Fatima Raza

On November 11, roughly 10,000 people spilled into the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, to protest the killing of members of the Hazara ethnic group, which is predominantly Shia Muslim and one of the most persecuted minorities in the region. This incident was not an isolated occurrence, but the most recent in a string of violence against Hazaras. In neighboring Pakistan, such violence is routinely carried out by militant groups in the form of mass bombings, execution-style shootings and assassinations targeting high-ranking officials, students, doctors, musicians and artists from the Shia community. 

It is common for incidents like this one to be sweepingly characterized as sectarian violence in the mainstream media. Although the violence stems from sectarianism, it is distinct from sectarian violence, which implies a symmetrical confrontation between two or more non-state actors representing different population groups.1 Sectarianism, on the other hand, refers to a form of bigotry or discrimination resulting from ascribing importance to perceived differences between groups or subgroups.2 In actuality, the violence is entirely asymmetrical, and arises from extremist ideology that espouses bigotry. Of the active militant groups identified in the country, the majority of them of them share values with Wahhabi, Salafi or Orthodox Sunni Deobandi ideology and specifically target religious minorities. 

Yet, it is easy to find instances like this one, a Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder citation from January 2008 Congressional Testimony outlining types of terrorist groups in Pakistan: 

1. Sectarian: Religiously motivated groups such as the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Shia Tehrik-e-Jafria that are engaged in violence within Pakistan

The issue here is the framing of the conflict. Both sides are cited as engaging in violence without considering the magnitude of violence committed by each faction. A closer examination of the groups reveals that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has superseded Sipah-e-Sahaba, is responsible for an upwards of 600 casualties and has claimed responsibility for 15 incidents of terrorism. One would be hard pressed to find any terrorist attacks or incidents associated with Tehrik-e-Jafaria. 

Lashkar-Jhangvi is one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups.3 The terrorist group formed in 1996 after breaking away from Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and is aligned with Sunni-Deobandi fundamentalism and Salafi Jihadism. LeJ has claimed responsibility for the killings of 70 doctors, 34 lawyers, various religious scholars, teachers, students and over 200 members of the Hazara community.   

Tehreek-e-Jafaria is a religious organization formed in 1979 in response to discrimination against Shia Muslims in the Pakistani army and civil service. The organization does not advocate for a Shia Islamic State, but for the rights of the Shia minority. Since its inception, it has joined the Coalition of Islamic Political Parities, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, comprised of conservative Sunni political parties and TeJ, which went on to win 11.3% of the vote in the 2002. Tehreek-e-Jafaria was accused of targeting leadership in LeJ and SSP - many of whom were affiliated with the Taliban in Pakistan - in assassinations carried out in the mid 1990s.

The basis of the “sectarian violence” narrative rests on that piece of information. Although the assassinations were carried out in the 1990s, they are still the basis for claims of “tit for tat” sectarian violence in numerous articles and briefings. In a climate of relative impunity for sectarian-driven violence driven against Pakistan’s religious minorities, TeJ is best described as a religiously affiliated rogue militia, as its activities do not include attacks on civilians. However, contrary to the CFR backgrounder from 2008, TeJ has not claimed, nor been accused of, violent or terrorist activities for over two decades. 

This conflation of asymmetrical sectarianism with sectarian violence paints an inaccurate picture of Pakistani society as rife with sectarian tensions. It leads us to assume that there is quid pro quo violence between Sunni and Shia extremists, which is not the case. A division between Sunnis and Shiites does not manifest itself in any clear way in Pakistani society at large.4 A Middle East Report article notes that Pakistan’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity has meant that Shia and Sunni communities in Pakistan do not constitute homogenous or internally unified groups, and sectarian identity is not a salient marker in the lives of many Pakistanis. 

The sectarian intolerance can be attributed a handful of militant groups at the fringes of Pakistani society, fighting for a subset of beliefs not representative of the larger population. But the resurgence of violence in the past decade has brought on a tide of intolerance in popular sentiment in the country. According to a 2012 Pew Survey, 78 percent of Pakistanis believe that relations between Sunnis and Shias are a problem in the country. In another study the following year surveying 1,450 individuals, 35 percent of the respondents believed that Shias were not Muslims. In the same year, in a Pew study measuring social hostilities involving religious intolerance, Pakistan attained the highest possible score for social hostilities - which encompasses armed conflict, terrorism, mob/sectarian violence, harassment, etc. 

Yet after a decade of targeted violence, the government has consistently failed to stem the escalating violence. There is a sense of impunity for extremist groups targeting the Shia minority and other smaller religious minorities, such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. In 2014, The Global Terrorism Index ranked Pakistan 3rd among countries experiencing terrorism, just behind Iraq and Afghanistan. Government officials respond to many of these terror incidents with both public condemnation and inaction. Framing these incidents as “sectarian violence” takes the pressure off of the government to do more than condemn incidents by giving an illusion of balance. 

Since 2002, Pakistan has seen over a hundred incidents of violence, with 1,330 killed and over 2,711 injured - and these are only the reported figures from high-profile incidents.5 Critics argue that casualties from attacks are under-reported, and official figures do not include smaller-scale attacks, hate crimes, and murders. No major city is safe, with attacks taking place in both Lahore and Karachi.

A more accurate framing for the violence may be persecution, behavioral violence, terrorism or target killings. The term “sectarian violence” fails to capture the tragedy of the situation; it paints sectarian tensions as normative, obfuscating national and international scrutiny of the violence and the government’s inability to protect its minorities. 

1 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2008.

2 “Sectarianism Definition." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.

3 "Profile: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi." BBC News.

4 Dedalus, Stephen. “The Bitter Harvest of  Sectarianism in Balochistan” Middle East Report, No. 251. 2009.

5 “Incidents and Statements Involving Lashkar-e-Jhangvi: 2015, 2014, 2013, 1996-2012.” South Asia Terrorism Portal. Institute for Conflict Management

Image via equality-insaaf.org

Fatima Raza is an MPA candidate in Economic Development at Columbia University. She holds a Bachelor's degree in International Studies from Emory University.