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South Asia’s Shiites Are Eschewing Sectarianism

Iran divides and disrupts in the Middle East, but it has a different playbook in Pakistan.

Shiite Muslims protest in Karachi, Pakistan, against a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque.
Shiite Muslims protest in Karachi, Pakistan, against a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Shikarpur, Pakistan, on Jan. 30, 2015. RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images

The targeted killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, raises questions about the future of Shiite sectarianism. The Quds Force specializes in unconventional warfare, and under Suleimani’s two decades of charismatic leadership, it commanded a network of Shiite militias responsible for propping up Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, fighting the Islamic State, and committing acts of terrorism. In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan coined the term “Shiite crescent” to describe Iran’s influence across the Middle East.

But another important group has been overlooked—the Shiite population of Pakistan. Its history suggests that the state-backed sectarianism of the Middle East is not inevitable.

Iranian influence on pan-Shiism is as much a product of regional fissures outside Iran as campaigns by the Islamic Republic. The Shiites of the newly formed Pakistan found themselves partitioned from their former seminaries of Lucknow, and during the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s regime blocked visas for students to attend the seminary in Najaf, Iraq, one of the most important Shiite sites. These restrictions and Iranian scholarships enticed students to study in Iran instead. But this influence has not translated into anti-state sentiments among Pakistan’s Shiites. The tone was set early on when the then-president of the Pakistani Shiite political organization Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria (TNFJ) vehemently defended Pakistan against the leading questions of the Iranian press.

Life as a Shiite in Pakistan is not easy. South Asia is home to an estimated 36-64 million Shiites—perhaps as many as 25 million in Pakistan alone. Accounts of Shiite life in Pakistan frequently portray a minority under siege by Sunni extremists. In 1988, Sunni militias burned Shiite villages in Gilgit in the northeast of Pakistan and killed an estimated 400 people. In 2012, a bus headed toward Gilgit was stopped by armed men, and 20 Shiite passengers were executed on the spot.

The primarily Shiite Hazara ethnic group is the target of both sectarian and ethnic violence. In 2003, Sunni gunmen killed 53 people after opening fire on a Hazara mosque in Quetta, and in 2010, a suicide bomber killed 56 people at a rally in the same city. The violence afflicts Pakistan’s largest cities: In 2009, 30 Shiites in Karachi were killed by a suicide bomber during the holiday of Arbaeen.Iranian influence on pan-Shiism is as much a product of regional fissures outside Iran as campaigns by the Islamic Republic.

Most of this violence is perpetuated by nonstate actors, and the government has taken security measures to protect the population and reduce violence. This was not always the case: In 1985, during Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, 13 protesters were killed by Quetta police while demanding greater religious freedoms. Still, the threat remains real: The government regularly cuts cell-phone service across Pakistan’s urban centers on Shiite mourning days to prevent coordinated attacks, and the Hazara residents of Quetta’s Mariabad neighborhood face great danger whenever they leave their protected enclave because they are easily distinguished from the rest of the population.

Following the prevailing logic of prominent neoconservative groups in Washington that argue Iran seeks to “export its revolutionary ideology,” such violence should make Pakistan’s Shiites receptive to Tehran’s message. However, individual Shiites play a prominent role in Pakistan’s politics, and even Shiite movements have chosen to work within the system rather than against it. This approach is supported by Tehran, which does not view Pakistan as a battleground against Western influence.

Historically, Shiites participated heavily in the Indian nationalist movement, including within the All-India Muslim League. The founder of Pakistan himself, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was born a Khoja Ismaili Shiite and converted to Twelver Shiism but concealed his sectarian identity from the public. Other Shiite heads of state have included Pakistan’s first president, Iskander Mirza, and the martial law dictator Yahya Khan. Former Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, who was discreet about his Shiite background, indirectly challenged Zia’s absolute authority and also helped walk back his ban on Shiite mourning ceremonies.

Lt. Gen. Nadeem Raza—a Shiite—currently serves as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and previously was commandant of the Pakistan Military Academy. Lt. Gen. Asim Munir briefly served as director-general of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the early months of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and accompanied him on his April 2019 visit to Iran. Syeda Abida Hussain served as ambassador to the United States during the early 1990s, as relations grew tense over Pakistan’s nuclear program, and is also a Shiite. In some parts of Pakistan, such as Jhang, Shiites are overrepresented among landed families, and violent terrorist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan use resentment against feudal Shiite landlords to stoke sectarian flames.

Former Pakistan Peoples Party senator Faisal Raza Abidi is known for plastering posters around Karachi depicting his own name and Shiite symbols such as Karbala and Hussein. Symbols of Shiism, including its shrines, also imbue Sufi devotional songs that are popular in Pakistan. But Shiite leaders at the apex of Pakistan’s government have proved unable to prevent the sporadic violence that afflicts their communities. They remain constrained by a prevailing Pakistani patriotism that is deeply suspicious of ethnic or sectarian identity.Tehran … does not view Pakistan as a battleground against Western influence.

Arif Hussain al-Hussaini led the TNFJ during the 1980s. Arguably the most politically ambitious TNFJ leader, he paid for his boldness with an assassination in 1988. Today, the TNFJ is careful to support the military and focus blame on outside imperialist and sectarian forces when pointing to the violence that Shiites endure. Community grievances are subsumed into those of Pakistan itself, even though a handful of regions and groups endure the brunt of violence. Community activists risk accusations of dual loyalty, foreign sponsorship, or simply exaggeration, and addressing the hierarchy of economic, ethnic, and sectarian privilege remains a taboo.

Pakistan’s Shiites have not found advocates among the clerical elite of Iraq or Iran either. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who manages Najaf’s seminaries, the grand ayatollahs who developed Shiite thought shed their national and ethnic identities in favor of a quietest scholarly approach, despite the tendency of some Western analysts to focus on their origins. Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, who grew up in post-partition Pakistan, could have used his status in Najaf to advocate for Pakistan’s Shiites but chose the customary path of avoiding politics and maintains few connections to Pakistan. In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and later Ali Khamenei, took a far greater interest in the Levant than Pakistan’s Shiites. Suleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, focused on Central and South Asia for much of his career but in the context of Afghanistan. Tehran is the defender of Shiites under siege by its own enemies but is reluctant to challenge the sectarian violence that Shiites face in countries where warmer relations exist, such as Egypt and Pakistan.

Like their Saudi co-religionist, Hassan al-Saffar, who chose to abandon resistance in favor of detente with Riyadh, Pakistan’s Shiite clerics have prioritized efforts to compromise with larger Sunni society rather than challenge it, with mixed results. Mass protests in 1980—partly supported by Iran—helped exempt Pakistan’s Shiites from paying their religious tax, or zakat, to Sunni institutions. This concession was tempered by a constitutional provision prohibiting tabarra—the practice by some Shiites of publicly denouncing historical figures venerated in Sunni Islam.

But this restriction is easily circumvented by the use of metaphorical language. For instance, one cleric in Karachi alluded to Sunni caliphs as “historical personalities” and then compared them to brake “pedals” that should be stepped on. Another preacher referred to the Sunni Caliph Uthman as a “beggar” rather than his conventional Sunni title of al-Ghani, or “generous.” But popular clerics such as Syed Jawad Naqvi—a major supporter of Iran’s theocracy—limit tabarra to focus on reconciliation, and Shiite clerics, or ulema, also sit on the Council of Islamic Ideology.If Iran’s ambitions were truly rooted in an ideological desire to lead pan-Shiism, then its footprint in South Asia should be larger.

The relative integration of Pakistan’s Shiites into the greater society is partly a result of other sectarian conflicts. First, an all-consuming focus on the Ahmadi sect shields Pakistan’s Shiites from the crosshairs of extremist groups. Ahmadis are declared non-Muslims by the Second Amendment of Pakistan’s constitution (due to their belief in a prophet after Mohammed) and face open violence and discrimination. Second, South Asia’s Shiites and the Barelvi order of Sunni Islam, the latter of which still dominates Pakistan’s religious landscape, both practice syncretic versions of the faith that defies the purist inclinations of clerical elites. In fact, Shiites and Barelvis both have faced similar attacks on shrines and gatherings to honor members of the Prophet Mohammed’s family, which the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith sects view as heretical.

Pakistani views of Iran are not shaped by sectarian conflict, which protects its Shiite minority from being labeled a fifth column of Tehran as is the case in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Approximately two-thirds of Pakistanis hold a favorable view of Iran, regardless of their sectarian affiliation, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll. In comparison, 60 percent of Lebanese and 78 percent of Egyptians held an unfavorable view of Iran in the same poll. Even Mian Tufail Mohammad, who served as emir of the Deobandi-influenced political movement Jamaat-e-Islami, praised the religiosity of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini after visiting in 1979.

The case of Pakistan challenges explanations of sectarianism that focus on power competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran but ignore the conditions that allow countries like Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon to become battlegrounds in the first place. If Iran’s ambitions were truly rooted in an ideological desire to lead pan-Shiism, then its footprint in South Asia should be larger, but instead it focuses on filling power vacuums and supporting communities where the demographic balance favors Shiite mobilization that can provide a security buffer against Iran’s enemies. In fact, in places where Iran sees no threat it often chooses to eschew sectarian messaging.

The influence of Pakistan’s elite Shiites in the trajectory of the Pakistani state also challenges the notion that sectarianism is a result of relative deprivation or that political representation alone by a particular group can shield it from the whims of the majority. Policymakers should heed these experiences before applying foreign solutions to a localized problem in a post-Suleimani Middle East and South Asia.

Adam Weinstein is a researcher who focuses on South Asia and Iran.