The Pakistani state and its institutions have failed to protect the Shia minority from sectarian violence that has claimed hundreds of lives this year. We examine the players behind such mayhem.
Of late, newspapers are getting splattered anew by sectarian conflict in Pakistan targeting the Shi‘is. While Pakistan’s fragile political history has always grappled with state authoritarianism, the society prided itself on its multiethnic plurality and communal civility. This self-image is now in shambles, as militia violence punctures the remaining semblance of belief in national identity.
Pakistan’s inability to protect the lives of its civilians has fallen under the international spotlight, a seeming incongruity for a nation on steroids of hyper militarization justified in national discourse by its hostile border with India.
Pakistan’s inability to protect the lives of its civilians has fallen under the international spotlight, a seeming incongruity for a nation on steroids of hyper militarization justified in national discourse by its hostile border with India. The massacre of Pakistan’s Shi‘is, escalating since late 2012, was capped with the March 5 bombing of a Shi‘i neighborhood in Karachi in which 52 people died. The Karachi incident followed on the heels of bombings in the Hazara Shi‘i district of Quetta, the tumultuous city in southwestern Pakistan, in which 176 people lost their lives. According to the Human Rights Watch, around 400 people were killed in Pakistan last year alone, while local activists state this is actually a conservative figure — the number is far higher.
The violence has left Pakistan’s largest minority group understandably traumatized — many online blogs on social action websites are now urging for a mass exodus. The Shi‘is comprise 20% of Pakistan’s 180 million population and correspondingly, the death, trauma and grief afflicting this community leaves a dramatic footprint on Pakistan’s economy and culture.
Sectarian violence is a virulent aspect of the miasma of disorder and anarchy currently seething in Pakistan... Looking over one’s shoulder has become the defining quality of public life in Pakistan.
Sectarian violence is a virulent aspect of the miasma of disorder and anarchy currently seething in Pakistan. Graphic loss of life is part of the landscape of Pakistani cities and towns: bomb attacks and militia violence can claim the lives of up to 100 people a day. Sectarian killings stoke public fear and uncertainty in a different manner, fraying the very bonds that hold society together. Even at the recently held Karachi Literature Festival, publicly expressing solidarity with the Shi‘i community become occasion for fear. On spotting a young man wearing a badge stating, “Stop Shia killings,” an acquaintance cast a fearful look around the crowd. “Beta, you must take it off right now!” she exclaimed. “But why?” the man asked. “Somebody here might kill you,” she insisted, looking over her shoulder.
Looking over one’s shoulder has become the defining quality of public life in Pakistan. While the national security discourse of Pentagon Inc. has copyrighted terrorism as a label that specifically applies to Muslims, the modus operandi of militia groups targeting Shi‘is, Christians, and other minorities appears to be precisely that. In other words, sectarian violence seems not so much a campaign to discipline threatening ideologies in order to impose Deobandi Sunnism over the society, but simply to terrorize those same communities — to what end? Why would militias work toward spreading terror, with no logical incentive or demand? The scenes of death, carnage, and mayhem are like sentences without closure — there is no attendant threat to convert to Sunnism or else, the violence leading only to raw psychic emotions charged by terror and counter-sectarian anger.
Another example is provided by how the militia death list seems to target high profile Shi‘i professionals, lawyers, doctors, and judges — social notables whose deaths are sure to register in the newspapers and television media. The most scandal-inducing casualty was Dr. Syed Ali Haider, a 45-year-old eye surgeon trained in the United States, who was shot dead in Lahore on February 18 along with his 11-year-old son as he was dropping him off at Lahore’s elite Aitchison College for boys. The situation continues to deteriorate, with Shi‘i bankers, lawyers, doctors, activists, leaders, government officials and judges being killed every day.
Other figures being targeted are social reformers working for Shi‘i-Sunni harmony within Pakistan. On March 18, the murder of college professor Sibte-Jafar Zaidi’s in Liaquatbad, shocked Pakistan’s intellectual and academic network — Dr. Zaidi was gunned down as he was commuting between school and college on his motorbike (most professors in Pakistan do not earn enough to afford a car). The firing occurring in a densely populated area, rendered his death into macabre theatre designed to shock and terrify the maximum number of onlookers. Dr. Zaidi was known for his activism on cross-communal relations, as were several Pakistani Sunni scholars who have also been shot dead by militia groups.
In many ways, the phantasm of sectarian violence is transforming the geography of Pakistan itself into a map of death — literally. According to the al-Jazeera report “Hazara Shia hounded in Pakistan,” the Bibi Zainab graveyard in Quetta has become so full, that there is no more room left for newly arriving bodies. The stories around the dead attest to the bonds with relatives, friends, and places shearing under mortar, lead, and shrapnel. The dead could include two brothers blasted away at a passport line; a police officer who lost his life when running to a blast site, only to fall victim to a second blast; or a youth activist who refused to leave his community despite receiving death threats.
According to reporter Asad Hashim, the name of the mountain towering over the Bibi Zainab graveyard in Quetta has become particularly apt. “Koh-e-Murdar,” the said mountain, was originally named Koh-e-Mordar [Mountain of Peacocks] in Farsi,” notes Hashim. “But over the centuries the -or has been softened, turning it into Koh-e-Murdar — the Mountain of Death.” Personal names are similarly morphing within contemporary Pakistani society, as Pakistani Shi‘is veil, hide, or alter given birth names such as Fatima Zahra, Reza, Ali, or Hussain in order to evade the militia death lists. Meanwhile Sunnis live in fear of gang violence and bomb blasts that crescendo in their cities every few days, dialing up the wails of grief in homes across the sectarian divide.
On an epistemic level, sectarian violence in Pakistan is not so very different from the drone strikes that are spreading terror throughout northwest Pakistan. According to recently released information, the CIA’s drone campaign began during the reign of Pervez Musharraf, with El Generalismo’s full consent. In The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, Mark Mazzetti examines how Musharraf signed onto the CIA’s drone program within Pakistani borders. “President Musharraf, at the time, said he didn’t think it’d be a problem keeping up the ruse because his line was ‘things fall out of the sky all the time in Pakistan’,” says Mazzetti. While Pakistani officials theatrically condemn drones to placate their voter bases, they greenlight the CIA in private.
The same complicity haunts the sectarian killings — the Pakistani government possesses the ability to clamp down on the carnival of death run by hardline militias, but appears unwilling or impotent to do so. For instance, Quetta is a military garrison populated by army and police personnel; and yet, the military that has fended off India’s hemispheric ambitions for over half a century seems to have made no headway against militants targeting the local Hazara population. This is the same point highlighted by activists regarding the drone situation. Given the fact that drones raining down destruction on Waziristan take off from ISI-CIA bases in Baluchistan (the province whose capital is Quetta), the Northwest’s inexorably rising death points to the tacit assent of the Pakistani government to the spiking social violence inside its borders.
While Sunnism is being pilloried in the wake of the mayhem, the distinction needs to be drawn between Pakistan’s Sunni religious networks and the Wahhabi-trained militarized groups established by the CIA-Saudi-ISI network in the 1970s and 1980s in order to fight a proxy war against Soviet Union and firmly anchor Pakistan within NATO’s political orbit. What is clear is that Wahhabi-Sunni militia organizations are still in commission — contrary to the claims of some Pakistani politicians, these groups are not the “leftovers” of General Zia ul-Haq’s regime now running amok. They are the newest model of Manchurian warrior unrolled off Pentagon Inc.’s assembly line of war.
Rather, the neo-Wahhabi and X-chromosome Sunni militias, as they can be styled, should be squarely positioned within the US-Saudi axis that solidified in the wake of the Arab Spring. By and large, the US has realized that the Bush-era politics of direct warfare — where the US soldier planted his boot print in Iraq and Afghanistan — was a tactical error that resulted in nothing but mass anger across the Muslim East at the US government. Post-Arab Spring, Pentagon Inc. dusted off the “dirty war” playbook used in Nicaragua and Afghanistan in the 1970s, in order to arm poverty stricken young men across the Muslim world with extremist ideology and advanced military weapons in order to disorder, disable, and petrify societies. Pakistan’s military and bureaucratic class is too much in thrall to their US handlers in order to offer anything other than an “oui” to NATO Inc. proposals.
According to a State Department cable dated December 2009 and published by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” This manufactured Sunnism in the ideological labs of Pentagon Inc. works to demonize Muslim majority countries, smearing Sunnism or Islam wholesale as an ideology of “terror.” It also works to fragment “problem list” nations such as Pakistan, whose nuclear experiments can never be forgiven by the Crusader ethics of NATO Inc. Finally, neo-Wahhabism serves to politically isolate the Iran-Hizbullah-Hamas axis that has given Pentagon Inc. so many sleepless nights since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.
In the great game of geopolitics, there is no contingency. Rather, the relationality of munitions, equipment, cartography, corporate forecasting, and war games unites the cellular miniscule with the total macrocosm of the theatre of war. And so, the death of a Pakistani eye surgeon or college professor is precisely an act of politics, an effect of a warcraft playbook that has decided to pit the Muslim community’s greatest historical fault line against itself, in order to assume hegemony over Eurasia and the Muslim East that has been hungered for since ages.