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Turning Pakistan into a sectarian battleground

Zia Sarhadi

The Mominpura Cemetery massacre of 25 Shi’i Muslims in Lahore on January 11 reflects the impunity with which sectarian terrorists operate in Pakistan while the law enforcement agencies remain impotent. The attack occurred amid claims by the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif that the tide of sectarianism had been turned with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, adopted by the government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif last year.

The Act gives police sweeping powers and provides for seven-day trials in cases involving sectarian killings. The government has also set up a multi-sectarian board to foster religious harmony in the country. Ironically, the terrorists struck while a police van was parked only a short distance from the scene of the crime. The terrorists fled in a red jeep with licence plate number FDS 2276. It sped past the police who did not give chase.

Lashkar-e Jhangvi, an off-shoot of the extremist Sunni group, Sepah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), claimed responsibility for the massacre in which at least 50 people were also injured, some of them seriously. Most of the victims were women and children who had gathered for Qur’an-Khwani (Qur’anic recital) at the McLeod Road cemetery. The gathering had nothing to do with politics.

Punjab has been turned into a sectarian battleground. There were more than 200 killings in 1997. Sectarianism reared its ugly head in the early eighties as a result of external exigencies primarily relating to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both the US and Saudi Arabia wanted to contain its influence among Muslims worldwide. In Pakistan, a narrow extremist interpretation of Sunnism was promoted, sponsored by the Saudis and their sidekicks, the Kuwaitis, to bankroll fringe groups for their nefarious designs.

Further impetus was provided by the jihad in Afghanistan and the flood of Arab volunteers, some of them with Wahhabi persuasions, who spread their narrow and archaic interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Money was no problem. Cash-starved madrassahs in Pakistan became recipients of Saudi largesse. More ominously, the Saudis pushed their virulent brand of anti-Shi’ism into the fabric of Pakistani society where Shias and Sunnis have lived in harmony for decades.

The Saudis consider all Muslims other than their followers, as kafirs (unbelievers). Their primary target, however, is the Shi’is. It is this sectarian poison that is currently causing havoc in Pakistan.

Since the eighties, the number of Deeni madaris (religious schools) have mushroomed. According to Pakistan interior ministry sources, there are more than 2500 such madaris in Punjab alone with Lahore division accounting for 323 while the Bahawalpur division for 883.

It is the nature of the madaris, however, that gives clue to their foreign sponsors and the deadly game they are engaged in. Of the 2500 madaris, 972 belong to the Deobandi school and another 174 to Ahl-e Hadith - an even more extremist outfit directly linked with Saudi Arabia. Between them, the Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith control nearly 1150 madaris in Punjab with 102,600 students. From there pupils are churned out with hate-filled minds ready to kill fellow Muslims in the name of their particular version of religion.

Lashkar-e Jhangvi takes its name from a slain leader of the Sepah-e Sahaba, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. He belonged to Jhang in central Punjab from where the Sepah-e Sahaba erupted in the mid-eighties. Two of their most important training centres are in Muridke (Sheikhupura) and Kabirwal in Khanewal district, according to a retired deputy commissioner who was quoted in the Islamabad daily, the News (May 8, 1997).

These are not just learning institutions; they are camps where armed training is provided. Police and other law enforcement agencies do not venture inside, either for fear or because their sympathies lie with the these groups.

The Saudi war against Iran has taken other deadly turns as well. In 1990, Sadiq Ganji, head of Iran’s cultural centre in Lahore, was gunned down by the Sepah-e Sahaba. His killers, among them Zakiuddin Zaki, escaped from a jail in Dera Ghazi Khan on December 26, 1997. Last February, Agha-e Rahimi, Iran’s cultural attaché in Multan, was attacked and killed together with six others.

The Pakistani police officer, Ashraf Marth who apprehended the killers of Agha-e Rahimi, was himself shot and killed in Gujranwala last May. Marth had retrieved thousands of dollars in cash, weapons, credit cards and most significantly, contact phone numbers of American officials from the terrorists. Since his killing, the matter has been hushed up for fear of upsetting the Americans. And then, last September, five Iranian air force cadets were shot and killed in broad daylight in Rawalpindi.

US officials talk much about combating terrorism but they themselves indulge in much terrorist activity worldwide. Their Saudi puppets, who are afraid of even their own shadows, also do America’s bidding by financing hired killers and mercenaries.

The SSP has issued a list of Shia officials - ministers, senior bureaucrats and others - whom they want to eliminate. So far, the government has treated the whole affair with kid gloves. Punjab inspector general of police, Jehanzeb Burki, speaking in an interview on the BBC world service on January 12 said it was impossible to provide protection to every citizen. What Burki failed to mention was that if the government were serious about stopping terrorism, then it should go after the heads of the various madaris in which such training is given. These are well-known and can easily be apprehended.

The government’s failure has to do with politics. The SSP and Lashkar-e Jhangvi are also linked with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Harkatul Ansar group in Kashmir. The Taliban are Islamabad’s latest favourites. Taking on their allies in Pakistan would undermine its policy in Afghanistan. An additional advantage is that it keeps the Pakistani Shi’is in check who are viewed as ‘troublesome.’

The Shi’is in Pakistan have their own group of extremists but since their numbers are small, they cannot take on the SSP or Lashkar-e Jhangvi. For the present, innocent people are getting killed on both sides while the authorities turn a blind eye to such slaughter.

Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 23

Shawwal 04, 14181998-02-01

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