The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan
The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Pakistan After Imran Khan’s Ouster: Tests at Home and Away
Pakistan After Imran Khan’s Ouster: Tests at Home and Away
Report 95 / Asia

The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan

Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and marginalisation of secular democratic forces.

Executive Summary

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.

Islamabad/Brussels, 18 April 2005

Podcast / Asia

Pakistan After Imran Khan’s Ouster: Tests at Home and Away

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood and Crisis Group trustee and leading South Asia expert Ahmed Rashid talk about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster, and the domestic and foreign policy challenges facing his successor, Shahbaz Sharif. 

On 10 April, Pakistani legislators passed a no-confidence vote that ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. The vote capped weeks of political turbulence, as a coalition of rival parties accused Khan’s government of chronic mismanagement amidst an intense economic crisis fuelled by soaring inflation. Khan has not gone quietly. Parliamentarians from his party walked out of the National Assembly in protest at the vote and thousands of furious supporters have taken to the streets. Khan accuses his successor Shahbaz Sharif of abetting a foreign conspiracy aimed at toppling him. 

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined from Lahore by acclaimed author, journalist and Crisis Group trustee Ahmed Rashid to talk about Pakistan’s political crisis, what it might mean for the country's stability and challenges for the Sharif government. They discuss Khan’s response to his ouster and how disruptive a force his movement might be in the months ahead. They look at his apparent fall from grace with the chiefs of Pakistan’s powerful military. They discuss the dilemmas facing Sharif, particularly, reviving a floundering economy, navigating relations with the military and containing rising Islamist militancy, all the while managing coalition politics. They also talk about the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine and its impact on a difficult foreign policy agenda: repairing relations with Western capitals, keeping China on board and managing what appeared to be warming ties to Moscow, alongside the traditionally bitter rivalry with India and complicated relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Pakistan country page and make sure to read our recent Q&A, “Imran Khan’s Fall: Political and Security Implications for Pakistan” , and our report, “Pakistan’s Hard Policy Choices in Afghanistan”.