By Karthik Shankar:
Militants killed 43 people and injured 19 in an attack in Pakistan on 13th May. The victims were Ismailis, a Shiite sect, who were travelling in a bus. At least 25 men, and 16 women were among the deceased. The killers entered the bus and shot people in close range. The shocking attack comes just a few months after 61 Shiites were killed in a mosque in January.
The attack that was claimed by Jundullah, the Pakistani Taliban, and the ISIS, just highlights how fractured the terrorist landscape has become in Pakistan in recent years. Such attacks are a case of one-upmanship among various terror groups, and the scurry to claim responsibility is a part of building up the brand power of these outfits.
So should we be alarmed that ISIS has moved to our doorstep? Not exactly. Jundullah, which allegedly tied up with the ISIS last year very much remains a localised group. Such ties between local and international terror groups are common, akin to slapping an internationally recognisable brand name on a regional corporation. It’s a dubious notion that the ISIS, which is busy grappling with the injury of its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and trying to fend off airstrikes on its bases, would have time to participate in a massacres against Pakistan’s Shiite minority.
What is worrisome though is the extent to which Shiites are being targeted by Pakistan’s mostly Sunni-led terror outfits. Shiites make up 20% of the country’s predominantly Muslim population, almost double of the global Muslim population where they make up only 10%. They also face the brunt of attacks from militant groups, because they are largely seen as heretics in the country. American academic Juan Cole sums up the differences succinctly, “Shiites are more like traditional Catholics in venerating members of the holy family and attending at their shrines. Contemporary Salafi Sunni Islam is more like the militant brand of Protestantism of the late 1500s that denounced intermediaries between God and the individual and actually attacked and destroyed shrines to saints and other holy figures, where pleas for intercession were made.”
The Muslim world has seen increasing tensions between Shias and Sunnis in recent years. Most terror outfits are Sunni-led and driven by an agenda that favours a Caliph led doctrine of Islam. Some say the primary reason ISIS sprung up in the first place was to counter Iraq and Syria. The former is a Shia majority country and the latter is Alawite led (a subsect of Shia Islam).
Pakistan itself is far removed from its days of religious harmony, given that Jinnah himself was a Shiite. Over the years, subsequent governments engaged in communal politics that have alienated Muslim minority groups. Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate is largely unacknowledged in the country because his Ahmadiyya heritage made him a heretic in the eyes of the country’s populace. The rise of anti-Shiite groups in Pakistan can be linked back to former President Zia-ul-Haq’s involvement in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s which saw funding of Deobandi (an orthodox subsect of Sunni Islam) extremist groups in an attempt to weed out Shia led Iran’s influence in the region. Only 50% of Sunnis in Pakistan believe that Shias are Muslims. Some Pakistanis have gone so far as to describe the situation as a genocide.
Pakistan has only recently woken up to the destructive power of this sectarianism. Just in March, Nawaz Sharif declined to join a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Iran. But the damage may have already been done. The brutality of Pakistan’s terror driven ideologies is a lesson to us that engaging in divisive politics will only create a beast that cannot be tamed.