Pakistan faces the prospect of new rounds of violence between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims as the Shiia next week hold one of their most important annual religious observances. In part two of a three-part series on sectarian violence in Pakistan, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with Pakistani sociologist Mohammed Waseem about the roots of the conflict.
Lahore, Pakistan; 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Conflicts between Islam's two main rival branches, the traditional Sunni and the reform Shiia, are almost as old as the religion itself and no stranger to South Asia.
But many Pakistanis say they are shocked by the level of violence that extremist groups of both sects are engaging in today.
The violence, in which 300 people have died in recent years, has seen rival sect members carry out assassinations in crowded bazaars, using automatic weapons and hand grenades that kill both their targets and bystanders. It has also seen masked gunmen walk into mosques and indiscriminately spray bullets at entire congregations, including children.
Mohammed Waseem, an expert on Pakistani society and politics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, says traditional conflicts between the communities began to escalate about 20 years ago, when Pakistanis watched two epic struggles take place in neighboring states.
One, the 1979 Islamic revolution in overwhelmingly Shiite Iran, inspired many Pakistani Shiia to demand more rights for their minority, which makes up some 20 percent of Pakistan's population.
The other, the Sunni Afghan Mujahedin's 10-year war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, galvanized the Pakistani Sunni majority's own sense of identity. One result was less tolerance of those who do not share it. Mohammed Waseem says:
"The Iranian revolution and the Afghan resistance movement against the Soviet [forces] in Kabul, these two movements in a way inspired Shiia and Sunni sectarian movements in Pakistan. So, for the last 20 years, that source of inspiration from the neighborhood of Pakistan has been operating."
Immediately after the Islamic revolution in Iran, some 100,000 Pakistani Shiia surrounded the parliamentary complex in Islamabad to demand they be exempted from a state-collected religious tithe, called zakat. They said their sect does not recognize the tithe, which is used to fund Sunni-administered religious schools and charities.
The government of then military strongman President Zia ul Haq granted the exemption. But Sunni militant groups mobilized in response. In later years, the most radical began demonstrations to demand the Shiia be declared non-Muslims.
Today, the most extreme parties on either side, the Sunni SSP and the Shiite TJP, count their members in the thousands. They have become adept at fanning sectarian passions by using fax machines to instantly disseminate propaganda nationwide -- even as they are banned from the airwaves. In addition, the ready availability of arms in Pakistan -- in part due to the continuing Afghan conflict -- makes it easy for their armed wings to carry out the vengeance street assaults that keep tensions high.
But Waseem says one curious thing about the conflict is that, apart from religious doctrine, there are few differences between the two communities. In most areas of Pakistan, they share similar social and economic standings and in everyday life they socialize easily. Waseem says:
"The Shiia are somewhat more urbanized, somewhat more educated and better represented in [professional] services here and there, but overall the differences in class terms cannot be described in sharp terms. So one can say that the conflict is between households and between activists belonging to the same class."
One exception is Pakistan's Jhang district, in the eastern state of Punjab, where some of the worst violence has occurred. There, rural Shiia -- including both landowners and peasants -- are pitted against Sunni urbanites. The enmity is also partly ethnic: the Shiia are native Punjabi speakers, while the Sunni are largely Urdu-speaking newer arrivals.
As Pakistan now braces for possible new rounds of violence on the occasion of annual Shiite religious processions next week (6 April), moderate religious leaders on both sides have met and jointly said they will work to keep the peace. They have also said they will cooperate with security forces to keep order.
That is in line with efforts in recent years by successive Pakistani governments and by the moderate leaders themselves to get the two communities to work together to resolve the conflict.
Waseem says that, so far, the two sides have been able to make progress on some disputes. One is Shiite anger over the state-approved curriculum of religious classes in schools, which they say focuses only on Sunni Islam. Waseem:
"There have been some efforts at negotiations between the rival communities themselves. Sometimes the Shiia ulema (religious leaders) and the Sunni ulema have tried to thrash out differences between themselves, for example, on the issue of straightening out the curriculum, which is sectarian, predominantly speaking."
But both sides have resisted any effort by Islamabad to bring their privately run religious schools, or madrassas, under greater government control or to impose a tighter audit of their receipts of money from abroad. The government sees these steps as essential to curbing the teaching of religious intolerance and what many Pakistanis believe is substantial foreign funding for both sects' most extreme parties.
Pakistani newspapers regularly report that Iran provides funds to militant Shiite groups, while Arab states fund militant Sunni ones. Journalists say the outside support began in the 1980s as Tehran sought to export the Islamic revolution and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sought to counter it. Both Tehran and Riyadh deny charges they support militant leaders and madrassas in Pakistan today.
In recent months, the government of military ruler General Pervez Musharraf has discussed passing a law to ban the most violent religious parties. But many in Pakistan feel that is unlikely.
Western diplomats say the reason is that many of the most extreme parties also field resistance fighters in Kashmir -- where Pakistan backs a separatist struggle against India. That makes the militant groups a key player in what Islamabad considers to be the most important contest in the region today, even as it condemns the militants' excesses at home.
(Part 3 of the three-part series on sectarian violence looks at strains the conflict creates in relations between Pakistan and Iran.)