To understand the genesis and growth of anti-Shia extremism, the claims of both Sunni and Shia leaders must be examined. Shia-Sunni violence in this region precedes Partition but its more recent form has other beginnings. Most analysts are convinced that the present problem is a product of the Pakistan’s security establishment enduring relationship with radical Sunni militancy.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 had a huge impact in Pakistan where Gen Zia’s military leadership had just taken charge.
The Shia community resisted the enforcement of zakat in 1981 by General Zia’s regime. Their interpretation of zakat was different and they said they had already paid it as part of the khums tax under Shia jurisprudence. Sunni jurisprudence holds a differing view which was enforced by Gen Zia’s team.
In defiance, the Shia leadership under the banner of the newly formed Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafria (TNFJ) encouraged its community to come out on the streets across the country.
After the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, allegations of Tehran’s direct support to the Shia leadership in Pakistan have persisted. The military regime eventually backed down — but the victory proved very costly to the Shia community that regarded it as a fight for fundamental rights.
But Pakistan’s Sunni religious leadership believed this to be the start of a campaign to turn the country into a Shia state. As a counter campaign, they launched Safwad-i-Azam for the implementation of strict Sunni Sharia law.
The establishment of new Iranian cultural centres were seen as intelligence outposts. The Iranians were regarded as Soviet allies.
This called for a harsher response and the Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahaba, later renamed Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) was created in Jhang in 1985 under Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi — then senior vice president of the JUI. Born out of fiery apocalyptic oratory, the organisation set the tone for the future of Pakistan’s minorities, especially in Punjab.
The polemics of the time became tools of the trade — words like ‘Shia kafir’ and ‘Shiagardi’ were invented as extremism gave way to militancy. For thousands of young Sunni men returning home from jihad in Afghanistan, switching their wrath from the infidel abroad to the infidel at home was easy.
Violence usually followed the visit of a firebrand SSP cleric who spoke about insults being heaped on the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) companions — warning the Shia community to refrain.
Soon, the Sipah-i-Mohammad was formed.
There were retaliatory attacks on extremist Sunni leaders and 1990 saw the death of Maulana Jhangvi in a bomb attack by Shia militants. Subsequently, sectarian violence skyrocketed — with tit-for-tat attacks on Shia and Sunni targets.
It also led to fissures within the SSP with several dissidents breaking away. For them the ‘final solution’ was to declare Pakistan a Sunni state which could only be achieved through militant means.
In 1996, Riaz Basra and Malik Ishaq formed what is now regarded as Pakistan’s deadliest militant organisation, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ). It was believed to be the militant wing of the SSP, created with the idea that the parent organisation could continue to have a political role and eventually win an assembly seat.
As its clout grew, so did its extremism and soon minorities like Ahmedis and Christians were also targeted and in case of the latter, the Shantinagar attack in 1997 materialised. Politicians and intelligence officials agree that by this time it was no longer government policy to promote the Sunni extremists in Pakistan. But in Afghanistan where a civil war was raging the relations between Pakistani Sunni militants and the Afghan Taliban prospered.
The aftermath of 9/11 was to take the Taliban-LJ relationship to new heights. Pakistan’s security establishment finally woke up to the Frankenstein’s monster that it had created but with sympathetic undertones. At this point, the double game cost Pakistan dearly.
Two events which exponentially increased the power of LJ were Musharraf’s ban on SSP, and the 2003 closure of the Kashmir front which led to thousands of Punjabi (mostly Deobandi but also Ahle-Hadees) jihadis to descend on the tribal region.
Chased and harried across Afghanistan and Pakistan — the militants chose a new home around the tribal belt, and joined up with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Thus a new sectarian breed came into being in the form of the Punjabi Taliban, now led by Asmatullah Muavia and loyal to Hakeemullah Mehsud.
Initially based in South Waziristan, the Punjabi Taliban were ousted after the military operation in 2009. In reprisal, they carried out high-profile attacks such as the one on GHQ in Rawalpindi. Sources say that particular incident was the turning point and led to a rethink by the establishment.
Security officials — who wish to remain anonymous — say this was because the GHQ stand-off was resolved mainly through negotiations by Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, chief of the SSP, who convinced those inside to surrender.
Army officials dismiss these claims. They say military action broke the siege and that the Punjabi Taliban remains their number one enemy.
Both stories may hold true, says a security official. Ludhianvi’s intervention, while crucial, was only limited to the GHQ attack. He appears to have little control over the Punjabi Taliban leadership, which continues to wreak havoc across Pakistan.
But it is also clear that Ahmed Ludhianvi now enjoys official protocol. Both the LJ and SSP as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) are proscribed, yet hold rallies in major cities where arms are openly displayed.
Today, it’s obvious that the ASWJ and LJ are one and the same. Maulana Ludhianvi admitted in an interview to BBC that Malik Ishaq, the LJ chief was released on his guarantee and reports to him.
The spike in sectarian violence coincided with Malik Ishaq’s release — following which he declared war against the Shia community perceived to be collaborating with the US.
An abysmal lack of convictions in courts has led to the release of the most hardened militants. Atta-ur-Rahman alias Naeem Bukhari, released in 2009 was among the militants responsible for the beheading of Daniel Pearl. Bukhari now runs LJ operations in Karachi and South Punjab.
In Karachi, LJ has perhaps been on the back foot as most of its activists were killed here. According to security officials, there is strong evidence of MQM activists involved in the killing of ASWJ workers, although it is not a party policy.
ASWJ leaders in Karachi have — time and again — named the MQM as the prime culprit in the attacks against them.