The South Asia Channel

Sindh’s Sectarian Challenge

Sindh has long been known for its progressive politics, religious diversity, and vibrant civil society, but increasingly, it is being plagued by sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

increasingly been plagued by sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims
increasingly been plagued by sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims

When a mother in Shikarpur, a district of Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, bid farewell to her four sons as they went to the imambargah -- a mosque for Shia Muslims -- to offer Friday prayers, she could not have imagined that it would be the last time she would see them. At least 58 people, including the four brothers, died at the mosque on Jan. 30 in a suicide bomb attack. Jundullah, an extremist Sunni group, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which was the worst sectarian attack in Pakistan since March 2013, when 45 people were killed in a bombing in Abbas Town, a Shia neighborhood of the port city of Karachi.

Sindh has long been known for its progressive politics, religious diversity, vibrant civil society, and for being the Pakistani home to Sufi Islam. The Shikarpur attack was not unprecedented; in recent years, Sindh has increasingly been plagued by sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Anti-Shia sectarian groups, such as the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have consolidated their presence in the province by establishing a network of seminaries. By some estimates, the sectarian groups have enlisted approximately 25,000 members across the province outside Karachi. At highest risk are the central and northern districts of Shikarpur, Khairpur, and Ghotki, which are proximate to the sectarian groups’ original base in the south of the Punjab province. Senior police officers, interviewed for a recently published report on the rise of extremism in Sindh, described the central Sindhi district of Khairpur as a “base” for the LeJ.  Allama Sher Hyderi, the former leader of ASWJ, was killed in the district in August 2009. Meanwhile, Akram Lahori, a cofounder of the LeJ, was born in Mirpurkhas, another district of Sindh; currency notes in his home town of Digri are commonly marked with anti-Shia slogans.

When a mother in Shikarpur, a district of Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, bid farewell to her four sons as they went to the imambargah — a mosque for Shia Muslims — to offer Friday prayers, she could not have imagined that it would be the last time she would see them. At least 58 people, including the four brothers, died at the mosque on Jan. 30 in a suicide bomb attack. Jundullah, an extremist Sunni group, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which was the worst sectarian attack in Pakistan since March 2013, when 45 people were killed in a bombing in Abbas Town, a Shia neighborhood of the port city of Karachi.

Sindh has long been known for its progressive politics, religious diversity, vibrant civil society, and for being the Pakistani home to Sufi Islam. The Shikarpur attack was not unprecedented; in recent years, Sindh has increasingly been plagued by sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Anti-Shia sectarian groups, such as the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and its militant wing, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have consolidated their presence in the province by establishing a network of seminaries. By some estimates, the sectarian groups have enlisted approximately 25,000 members across the province outside Karachi. At highest risk are the central and northern districts of Shikarpur, Khairpur, and Ghotki, which are proximate to the sectarian groups’ original base in the south of the Punjab province. Senior police officers, interviewed for a recently published report on the rise of extremism in Sindh, described the central Sindhi district of Khairpur as a “base” for the LeJ.  Allama Sher Hyderi, the former leader of ASWJ, was killed in the district in August 2009. Meanwhile, Akram Lahori, a cofounder of the LeJ, was born in Mirpurkhas, another district of Sindh; currency notes in his home town of Digri are commonly marked with anti-Shia slogans.

During the 1980s, Sectarian militant groups grew in strength  in southern Punjab by using Sunni peasants to channel resentment against Shia landowners. The ASWJ is now looking to exploit similar divides in Sindh, particularly the sectarian differences between rival tribes. The anti-Shia rhetoric of extremist groups is reiterated by Sunni tribal leaders and politicians seeking to undermine political rivals from the opposite sect.

Mercifully, suicide attacks of the kind that occurred in Shikarpur are still rare in the province. In part, this is due to Sindh’s tradition of progressive politics and civil society organization, including the most vibrant vernacular media landscape in the country. In the 1980s,  while militant groups were successful in recruiting young men from Karachi, southern Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then the North-West Frontier Province) to participate in anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan, Sindh was embroiled in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, a political campaign geared toward protesting General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship (1977-88). As a result, fewer men from Sindh became engaged in militancy.

But Sindh is no longer immune to the spread of Islamist militancy. Currently, the province is experiencing an uptick in extremist violence as groups, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and its offshoots, which seek to overthrow the democratic system and impose Islamic law, increase their presence and activities.

Sindh-based law enforcement officials and politicians point to the escalation in attacks against Sufi shrines and the persecution of the local Hindu community as evidence of the entrenchment of banned extremist groups in Sindh. Each month, approximately 20 Hindu girls are abducted and forced to convert to Islam. Further, members of the Hindu community are increasingly migrating to India to escape persecution.

Additionally, a rising number of militants based in the province have been involved in attacks targeting state security forces. For example, suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the headquarters in Sukkur of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s leading intelligence agency, on July 24, 2013.  This attack killed eight people, including three intelligence officials, and injured more than 50 others.

Police officials investigating a major militant attack at the cargo terminal of the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi in June 2014 discovered that militants involved in the attack had purchased mobile SIM chips in Sindh’s Nawabshah district. This indicates that the TTP and its affiliates are starting to use the province as a base for logistical planning and networking. A few months later, militants from Sindh, believed to have links to al-Qaeda, were involved in an attempt to hijack a Pakistan Navy frigate from the Karachi Naval Dockyard. Owais Jakhrani, a former navy sailor who helped plan the attack, was from the Sindhi district of Jacobabad.  Three other militants suspected of involvement were arrested from Larkana and Jamshoro.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, which has long dominated the politics of Sindh, has made little effort to address the rise of violent extremism and sectarianism in the province. Poor governance and inadequate social services are  contributing to the spread of extremism in the province, as extremist groups fill the political vacuum by providing services such as education and natural disaster relief and rehabilitation. While politicians have strongly condemned the Shikarpur bombing, they will have to do much more to halt the spread of militancy in Sindh and to ensure that the province does not become a new base for militants akin to southern Punjab or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

FIDA HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

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