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Karachi’s sectarian backyard

Updated January 14, 2014

This article was originally published on on Jan 14, 2014.

IN a city drawn into a spiral of violence where crime, politics and extremism are interlinked, law-enforcement agencies are poorly resourced and conviction rates low, where religious institutions with political agendas teach lessons of hate and sectarian fault lines are ripped apart, it is difficult to clearly identify the causes of sectarian violence.

Since 2007, increasing violence in Pakistan — with militants targeting political leaders, the military and police, clerics, tribal leaders, Shias, and schools — has found an urban epicentre in Karachi. In its latest security report, the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) reported a 53pc increase in sectarian violence for 2013. More than 85pc of such attacks and 68pc of the people killed were concentrated in Karachi, Quetta, Gilgit and Kurram Agency.

Last year (in 2013), 212 were killed in 132 sectarian-related attacks mostly in Karachi. However, a cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian killings on Karachi’s streets since 2011 has sparked ethno-political violence with various sectarian outfits contributing to the growing body count.

The banned sectarian group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), sharing operational and ideological ties with Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), demonstrates how militancy elsewhere in the country affects the city through a lethal nexus.

In the case of the LJ-TTP link, Chaudhry Aslam Khan, the head of the Sindh police’s CID anti-extremism cell, who was recently assassinated in Karachi, confirmed in an interview shortly before his killing that both conduct joint terrorist activities in the city. The leader of LJ’s Balochistan wing, Usman Saifullah Kurd, is also connected with Karachi’s sectarian militants, he had said.

Aslam had said in a January 7 interview that “after the crackdown against LJ in Karachi and Punjab, their cadres had found sanctuaries in the tribal areas.” He said that in a raid last November, the police had killed LJ’s Karachi chief Gul Hasan, involved in suicide attacks on the Haideri mosque and Imambargah Ali Raza (2004) and an attack on the Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court, Justice Maqbool Baqar in August 2013.

Ideological and turf wars between the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat\Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, following the Sunni Deobandi school and the Barelvi Sunnis, represented mainly by the Sunni Tehreek, adds to this volatile cauldron. It is incorrect to differentiate between terrorist groups and sectarian outfits because they share similar agendas and religious ideologies, says political analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa.

Nobody knows what exactly drives sectarian violence, whether it is the consequence of state policies of Islamisation of laws and education, parallel legal and judicial systems, politicisation of the police force, failure of the state and the military, and the marginalisation of secular forces.

French researcher Marium Abou Zahab believes that links with the Middle East could be part of the explanation (proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran) but views sectarian violence as an indigenous phenomenon. With sporadic administrative and legal efforts to dismantle well-entrenched groups, leaders of supposedly banned groups such as the SSP operate with virtual immunity, using new avenues (social media) to propagate their militant ideas and enter electoral politics aligned to mainstream political parties.

Aurangzeb Farooqi, the Karachi head of the ASWJ, terms Shias ‘infidels’, attributing an increase in sectarianism to similar trends observed in the wider Muslim world. Condemning violence, he denies links with the LJ, calling for dialogue with ‘rival groups.’ He blames the police for failing to protect Sunnis as hundreds have been killed in reprisal attacks.

For their part, Shia political party Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM) claims they do not indulge in violent killing. They might have organised the largely peaceful demonstrations in Karachi and other towns to protest against the Quetta bombings last year, but the police suspect that some have adopted a violent retaliatory path, with a Karachi-based Shia militia responsible for attacks on Deobandi clerics.

MWM spokesperson Ali Ahmar accuses LJ of fuelling sectarian violence, claiming that 500 Shias, including professors, students, lawyers and doctors, were targeted in 2013 with perpetrators arrested only in four to five cases. If young Shias are aligning themselves with MWM, then interviews with moderate Deobandi clerics suggest that the killing of students and teachers is pushing men with no sectarian links towards Deobandi groups.

The cost of militancy includes damage to the economy, national security, citizen morale and political stability. Shrinking space for an alternative liberal discourse is evident as political patronage for the religious right goes unchecked with banned extremist organisations and madressahs raising their public profile, providing endless recruits and sectarian-oriented curricula and publications to further fuel intolerance and bigotry.

As Karachi’s sectarian militants conduct ‘business’ on home turf with their political utility intact, the consequences are uncertain but definitely deadly as Pakistan’s security establishment nurtures some Taliban groups in the border regions as proxies for the post-2014 period.

The writers are journalists.