambassador to several states including Iran, France and Russia

The writer is a former foreign secretary and Pakistan’s ambassador to several states including Iran, France and Russia

The sectarian killings in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Karachi are beginning to foreshadow upheavals similar to the one in Iraq in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and also the one ripping Syria apart now. The difference between occasional outbursts of acrimony or even a riot provoked by some local incident in some backwater of the country and the kind of sectarian violence being increasingly witnessed in Pakistan is that the latter tends to become the cause and consequence of irreversible damage to the state and society in every field of national activity. It is a recipe for a failed state.

Far too often, attempts are made to diffuse the impact of planned sectarian murders by arguing that the underlying schisms have a long history that, in the case of the Shia-Sunni divide, is as old as the religion of Islam. This deterministic view is propagated to obfuscate the context of present troubles and, thereby, questions of responsibility and culpability. It suits governments that wish to evade the fact that protection of life and property of the citizens regardless of their faith, creed or culture is the primary responsibility of the state. It is also convenient for those religious leaders that have kindled fires in pursuit of political power. Perplexed by the complexity of state organisation and the modern world, sections of the so-called ulema have frequently reduced politics to equations of hatred.

Six factors stand out when one seeks to define the context of present-day sectarian violence in Pakistan. One, several political parties — not just the religious ones — turned their back on the tradition of democracy on which the founding fathers wanted to base Pakistan’s polity. Realising that they would not be able to capture power in Pakistan by the electoral process, they nurtured constituencies of followers fired by parochial passions of ethnicity and sectarianism. Two, there has been an instrumental use of religion to gain legitimacy for illegal seizures of power and for the liberation of Afghanistan from the Soviet Union and Kashmir from India for decades; it reached a high point with General Ziaul Haq. Three, the Afghanistan model spawned the organisation of armed militias wedded to the use of force to attain political ends in domestic politics as well. Four, the same model also provided a tested route to financial support from within the country and from foreign sources. Fifth, the foreign funding shrunk the religious reference to narrower and narrower  ‘ideologies’; the fragmentation of the Sunni reference into a number of sub-sects employing varying degrees of radicalism and violence is a case in point. Tragically for Pakistan, patronage was available from internal and external sources in each and every case. This process weakened the democratic forces as well as bonafide religious parties engaged like their counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world in synthesising Islamic precepts and values with the demands of the contemporary world. Sixth, the special focus on educational institutions by the darker religious movements made huge dents in the liberal academic tradition that Pakistan began with. It is not just a matter of religious madrassas that are demonised by the liberal elite indiscriminately. The animus has spread to the so called ‘secular’ academia as well.

As a responsible state, Pakistan should have remained loyal to the ideal of a Muslim civil state that had gathered people of all persuasions under its flag. They had transcended all past and present schisms to embrace a distinct nationhood. The essence of Pakistan lay in it being inclusive. A close study of the rise of militant organisations, including the unabashedly sectarian ones such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, demonstrates that they were able to gain strength largely because successive governments leveraged that strength into their own political designs. When they became a Frankenstein they were banned, though not much was done to prevent their protean existence. Nor did the state ever implement an effective policy to cut off external financing for the new incarnations of the same brand of radicalism. In time, the main instruments by which it could have curbed extremist organisations became dysfunctional as seen in frequent failures to carry out prosecutions to a point where the courts could hand down unambiguous judgments.

In fact, it is a bizarre facet of Pakistan’s history that foreign actors — be they terrorists invoking some perverted version of Islamism or Western intelligence establishments creating rival lobbies — are able to act with impunity and without any significant resistance from the state of Pakistan. This is an important factor in the growing polarisation in society.

It is naive to argue that law-enforcement agencies can eliminate the scourge of sectarianism by themselves. This kind of violence stems from years of evil indoctrination and is sustained by intricate organisation. The battle for the hearts and souls of our people will have to be won in several theatres. But success will not come until the state radically alters its view of the very existence of groups that are using force to recreate Pakistan, not so much in the image of Islam, but that of criminalised cults built around highly bigoted figures. Only the other day, the new president of France made the following observation during a ceremony connected to the sufferings of the Jewish people in France during the Nazi occupation: “All ideologies of exclusion, all forms of intolerance, all fanaticism, all xenophobia that seek to develop the mentality of hatred will find their way blocked by the Republic.” So, the state has to do much more than chase sectarian killers with poorly equipped and easily out-gunned police. It has to upgrade the apparatus of the state manifold but no less importantly, it has to make a solemn pledge to the people that it will, as Francois Hollande put it, block all channels that spread the poison that is now destroying our society. The first step in the war against extremism and violence is for the Republic of Pakistan to overcome its own ambivalence.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • Falcon
    Aug 24, 2012 - 10:51PM

    Very informative article. Just like you have pointed out, it is failure on multiple fronts that has intensified over a period of time. Two things are obvious from all the causes you mention: shortsightedness and selfish interests of the decision making elite of this country.


  • shahid
    Aug 24, 2012 - 11:45PM

    We have to understand as a nation that religion and state are two differnt things. The government should be secular working for the betterment of all its citzens and persue its policies accordingly. Religion and terrorism has no place in modern state bussiness. unless this point is adopted Pakistan will continue its downslide which nobody knows where it will end.


  • John B
    Aug 25, 2012 - 12:51AM

    Pakistan is founded as a “Islamic Republic”. The founding idea itself is contrary to what Plato said about republic and what was reiterated by President of France. Until the sects of Islam decide what is an “Islamic republic ” all notion of an ideal state is hard to come by.

    The first two causes “Realising that they would not be able to capture power in (India)…. by the electoral process, they nurtured constituencies of followers fired by parochial passions of ethnicity and sectarianism.

    Two, there has been an instrumental use of religion to gain legitimacy for illegal seizures of power…. had been the polity of framing Pakistan. So, why should anyone who desires to capture power in a theocratic system would let these tried and true principles go?

    If evil indoctrination took PAK to near brink of failed state and if it took 60 years, then how long would it take to cleanse the hearts, minds, and ideology of masses?

    By invoking the notion of “Islamic republic” Pakistan has founded a modern version of Calipat and sectarian strife within the system is a predictable consequence. All other forms of bigotry will always have Islamic or Islamic sectarian ideology imbibed in them and in a “electoral Calipat” these issues are amplified over time.

    Even if Shia and Sunni and Ahmedhi smoke peace pipe, will they embrace non Islamic practices and their followers in PAK and break bread with them on Eid table?

    The foundation of Pakistan was built on sandy soil and the present masses are children of this foundation. Sectarian schism and state policy are one and the same. One just has to read the second amendment to the PAK constitution.


  • Tina
    Aug 25, 2012 - 3:03AM

    There is too much hate mongering text in our textbooks from Primary to Intermediate Level. The syllabus has to be revised ASAP


  • Anjaan
    Aug 25, 2012 - 3:50AM

    @ the Author, Sir,

    Finally you have said it …. “the first step is for the Pakistani establishment to give up its ambivalence” towards terrorism as a tool of foreign policy and internal politics….. !

    Unfortunately, this simple realization has come a bit too late, albeit under the compulsions heaped upon Pakistan by its traditional backers from the west, and also internal ones like economic downslide …. not as a genuine change of mind …….. !Recommend

  • QASIMq
    Aug 25, 2012 - 8:59AM

    The party who oppsed pakistan and called it na pakistan shuold be baned.many bold steps are needed to stop Buthcers from slaugtring human beings.


  • Rajeev Nidumolu
    Aug 25, 2012 - 11:00AM

    Can the author explain why there is Sunni- Shia conflict in Pakistan and not in India? After all India is home to second largest Shia population in world. Does it have anything to do with Pakistani state and population trying to project islam as a monolithic entity and refusal to accept diversity of sects in Islam?


  • wonderer
    Aug 25, 2012 - 11:24AM

    A very well argued and articulated piece which leaves one feeling rather sad and frustrated. The remedies suggested for the various problems, and the ways forward to cure the many ills seem so opposed to the very idea of Pakistan, and do not seem to be practicable. One is forced to wonder whether there was something wrong with the reasons why Pakistan was created. The state in which the country finds itself now could have been foreseen a long while ago.

    Has the creation of Pakistan benefitted any one?


  • Tanvir Ahmad Khan
    Aug 25, 2012 - 12:00PM

    Refererence Shahid & John B:
    I may be wrong but my undertsanding of the vision of the founding fathers is that they wanted Pakistan to be what I have called a Muslim Civic State. In fact, the concept of a theocratic state was categorically rejected. The demand for “Islamization” is of a later vintage and initially came from the parties and groups that had opposed the creation of Pakistan till the very end. Shahid’s point is well taken. Thanks.
    John B.; The addition of the word “Islamic” to the name of the new state has not done any harm. The provinces that constituted Pakistan were outside the more developed metropolitan India and were very conservative with large swathes of population responsive to calls for a religious polity. Those who agitated for a theocratic state would have done so if the name of the new republic did not contain the word “Islamic”. Only they would have begun by demanding that it should be called an Islamic repiblic.
    India has benefited from declaring itself a secular state but virtually genocidal attacks on Muslim did not vanish with this magic wand. The Gujrat massacre took place only the other day.


  • Bala
    Aug 25, 2012 - 2:52PM


    Creation of Pakistan helped India to let out bad blood. Its good riddance for India. Unfortunately for the vision-blind Pakistan founding fathers, all they achieved is the division of Indian muslim community into 3 parts!

    All this crap of Pakistan being the land of pure must end. India is the real land which still has the sole of Islam in Indian subcontinent, all Indian Muslim legends are based in India. Pakistan has to borrow/steal afghan legend names for its missiles!


  • Anjaan
    Aug 25, 2012 - 6:52PM

    @ Tanvir Ahmad Khan, Sir,

    In response to your comments @ John B, the Hindus are historically reactive, unlike Pakistan that has proactively decimated the monorities in a systematic manner in the past 66 years. Hindus on the other hand react to extreme provocation, Gujarat is the latest example where the entire episode was triggered by burning the train carrying Hindu pilgrims, by muslim miscreants. More over, about 250 of the deads in the Gujarat riot are Hindus. Can you imagine the same happen to the muslims in any conflict with the minorities in Pakistan …. ?Recommend

  • wonderer
    Aug 25, 2012 - 7:10PM


    Thanks for your views, but I think “bad blood” was not always bad.

    There is a Pakistani Canadian by the name of Tarek Fatah who’s views match yours. You can see and hear him on a program called “Bilatakalluf”. Just Google for it if you are interested.


  • unbeliever
    Aug 25, 2012 - 8:48PM

    @Tanvir Ahmad Khan:

    The provinces that constituted Pakistan were outside the more developed metropolitan India and were very conservative with large swathes of population responsive to calls for a religious polity.

    are you serious? even today close to 80% of population of pakistan lives in sindh and punjab.
    and, these were by no means, outside developed metropoliton of india even in 1947.infact they were the leaders in trade and agriculture back then. but, since you are asserting to the contrary, and being a responsible bureaucrat, you must not be speaking in airs. you must have relevant data to substantiate your claim. can i have any reference, that we you were poor than bihar, orrisa, AP, UP.

    also, the gujarat massacre doesn’t, in any way, undermine india’s secularism. it only make clear that secularism cannot be forced down someone’s throat. it is an ever-evolving process.
    and the state must be ever-vigilant. india’s secularism, comes to fore, when islamists from your country explode bombs in mine, but we do not go about killing anybody, rather brave it collectively.


  • Babloo
    Aug 25, 2012 - 9:50PM

    The same communal , sectarian propoganda that Mr Jinnah preached against Hindus, is now preached by sectarian sunni organizations against Shias. However, use of religion to attack people was given legitimacy by none other than Jinnah, starting with the ‘day of direct action’.


  • Lala Gee
    Aug 26, 2012 - 3:20AM

    @John B:

    “Pakistan is founded as a “Islamic Republic”. The founding idea itself is contrary to what Plato said about republic”

    Since you are active once again repeating the same narrative over and over, may I ask you what Plato says about the “Republic of Israel”? Please note that I know it is a truly ‘Secular’ country like India. Moreover, the whole world knows Jews and Judaism have nothing to do with the state of Israel same as Hindus and Hinduism have nothing to do with the state of India (though by mere coincidence, names of all the Indian nuclear missiles and most lethal weaponry are borrowed from the names of Hindu deities or Hindu religious symbols).


  • gp65
    Aug 27, 2012 - 4:22AM

    @Lala Gee: “Hindus and Hinduism have nothing to do with the state of India though by mere coincidence, names of all the Indian nuclear missiles and most lethal weaponry are borrowed from the names of Hindu deities or Hindu religious symbols”

    Some facts for your reference:
    1. It IS true that while 80% of India’s population is Hindu, Hinduism has nothing to with the Indian state which is secular. It is a matter of record that our current PM (Sikh), VP (Muslim), CJ (Parsi), defense minister (Christian), finance minister (atheist), CEC (Muslim) and COAS (Sikh) are non-Hindu.
    2. Prithvi, Agni, Aakash are the names of key Indian missile systems and none of them are named after Indian deities. Prithvi means land, Agni means fire and Aakash means sky.
    Incidentally who was the leader of India’s nuclear missile program in 1998? Dr. Abdul Kalaam who later was nominated by the supposedly extremist BJP for Presidencyand went on to become the President of India. Can you imagine a non-Muslim leading Pakistan’s nuclear program?


  • Prakash
    Aug 27, 2012 - 7:49AM

    @Tanvir Ahmad Khan: Sir your original article is superb, but your comment on reader’s section does not match.After Muslim League(ML) complete decimation in 1936 election, Jinnah’s ML started using fundamentalist trends which culminated in call for direct action before Independence and passing of Objective Resolution by his 2nd In Command , which obliterates any difference between state and religion- the founding principles on which modern day polity grew in western Europe.You must be aware that there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, so what Homeland for Muslims or Two Nation Theory means to Muslims left in India , except game of power politics,Can You tell for how many days ,Muslim League Leaders ,spend in British Jail fighting for their cause, British gifted them Pakistan for their support in Second World War.Sir,Gujarat did not happen the other day but a decade ago, There has been so many incidents like Godhra train burning, which sparked Gujarat riots but things have been calm lately.You must be aware that recently alleged Muslim threatening lead to mass exodus of North East people in Southern India states.Indian society is divided into many groups and community based on large number of factor and traditional loyalty exist but State is secular;which Pakistan is not.Reasons that you have given for Pakistan being Islamic Republic existed in India also and there were people then and now ,who Killed Gandhi on this issue but still India is not Hindu State presently governed by a Sikh and Christian(Is it possible in Pakistan??).Secularism is enshrined in basic premises of Constitution so that any law can not be made to contradict that but Pakistan Constitution should follow religious doctrine ,which has led to blasphemy and other such laws, beside Islamic shariat law is also in effect in Pakistan ,which interestingly helped Pakistan to save face in releasing CIA agent who murdered 2 Pakistani in daylight.


  • docterfz
    Aug 29, 2012 - 1:49AM

    we know the importance to live in a free country OK not like which our founder had think about Pakistan. I thanks Allah that he had given us Pakistan


  • Just Manners
    Aug 30, 2012 - 12:20AM

    To be fair, alongside with Sipah-e-Sahaba (198os) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (2000) you should have also mentioned another sectarian outfit namely, Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Fiqah-e-Jafaria (1979). The latter was born as a reaction to Zia’s unsuccessful policy of Islamization. However, it created reactions, including the formation of Sipah-e-Sahaba in the 1980s. Jaish-e-Mohammed was largely active in Kashmir against Indian forces and to some extent in Afghanistan.


  • Just Manners
    Aug 30, 2012 - 12:39AM

    And, let me add another reaction was the formation of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (1992) which was chased out to Afghanistan but is trying to sneak back into Pakistan. Indeed, this movement set in motion the struggle between the Pak Army and the Islamic groups that have resorted to political violence, and among other reactions, have caused a cyclical sectarian violence. In this action-reaction progression, it is hard to determine the prime mover as it is difficult to answer whether the chicken came first or the egg.


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