God’s Gravediggers: The Politics of Sectarian Killing

Aug 2013

Issue V

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | A mother cries next to the body of her dead son.

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | A mother cries next to the body of her dead son.

A metal gate guards the entrance to the Ummat Public School, a cluster of well-appointed classrooms serving 600 pupils in the Pakistani city of Quetta. The teenage students are confident, the girls strikingly so, and the teachers dedicated. The atmosphere is cheerful: a mural of the water cycle decorates one classroom and a poster declares: “The Earth Laughs in Flowers.”

One afternoon last summer, girls sat at their desks in pairs, wearing tightly-wrapped white headscarves that hid their hair and framed their faces as identically-shaped ovals. Farwa, their teacher, wore black and had kind, sparkling eyes. At her gentle prodding, the teenagers slowly overcame their shyness and raised their hands to speak.

As the clamor grew, it was possible to divide their preoccupations into four categories: navigating relationships with parents, career choices, prospects for university and the risk of being shot by a death squad.

“In our family,” said 15-year-old Amina, “everybody is frightened.”

It was August 2012. Outside the school gates lay the somnolent, neatly-swept lanes of Marriabad, an enclave on the western edge of Quetta occupied by the Hazara community. The Hazaras’ ancestors were driven from Afghanistan in the 19th century and today they make up perhaps a quarter of the city’s population of two million. Members of the community are usually recognizable by their Asiatic features. They are not only an ethnic minority, however. The Hazaras are Shia Muslims (known elsewhere in the Islamic world as Shi’ites). That’s what makes them quarry.

Every day, different groups stage shootings, bombings or ambushes in different parts of Pakistan for different reasons. The attacks that end the most lives make headlines for a few hours, prompt a weary flurry of condemnation, and are quickly forgotten by all but the wounded and the grieving. Bewildering as this barrage of violence may seem, there is an agenda behind every outrage. Forecasting where Pakistan is headed is therefore an exercise in discerning patterns. And of late, there is one trend that cuts through the mist like a foghorn: an escalating, systematic campaign of persecution of Shias.

Cold-blooded attacks of extraordinary cruelty have become commonplace. Gunmen flag down buses, calmly pick out Shia passengers and shoot them. Teenage recruits don suicide jackets then stride into crowds in Shia-dominated neighborhoods. Shia bankers, teachers or doctors are killed on their way home from work by assassins who pull alongside their cars on motorbikes then vanish into the nighttime traffic. While there have been sporadic attacks on Shias over the past few decades, never has the community been subjected to such a pitiless onslaught.

As a journalist living in Islamabad, I was slow to grasp the significance of this phenomenon. The trend did not slot readily into the templates I reflexively used to judge what made news. I found it much easier, for example, to write about Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in enclaves on the Afghan border. There was no way for me to visit these people, or even talk to them, but it was easy to work them into copy: they were at war with the Pakistani state, they were proficient at killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan and their milieu had spawned a series of planned or actual terror attacks in the West.

Yet as I began to learn more about the attacks on the Shias, I began to realize how much was at stake. The perpetrators were violating Pakistan at its very core; in cities, villages and towns. The micro-climates of fear they created varied in intensity, but together they blanketed practically the whole country in a suffocating psychic smog. Open displays of bigotry were becoming more common, dissenters feared for their lives. Pakistan, a country founded on principles of tolerance, lost a little more cohesion with each new murder. The gunmen seemed intent on recasting the national character in their own hate-filled image. The question was: would they succeed?

While working for Reuters, I was able to travel in a broad arc in search of answers. Starting in Quetta in the forgotten, closed-off province of Balochistan, I later visited the back streets of the Arabian Sea port city of Karachi and finally reached the placid seeming flatlands of southern Punjab.

I soon learned that the violence has very little to do with religion, and everything to do with power. Pakistan’s military, the pre-eminent decision-maker in the country since its creation, had spent decades fostering militant groups to buttress its position at home and project influence into Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran had all in some way abetted the rise of militancy here, albeit at varying times, for different motives and through distinct mechanisms. The result was that a radical, violence-obsessed fringe has learned that the more wantonly it acts, the more fear it inspires and the more influence it can wield. There is every incentive to kill and kill again.

The more I travelled, the more I began to suspect that the extremists cast such a shadow over Pakistan not because they are strong, but because the state is so weak. A fatal seam of ambiguity towards militancy runs through Pakistan’s army, its governing institutions and many of its political parties, the legacy of the security state’s long romance with jihad. The upper echelons of the political and military hierarchy do not yet seem to have realized that it is not merely Pakistan’s future that is at stake, but its soul.


For most politicians, winning office could be considered the one indivisible unit of success. Abdul Khalique Hazara uses a more modest measure: each day he stays alive is a victory. As the most prominent Hazara politician in Quetta, Khalique has every reason to be afraid. His predecessor as chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, Hussain Ali Yousafi, was shot dead on 26 January, 2009. A wall-length poster of the slain leader adorning the HDP’s office underlines the danger. A puppy-faced, portly man with neatly-parted hair, Khalique had emerged as the best-known champion of the Hazaras’ plight. It doesn’t seem alarmist to assume that he is near the top of the militants’ hit list.

The trigger-pullers are members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group that proudly proclaims its project to rid Pakistan of Shias. LeJ was founded in 1996 in the south of Punjab, the fertile province on the other side of Pakistan where most of the country’s 180 million people live. It grew out of the galaxy of jihadi groups patronized by Pakistan’s security forces, but its cadres have since spread across the country, fuelled by donations from wealthy sponsors in the Gulf.1 A handwritten letter circulated by the LeJ in Balochistan some months before my visit declared that all Shias are wajib-ul-qatl – worthy of killing:

“Pakistan means land of the pure… Our mission is the abolition of this impure sect and people, the Shias and the Shia-Hazaras, from every city, every village, every nook and corner of Pakistan. …We will make Pakistan their graveyard — their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. We will only rest when we fly the flag of true Islam on this land.”

In Quetta, the group had become so brazen it was tempting to imagine that their gunmen had been given some kind of tacit hunting license. Khalique described how the killers would ride up on motorbikes, open fire at Hazaras crossing the city in taxis or waiting at bus stops, then race away unhindered by police or the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that is responsible for security in Balochistan. Some of the attacks took place near FC checkpoints; often the killers did not bother to wear masks. By the time I visited Quetta in August last year, at least 100 Hazaras had been killed in and around the city since the precedingJanuary, according to Human Rights Watch. On the August morning I arrived, gunmen opened fire on a taxi, killing three more Hazaras on the spot. Nobody had been prosecuted.

“If the government is not taking any action against the culprits what does it show?” asked Khalique, as we sat on cushions on the carpet of the HDP office. “It shows that the government wants religious extremists here in this region.”

Hazaras suspected that there were dark motives for the security forces to allow LeJ to prey on their community. Many suspected that the killings served as a convenient smokescreen to shroud the military’s covert activities in Balochistan from outside eyes. The province had served as a haven for Afghanistan’s Taliban movement after its leaders fled to Pakistan after being ousted by the United States in 2001. Afghan and American officials were convinced Pakistan’s intelligence agencies continued to support the movement’s commanders in Quetta. To some Hazaras, it did not seem like a stretch to image that the security establishment would tolerate a degree of anti-Hazara violence in the city to foment just enough danger and confusion to ward off prying foreigners.

The lackluster response to LeJ stood in stark contrast to the security forces’ unsparing repression of ethnic Baloch rebels. The guerrillas had been fighting for years to hive off Balochistan from Pakistan to create an independent Baloch homeland, though their movement was hamstrung by in-fighting. Pakistani intelligence had sought to quash the uprising by launching a campaign known as “kill-and-dump.” Security forces or their paramilitary proxies picked up hundreds of Baloch activists, including intellectuals, poets and journalists, then dumped their mutilated bodies by the roadside. (The military denies involvement in the killings.) LeJ activists, by contrast, had faced no such crackdown. Indeed, Khalique said that two LeJ commanders had staged a Houdini-like escape from their cells in Quetta in 2008, sharpening suspicions that they had powerful sympathizers. The FC argued that it was extremely difficult to locate small cells of LeJ gunmen who managed to flit in and out of the province, and indeed some FC men gave their lives to try to prevent bomb attacks. But the scale of the measures taken by the security forces never seemed commensurate with the intensity of the assault.

While Hazaras had lost faith in the willingness of the state to protect them, the response of Pakistan’s political leadership had been equally woeful. The Hazaras were barely discussed in Islamabad, and received limited media coverage. The indifference was epitomized by the comments of Nawab Aslam Raisani, a former chief minister of Balochistan, who promised to send Hazaras a “truckload of tissues” after one particularly egregious attack – presumably to wipe away the mourners’ tears.

Khalique ran for the Balochistan provincial assembly in Quetta at Pakistan’s May general elections, but failed to win a seat. The politician was risking his life to offer leadership to the Hazaras, but he could not deliver much more than hope. To his supporters, that was enough to make him a hero.

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Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | People dig mass graves for the victims of the Quetta blast.

Photo: Matiullah Achakzai | People dig mass graves for the victims of the Quetta blast.

Graveyards have an other-worldly feel, separated from the land of the living by more than their silence and wrought iron gates. Not so in Quetta. Founded in 1896, the Hazara cemetery on the edge of Marriabad is in constant use. So many people had been killed in bomb and gun attacks that the grave-diggers had been forced to build an extension. Framed photographs of the dead stared from new headstones, strewn with tinsel or decorated with sprays of artificial flowers. In the two months before my visit there had been more new arrivals, including a civil servant, a bus driver, a pharmacist and a man who worked in a juice bar. Mourners had left clay water dishes on the graves, trusting that the birds would say a prayer for the dead each time they fluttered down to drink.

The killings were not just a tragedy for the Hazaras; they were changing the complexion of Quetta, a once cosmopolitan trading hub where Baloch and Pashtuns lived alongside Sindhis, Punjabis and Hindus.2

Hazara traders had abandoned markets in ethnically-mixed areas and retreated into their enclaves. Hazara students were afraid to venture to the university for fear of being gunned down in the street. Divisions were proliferating. Even the Hazaras were themselves split between those who supported the secular politics of Khalique and his HDP, and those who found solace in increasingly strident expressions of Shia identity through processions and sermons. Opening yet another fault-line, Baloch guerrillas had begun to murder Punjabi traders, seeing them as encroachers and symbols of exploitation by the rest of Pakistan. Quetta had become a city of invisible barriers, a microcosm of a process of fragmentation that was corroding shared bonds of citizenship across the country.

As I lingered in the cemetery, a middle-aged woman in a grey, all-encompassing shawl approached one of the graves carrying a plastic bottle of water. She used the contents to slosh away a film of dust coating the marble. Her name was Azroa Safdeer and she performed the daily ritual at the resting place of her son. The 32-year-old had been an assistant to a high court judge and was shot when gunmen opened fire on one of the minibuses plying the route between Marriabad and Hazaratown, a Hazara enclave on the other side of Quetta. He had died of his wounds shortly before he was due to wed. Safdeer crouched by the grave, hugged the marble and wept.

“I devoted my life to my child, but the terrorists killed my son. Now without my son I don’t want to live anymore,” she said, wrapping her shawl around her face to hide her tears. “The light of our home is out.”

Some families had left for Karachi or Islamabad to escape a similar fate. Other mothers sold their jewelry to pay people smugglers to traffic their sons on the perilous 10,000-km voyage to Australia, home to Hazara communities in several cities. Hundreds of Hazaras had drowned after puttering out of Indonesian ports crammed into fishing boats. The ramshackle craft had proved no match for the swells of the Java Sea. Yet to many, the possibility of drowning en route to a new home was preferable to the certainty of a futureless half-life boxed on the outskirts of Quetta.

Several months after I left the city, the violence would evolve an entirely new dimension of ferocity. In January, scores of people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a snooker hall in the Marriabad area, not far from Khalique’s office. A second blast tore through rescuers who rushed to the scene. Five weeks later, LeJ militants used a tractor to tow a tanker converted into a giant liquid bomb into a market place in Hazaratown, the Hazara district on Quetta’s western edge. Scores more perished in the blast. Many more Hazaras had been killed in the first few months of 2013 than the whole previous year combined.

In defiance of Islamic convention, the Hazaras refused to bury their dead for days, desperate to make a statement so shocking that the government would be forced to respond. The community even urged Pakistan’s army to take over the administration of the province; the call was more an expression of their exasperation with the FC than a realistic proposal. Nevertheless, such a suggestion was bound to antagonize Baloch nationalists who see Pakistan’s security forces as occupiers. It is symptomatic of the depths of the divisions in Quetta that the Hazaras, isolated as they are, were past caring.

Overcome by grief, Hazaras felt the rest of Pakistan had betrayed them. “We’ve given our blood, we’ve given our martyrs, we’ve given everything for this country, still they think ‘they are not Pakistanis.’” said Ali, a 20-year-old science teacher at Ummat Public School. “How can we prove it?”


In times of crisis, all societies savor the half-invented memories of an imagined Golden Age. But an older generation of Pakistanis nurse a genuine nostalgia for a time when sect hardly mattered. Most Pakistanis are Sunnis, and there was a time when many would not think twice before participating in the biggest Shia festivals: the annual Muharram processions and majlis gatherings in which worshippers commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussain and his friends and family at the battle of Karbala in the year 680. Shia and Sunni would attend each others’ funerals and mixed marriages were openly accepted.3 Before long, religion would become the slave of politics.

Pakistan’s relative sectarian harmony began to break down as successive leaders turned to Islam to bolster their legitimacy. In 1971, Pakistan suffered the traumatic loss of East Pakistan, which broke away to form Bangladesh. President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, supposedly a champion of secular values, launched an Islamization campaign to undercut his increasingly vocal opponents in Pakistan’ religious parties. Bhutto’s target was not the Shia, but members of a much smaller sect, the Ahmaddiya Movement. From 1972 onwards, anti-Ahmadi riots spread across Punjab, and in 1974, the government declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims. The community has been subjected to worsening persecution ever since. This top-down discrimination against the Ahmadis set a disastrous precedent: populist campaigns to scapegoat religious minorities had been permanently incorporated into the Pakistani politicians’ toolkit.

In 1977, General Zia ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto in a coup. Zia sought to bolster his dubious leadership credentials by introducing an even more ambitious program of Islamization in laws, morals, public conduct and education. The project unfolded under the supervision of a small clique of mullahs, further eroding any semblance of tolerance for religious pluralism.4

As Zia was cementing his grip on power, Pakistan was rocked by a seismic shift that rippled across the Muslim world: the Shia revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in neighboring Iran. The promise of an international Shia revival inspired some in Pakistan’s Shia community. Though nobody knows for sure how many Shias there are in Pakistan (estimates range from 20 per cent to four per cent of the population), they represent a far bigger and more powerful constituency than the Ahmadis.5 Shia leaders began to stage peaceful protests to oppose Zia’s drive towards Sunni orthodoxy. In 1980, 50,000 Shia gathered in Islamabad in one of the biggest demonstrations seen in the city to demand Zia reverse his imposition of a compulsory Zakat, a Muslim tax. The Shia argued that the way the tax was being collected did not conform to their beliefs. In the febrile atmosphere, members of the security forces cast a wary eye over Shia clerics with links to their co-religionists in revolutionary Iran.

Pakistan soon found itself cast as a battleground in a much bigger showdown as Saudi Arabia, began courting allies to contain the influence of Shia Iran. Zia, eager to win Saudi funding, was happy to position Pakistan as a bulwark. Under the dictator’s direction, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies greatly expanded their policy of backing militant groups adhering to the Takfiri Deobandi school of Islam. Although considered part of Sunni Islam, the Takfiri Deobandi cross-current is accepted by only a tiny minority of Pakistanis. Its adherents see Shias as infidels.

To Pakistan’s spymasters, the new crop of armed groups served a vital role as proxies to project influence both within Pakistan and the region. At home, the militants would serve to offset the emergence of Iran-funded Shia organizations in Pakistan. State-sponsored militants would also fight Indian troops in Kashmir. And there was no shortage of funding. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia were relying on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to funnel funds to the mujahideen fighting to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan following their 1979 invasion. Flush with cash from its allies, the ISI had ample funds to lavish on its radical progeny.

Among the new crop of Takfiri Deobandi groups was Sipa-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which Pakistani intelligence saw as a counterweight to Iranian-backed Shia networks. Part militant group, part political party, the organization was founded in 1985 by the cleric Haq Nawaz Jhangvi in the Jhang district of southern Punjab. The group sought to exploit resentment among Sunni peasants against Shia landowners, illustrating how concrete questions of wealth, power and class were the real drivers of mobilization for anti-Shia militancy, rather than doctrinal differences. In many corners of Pakistan, violent political entrepreneurs followed Sipa-e-Sahaba’s lead by exploiting once lightly worn sectarian identities to wage localized conflicts over power, turf and commercial niches. These evolving conflicts were fuelled by a flow of Iranian funding for Shia groups, notably Sipa-e-Mohammed, and Saudi and other Gulf money for Takfiri Deobandi organizations like Sipa-e-Sahaba.6

Zia was killed in a plane crash in 1988 and the U.S. forgot about Afghanistan when the Russians left a year later. But the seeds of militancy sown in the 1980s would sprout in the following decade as attacks on Shias began to occur with increasing frequency and Shia militants hit back. (In 1990, suspected Shia militants assassinated Jhangvi, the founder of Sipa-e-Sahaba.) Violence ebbed and flowed over the following decade, with flashpoints in Jhang district in Punjab and Gilgit in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The most telling feature of the violence was the response by the state. The security forces systematically dismantled Shia militant groups, while Takfiri Deobandi organizations aligned with the intelligence agencies and sponsors in the Gulf were allowed to prosper. Gradually, extremist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba would entrench themselves so deeply that they were able to exert considerable autonomy, and ultimately slip the leash of the military. But their genesis as proxies would gloss them with a patina of untouchability that endures to this day.

A turning point occurred in 1996, when the most militant faction of Sipa-e-Sahaba peeled away to form LeJ. The breakaway group believed Sipah-e-Sahaba’s pursuit of political power had rendered it too soft and vowed to wage an armed campaign to rid Pakistan of Shias in the name of Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba’s slain founder. Although LeJ began to attack Shias in the late 90s, it would only really hit its stride after the U.S. toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The influx of international forces drove members of al Qaeda and other militants across the border into Pakistan, energizing a new confederation of Pakistani militant groups. Pakistan’s Taliban movement formed the core, but LeJ was a particularly deadly component, allowing the insurgents to project power into urban areas. Energized by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani militants turned on the state that had once nurtured them. Open season for Shia killings had begun.


Karachi is the only city in Pakistan where you can stroll into a mall, browse at Debenhams then order a double espresso safe in the knowledge that somewhere in a broken-down neighborhood not too far from where you are sitting there is an even chance that a Taliban warlord is cruising through his fief in a tint-windowed SUV as you take your first sip.

By the time I arrived in Karachi in February, the latest spate of Shia killings was in full swing. Dozens of members of the sect had been shot in the street, including a number of professionals killed in a carefully targeted campaign to cull the Shia elite.

Packed with 18 million people, Karachi is a place where the best and worst of Pakistan are entwined as tightly as the double helix of DNA. Politics is barely distinguishable from gang warfare; mafia-style cartels control the allocation of land and water and police moonlight as gangsters. Yet, Karachi is also home to some of Pakistan’s most inspiring campaigners for social justice; many of whom have been repaid for their courage with a bullet.

It might be tempting to believe that the purveyors of sectarian hate would be lost in Karachi’s cacophony. In fact, the opposite is the case: the city’s sheer size is acting as a vector to spread the virus of “otherization” – a word I heard used in Karachi for the first time. A woman at a dinner party deployed the term to convey the insidious process by which extremist rhetoric seeks to emphasize differences between sects and thus turn members of minorities into “the other.” In the increasingly polarized atmosphere, violence is greeted with shoulder-shrugging resignation, and the extremist attitudes start to sound normal.

In the Karachi of today, as in Quetta, the merchants of “otherization” are on the march. In every corner of the city, the leaders of political parties, criminal gangs or militant organizations are demonizing other sects or ethnicities. The killing of a member of one group inevitably leads to the reciprocal killing of another. The spiraling body count suits the demagogues and the drug lords since the more threatened people feel, the more they will turn to strongmen for protection. Politicians, gang kingpins and radical clerics: all have a vested interest in violence. The parameters that once kept the killings within tacitly agreed bounds have dissolved. Karachi’s murder rate hits new highs every year.

It does not take long to see the dynamics of division in action. One Friday afternoon in February, an angry crowd had gathered outside the Press Club, a colonial-era building in Clifton, the upmarket district in the center of Karachi. About a hundred men, many wearing skull-caps and beards, were listening to a cleric harangue them through a public address system mounted on a truck. Some of the listeners wore the black, red, white and green colors of Sipah-e-Sahaba. The sound system rendered the speaker’s voice screechy and metallic, but his message was clear: the Shia faith was an insult to true Islam. The crowd bayed “Shia Infidel! Shia Infidel!” in assent. A spark, and an effigy made of cloth and sticks burst into curls of orange flame.

In Karachi, the anti-Shia campaign has a face. Aurangzeb Farooqi, a cleric with hawk-like features and a mop of curls, is head of the Karachi chapter of Sipah-e-Sahaba, now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at, or ASWJ. Sipah-e-Sahaba was banned in 2002, when General Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s president, launched a crackdown on militants after aligning with Washington after the 9/11 attacks. The group sidestepped the ban by changing its name.

Farooqi’s followers went underground during the Musharraf era, but became more strident after the general stepped aside and handed over to the Pakistan People’s Party at elections in 2008. Here was a paradox: the military had fostered the emergence of the Takfiri Deobandi,anti-Shia militants, but a general had proved far more adept at restraining their public presence than his secular civilian successors. Farooqi’s men showed far greater swagger under the PPP government, which seemed more preoccupied with power struggles with the judiciary and army than facing down extremists.

Farooqi’s headquarters are located in a madrassa tucked down a side street in the Landhi district, an industrial suburb in east Karachi. Graffiti scrawled on neighborhood walls hails him as a savior. At the seminary, a couple of burly men with guns stood guard. We were ushered up to the roof, where young boys from nursery age upwards knelt on prayer mats, sheltered from the sun by a corrugated iron canopy. Some wore their skull caps wedged at jaunty, non-regulation angles, but I had the impression that discipline was tight. The students were learning the Quran by rote.

We were led to a cramped office, dominated by a bookshelf full of Islamic tracts, and invited to wait on cushions on the floor. After some time, Farooqi appeared. He sat cross-legged and wore a crisp white shalwar kameez – the knee-length cotton shirt and trouser combination common in Pakistan. Prayer beads dripped from his hand. I sensed he regarded me with a degree of suspicion, but after what might have been deemed an unseemly delay by the usually effusive standards of Pakistani hospitality, milky tea was finally served. Farooqi warmed to his favorite theme: Shias were not really Muslims at all.

“We don’t think it is right to kill Shias,” he said, speaking softly but intently. “What we will do is convince the people using reason and arguments – and once they understand, they will not even want to shake hands with Shias.”

Like all demagogues, Farooqi was intent on donning the mantle of victimhood. The ASWJ tends to begin its narrative by expressing outrage at Shia literature that is insulting to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed: Abu Bakr, Omer and Uthman — historical figures who Farooqi’s followers hold in particular reverence. But in Farooqi’s telling, indignation at some Shia books rapidly segues into a lurid conspiracy theory that paints the entire sect as a fifth column seeking to a foment an Iranian-style revolution.

“Shias support each other. Even if a clerk in an office is in trouble, a Shia prime minister will make a call for him,” Farooqi said. “They educate themselves and then get themselves posted to important posts so that they can be of use in the future. All this work is to strengthen and carry out the Iranian revolution.”

Farooqi’s stated goal is to lobby the government to declare Shias non-Muslim, following the precedent set by the late president Bhutto’s move against the Ahmadis in the mid-70s. Furthermore, Farooqi wants to bar Shias from key positions in the government and military, limit the scope of their religious processions and persuade non-Shias to boycott their businesses. It was the classic play used by far-right movements in Europe: tap into the latent frustrations of an urban underclass by encouraging them to project all their pent-up rage onto the “other.”

“What I’m saying is that killing them is not the solution. Let’s talk, let’s debate and convince people that they are wrong,” Farooqi said. “When someone is socially boycotted, he becomes disappointed and isolated. He realizes that his beliefs are not right, that people hate him.”

There is no realistic prospect that Farooqi’s campaign to declare Shias non-Muslim will be entertained by Pakistan’s polity in anything like the foreseeable future. Although Shias form a diverse community, they have far greater collective clout than the defenseless Ahmadis. Yet Farooqi does not have to force a change in the law for his words to have an impact. The rhetoric bolsters the standing of his extremist fringe by creating a climate where expressions of outrage at attacks are muted and bigotry is the norm.

Farooqi insists he believes in peaceful change, but it stretches credulity to imagine that the growing assertiveness of his men in Karachi and the surge in attacks on Shias by LeJ is purely a coincidence. It seems more logical to assume that the militant violence and increasingly strident displays of street power are twin strands of the same strategy to unleash a a groundswell of prejudice to bolster the standing of hardline politicians such as Farooqi even further. Ultimately, the anti-Shia extremists want to provoke a reaction and trigger an ever-widening spiral of bloodshed. The most committed dare to hope that the minarets of a new Caliphate will rise from Pakistan’s ashes.

Certainly, Farooqi had not always been as measured with his language as he was during our conversation, as I discovered from a video clip posted to Facebook shortly after gunmen tried to kill him.

On December 25, the cleric’s three-car convoy had slowed to make a U-turn at a turn-off on a Karachi expressway when shooters lying in ambush opened fire. The shots killed six of Farooqi’s police bodyguards. (The officers had been detailed to protect him for fear of the havoc his followers might wreak if he is ever assassinated). The cleric himself escaped with a six-inch wound in his thigh.

From a hospital bed, a visibly furious Farooqi issued a terse rallying cry exhorting his followers to close ranks against Shias in the wake of the attempt on his life. “I will make Sunnis so powerful against Shias that no Sunni will even want to shake hands with a Shia,” he said, propped up on emergency-room pillows. “They will die their own deaths, we won’t have to kill them.”

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There is still a considerable degree of solidarity between sects; in Karachi some Sunnis have joined Shia protests at the killings and attended funerals of the victims. But these days, the drumbeat of anti-Shia rhetoric echoing through the city is rewriting the rules of what can be said out loud. A muttered comment here, a hostile glance there: overt expressions of prejudice are no longer taboo. The militants’ strategy is working.

One evening I met Sundus Rasheed, an outspoken Shia woman who works at a Karachi radio station. We drank tea from plastic cups at Port Grand, a new retail and restaurant development on the waterfront. Lights from the cranes and gantries of the Karachi docks twinkled on the water as Rasheed explained how some weeks earlier she had visited a hair salon with her sister and baby nephew. A woman began cooing over the boy, then asked what he was called. When she heard its Shia-sounding name she abruptly turned and walked away.

“What’s scary is that it’s not limited to terrorist organizations, it’s coming in everywhere. People think it’s okay to invade each other’s personal space and lecture people,” Rasheed said. “You’re being squished, there’s just no space for you anymore.”

She had taken to tucking away a silver amulet her mother had given her for fear it would mark her as a Shia. “The divide is getting much bigger between Shia and Sunni. You have to pick sides now,” she said. “I’ve never experienced this much hatred in Pakistan, I don’t know where it’s come from.”

The work of men like Farooqi to demonize Shias is made easier by an existing undercurrent of prejudice in mainstream Pakistani society. According to the comprehensive survey of religious attitudes cited earlier, 65 per cent of respondents found that Sunni Muslims are “better followers of Islam” than Shias.7

Nevertheless, Farooqi and his followers tend to forget that they, like the Shias,  are also members of a religious minority. Their extremist Takfiri Deobandi views jars with the religious sentiments of the vast majority of Pakistanis, who are for the most part far less ripe for radicalization than is often assumed. The survey found that only a minority identify with Deobandism or Wahhabism (Ahl-e-Hadith), the sectarian traditions most often associated with militancy.

Pakistan’s extremists have succeeded in hijacking a vastly disproportionate influence over the rest of society by virtue of their enthusiasm for violence and the veneer of official sanction dating back to their origins as step-sons of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex. It felt to me that this legacy of official sanction had left Pakistanis stranded between a genuine revulsion at the bloodshed and the commands of an inner, authoritarian voice that repeats its mantra after each new outrage:“nothing to see here, move along please.”


Not far from Farooqi’s madrassa lies a half-built Shia mosque, its arches decorated with glinting mirrors and chandeliers. Next door lies the office of the Majlis-Wahdat-Muslimeen, or MWM, a new Shia party that has begun to raise its voice in Karachi in response to the attacks on Shias. I waited in an upstairs room, where a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Shia revolution in Iran, hung on the wall. Dressed in a white turban and black cloak, Ejaz Hussain Bahashti, an MWM youth leader, swept into the room.

“In our religion, in our sect, if we are being killed we are not supposed to carry out reprisal attacks,” Bahashti said. “If we decided to take up arms, then no part of the country would be spared from terrorism – but it’s forbidden.”

It was tempting to read an implicit threat into Bahashti’s statement, but Shias are so conscious of the precariousness of their position in Pakistan that talking openly of hitting back is strictly taboo. Those that do take matters into their own hands are few, operate quietly and choose their targets with care.

Police have identified a new Shia militant group known as the Mehdi Force, which they believe is responsible for a number of killings of Takfiri Deobandi clerics and student followers of Farooqi. The group is led by a hardened militant known by his codename Shaheed – or martyr – but his cell of about 20 volunteers are mainly self-taught, middle-class amateurs in search of revenge. What they lack in resources, they make up for in the care with which they choose their victims.

“They are volunteers, they don’t have a background in terrorism, but after the killing of Shias they joined the group and they tried to settle the score,” said Superintendent of Police Raja Umar Khattab. “They kill clerics.”

Police believe Mehdi force was responsible for a drive-by shooting in November at the Ahsan-ul-Uloom madrassa in Karachi, where Farooqi can count on many followers. Six students were killed. A scholar from the madrassa was shot dead the next month, another student killed in January.

Farooqi’s organization, the ASWJ, says many more of its followers have also been shot. Akbar Saeed Farooqi, the ASWJ spokesman in Karachi, a more personable figure than his boss of the same name, said dozens of the party’s members had been killed in recent months – a figure borne out by data provided by the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee.  It was impossible to know how many of the deaths might have been put down to Shia hit squads, or other factions active in the city.

Certainly the scale of the reprisals carried out by Mehdi Force was dwarfed by the sheer ferocity of the assault on the Shias.8 But its emergence was a reminder that a community can only take so much before talk turns to revenge.

*                        *                         *

Road trips through Punjab have a hypnotic quality; the scenery is composed of a basic set of ingredients repeated with minute variations: shimmering flatlands, neat copses and ramshackle villages studded with satellite dishes and stalls laden with apples or melons. From time to time, you pass a member of Pakistan’s venerable fleet of brightly-painted trucks, their panels emblazoned with a psychedelic palette of oranges, blues and greens; petrol tanks rendered into living creatures by gaudy peacocks and lions. Punjab’s wide open spaces are a ready antidote to the haunted streets of Quetta or the impatient hustle of Karachi. But it is here, in this placid landscape, that the anti-Shia militant groups first emerged. And, after cutting a swathe through the rest of Pakistan, the virus they unleashed has returned home.

In July, 2011, Malik Ishaq, one of the founders of Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, was released from jail. The burly militant leader had spent 14 years in prison on various charges of murder, death threats and intimidation, but judges had finally dismissed the cases against him for lack of evidence. According to multiple press reports, Ishaq admitted in October, 1997 that he was involved in the killings of 102 people.9 Upon his release, Ishaq’s first statement to his Kalashnikov-wielding supporters was: “We are ready to lay down lives for the honor of the companions of the Holy Prophet.” Ishaq returned home to Rahim Yar Khan, where a phalanx of gunmen protect his house and a sign invites anybody who wanted to debate the question of whether Shias were infidels to come inside. Shortly after his release, the pace of attacks on Shias spiraled.

By the time I arrived in Rahim Yar Khan in February, Ishaq was back behind bars. The devastating bombings in Quetta at the start of the year had triggered large Shia protests in Karachi and other cities; by some estimates the biggest since members of the sect had descended upon Islamabad to challenge the imposition of Zakat in Zia’s time. Embarrassed into action, Punjab’s provincial government had temporarily detained Ishaq and scores of his followers under archaic public order laws. Ishaq was in Rahim Yar Khan’s equivalent of the county jail.

Rahim Yar Khan had a sleepy, small-town feel. But tensions were building beneath the surface. In early 2012, a bombing at a Shia procession in a village outside the town killed 20 people. Shaken by the blast, the Shia community watched the persecution of their sect in other parts of Pakistan with a growing sense of foreboding. Their fears were sharpened by the spectacle of Ishaq roving the countryside holding rallies. One Shia man told me his village had decided to protect itself by forming an armed group of vigilantes.

To gauge the mood, I visited a mosque led by Sheikh Manzoor Hussain, a well-known Shia cleric respected for his efforts to build bridges between sects. We entered the compound under a towering archway shimmering with a metallic gold sheen; I was beginning to realize that whoever designed Shia mosques was in love with shininess. There was a token guard, but no real security.  Until Ishaq had been released from jail, Rahim Yar Khan had felt safe.

A ponderous, heavy-set man who wore a blue skull cap and close cropped beard, Manzoor was concerned about what might happen if Ishaq’s men were allowed to continue roving through the district unchecked.

“He has no popular support, but as an organization they are becoming more influential,” Manzoor said, as we picked at succulent oranges and slices of apple served in a meeting room. “If he is allowed to move freely there will be a lot of bloodshed, killing and chaos – it’s started already.”

A few weeks before I arrived, a gang of Ishaq’s followers had roared through the town on motorbikes, badly beating several Shias. Manzoor had called several of the victims to meet me at the mosque.

A travel agent named Syed Abbas Raza Naqvi said he had been driving across town with his three children balanced alongside him on his motorbike when he was set upon by the thugs. “One of them shouted: ‘He’s also a Shia! Kill him!’,” Naqvi said. He believed he would have been killed if its children had not begged the mob for mercy.

The gang later burst into a hair-dressing salon and knocked Naseem Abbas, the barber, to the ground. The men chanted “Shia infidel! Shia infidel” as they pistol-whipped him around the head.

Both men displayed angry welts on their shoulders. This was small-time thuggery in comparison to the attacks in Quetta and Karachi, but Ishaq’s men had never acted so brazenly in his hometown. Manzoor was worried, but what could he do?


The task of keeping the peace in Rahim Yar Khan fell squarely on the shoulders of one man – superintendent Sohail Zafar Chattha, the district police officer. A lean, compact man with searching eyes and a thoughtful demeanor, Chattha was a thinking man’s cop. A graduate of the Civil Services Academy, which produces Pakistan’s highest-grade officers, he was liable to drop a reference to the political philosophy of Hobbes or Locke into his explanations of the finer points of policing Rahim Yar Khan. Even at rest, his face retained a certain sternness. Rahim Yar Khan was no beat for amateurs.

“I’m a fair referee, and a referee who sometimes shows the red card,” Chattha told me. “You break the law, then you will be taken to task.”

I had been lucky to catch him; it was Chattha’s last day before he took up a less taxing post in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, and he was in a reflective, almost wistful mood. A small herd of stuffed deer watched us with glassy eyes as we talked in the visitors’ room of his official residence, a Raj-style Bungalow with an extensive garden. Chattha opened a photo album recording his finest hour: directing operation “Clean Up,” a military-style assault he launched on bandits occupying an island in the River Indus. A notorious band of kidnappers, thieves and buffalo rustlers ran what was effectively their own tiny statelet – no representative of the government had set foot on their isle in 37 years. Shortly after assuming his post in 2009, Chattha decided to call time on the bandits. His solution would be Rahim Yar Khan’s answer to the D-Day landings.

Chattha had his men construct what amounted to a floating bunker. His constables built a sand-bagged gun emplacement on a barge powered by four Yamaha engines. Its weapons: anti-aircraft guns. Chattha nicknamed his creation the “Rahim Yar Khan Shark.”

Early one morning, Chattha ordered his men to start bombarding the island with mortar shells while the battle barge made its perilous way down river, guided to the spot by a white flag. Chattha supervised the operation on horseback from the bank. The robbers capitulated; Chattha said he saw whole families of outlaws leap into the river and swim expertly away. The rate of kidnapping in Rahim Yar Khan had since fallen from 456 cases in 2010 to zero last year.

Chattha’s robust approach to law enforcement had earned him something akin to local hero status in Rahim Yar Khan. He had been so popular that residents had gathered earlier that day to block a main road in protest at his imminent departure. In spite of his evident passion for the job, towards the end of our conversation I thought I could detect the slightest trace of relief on his face at the thought of leaving. While he had made short work of the river pirates, he had less latitude to deal with Ishaq’s disciples.

Only a few weeks earlier, Ishaq’s men had brought tensions to breaking point. They had gathered for a rally outside a Shia village, where armed residents took up position on rooftops. Shots were fired, and two of Ishaq’s followers were wounded. Chattha deployed an armoured personnel to form a buffer between the two sides. The situation could easily have erupted had he not thrown antagonists from both camps in jail.

The incident seemed to suggest that the job of the police was to keep Ishaq’s activities within manageable bounds, rather than shut his group down.  Chattha estimated that Ishaq only counted a few score of dedicated followers in Rahim Yar Khan, of whom perhaps a dozen had any serious weapons training. The police knew the identities of the trouble-makers; the motorcycle-riding thugs were little more than village bullies. It would have been a simple matter to sweep them all into prison. But he could only go as far as his superiors in the provincial government in Lahore would allow. Ishaq had a revolving-door relationship with Punjab’s prisons; crackdowns on LeJ always had a token feel.

Punjab’s provincial government, ruled by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party of Nawaz Sharif, a business mogul and former prime minister, had been unable to shake the impression it was soft on militancy. Some suggested the government turned a blind eye to Ishaq’s activities in a tacit understanding that his followers would not launch attacks in Punjab, but confine their anti-Shia campaign to places like Quetta or Karachi.

A series of incidents since Nawaz’s party had won power in Lahore at the last elections in 2008 had reinforced an impression that it preferred to accommodate the militants rather than confront them. Most famously, Rana Sanaullah, Punjab’s law minister, had campaigned openly in a bye-election in Jhang district in 2010 alongside Ahmed Ludhianvi, the nationwide head of ASWJ. Many people suspected that Nawaz’s followers were reluctant to challenge the extremists for fear of alienating their supporters ahead of the coming general elections, which he would win by a landslide.

Yet even if the provincial government had decided to launch a comprehensive crackdown on LeJ, it was far from clear whether the machinery of the police and courts was strong enough. Cases against militants were notoriously difficult to prosecute since witnesses were so easy to intimidate. By putting a militant in jail, a judge could effectively be signing death warrants for his children. Unless Pakistan introduced some new form of robust anti-terror courts run by masked judges it was hard to see how prosecutions would stick.

Perhaps the only organisations capable of intimidating Ishaq’s followers in Punjab were Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, not noted for their by-the-book methods when it came to dealing with their enemies. The trail of bullet-ridden bodies of suspected activists agitating for independence in Balochistan was testament to the ruthlessness which the security establishment could attempt to crush its declared enemies. But while the agencies kept close tabs on Ishaq, they too seemed reluctant to curb his activities.

With the various organs of state responsible for protecting Pakistani citizens absenting themselves, Chattha had been left to single-handled keep the peace. During our meeting, he stepped outside to take a call then returned after some minutes wearing the expression of a man trying not to appear crestfallen.His transfer had been rescinded. He showed me a text message that had arrived earlier that day from one of his many well-wishers in Rahim Yar Khan.

“Sir, I heard bad news of your transfer, if it is correct it will be bad luck for Rahim Yar Khan,” it said. “Stay blessed.”

*                        *                         *

The vision advanced by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, was for a Muslim homeland where any sect could worship freely. The unchecked rise of militant groups and their political partners have projected such frightening shadows that his words now seem to describe some other, imagined country.

On August 1, Sheikh Manzoor and his son were shot dead outside the family home in Rahim Yar Khan. Enraged youths rampaged through the town and traders shuttered their shops in protest. There was no claim of responsibility, and nobody could say for sure who the killer was. Murders happen every day in Pakistan; a good number are linked to family disputes, most are not carried out by militants. Many doubted that LeJ was to blame. Yet such subtleties hardly seemed to matter. Manzoor’s death had robbed Rahim Yar Khan of a respected voice of tolerance and moderation. A line had been crossed.

The pattern was repeated across Pakistan. In the past year, the attacks on Shias had reached a new level of savagery, dividing communities as never before. In a far more limited way, Shia militants had also begun to strike back against their enemies in Karachi. (Later in August, Akbar Saeed Farooqi, the ASWJ spokesman I had met in the city, was shot dead in the city, culprit unknown). In Islamabad, I detected no sense of urgency. The rapidly mutating nature of the anti-Shia campaign barely seemed to register among the political class. Yet the price of passivity grew with every killing.

Disenchanted with a state that had failed to perform its basic job of protecting them, growing numbers of Pakistanis are retreating into communal identities based on sect, ethnicity, political party or region. Extremists of all hues benefit as society becomes more dangerous, forcing people to turn to the men with guns for protection, thus emboldening the hard-liners even further. While Pakistan’s generals test fire ballistic missiles or hold drills for imagined tank battles on the Punjabi plains, bigotry is quietly corroding Pakistan’s foundations like some species of concrete-eating microbe. For all the huge sacrifices Pakistan’s army has made fighting Taliban militants on the Afghan border, the response to the threat within seems half-hearted and hollow, plagued by the lingering ambiguity over whether the military really has relinquished its former proxies. For all the atrocities the militants commit, their origins as darlings of Pakistan’s securocrats have granted them a blood-stained yet enduring halo of legitimacy.

And yet, after my trips around the country, I somehow felt more optimistic about Pakistan’s future then when I began. Herein lay a paradox, and thus perhaps a source of insight.

The militants are not as strong as they look. Their brazenness is primarily a symptom of the state’s weakness, not their own inherent strength. With a concerted effort by the country’s civilian and military leadership, it should not be beyond Pakistan’s wherewithal to severely limit LeJ’s ability to carry out attacks, and slow the vicious cycle of division, radicalisation and revenge. It is not a question of capacity, rather of will.

Pakistan’s biggest problem is that its listing, self-absorbed institutions are too riven with contradictions to tackle even simple problems, like providing enough electricity or collecting taxes. The civilian bureaucracy has been cowed into submission by the militants’ homicidal insouciance. But the military seems wary of the inevitable soul-searching over its own murky record in sponsoring extremism that a concerted campaign against LeJ would entail. So a tiny fringe  is allowed to run amok because few of the people wielding state power are prepared to take the risk of exercising it in the interests of the collective good.

In spite of these failings, the sheer strength of the individuals I met did hold out hope of redemption: politicians, police officers and outspoken citizens who refused to be intimidated, despite the very real risks they faced. These people were vindicated by the high turnout in the May 11 general elections. Pakistan’s first democratic transition had been a success, in spite of a wave of militant attacks before the poll. It’s not too late to reverse Pakistan’s downward spiral, but unless its leaders start to act, the killing can have no cure.

Matthew Green is a Reuters special correspondent covering Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has reported for Reuters from across Africa on previous assignments and is author of The Wizard of the Nile, a book about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the leader of that country’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Green has written for The Economist, The Times and Esquire. From 2007 to 2012, he worked for the Financial Times assignment in West Africa and later Afghanistan and Pakistan.


  1. Personal interview with individual close to militant circles. []
  2. Gazdar, Haris; Kakar, Sobia Ahmad; Khan, Irfan: ‘Buffer Zone, Colonial Enclave or Urban Hub? Quetta: between four regions and two wars, Working Paper 69, February 2010, Cities and Fragile States, Collective for Social Science Research, Crisis States Research Centre []
  3. Abbas, Hassan: ‘Shiism and Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan Identity Politics, Iranian Influence, and Tit-for-Tat Violence’, CTC Monograph, 2010 []
  4. For details on the Zia era, see Hassan Abbas, ‘Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror’ (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2005), 89-132. []
  5. Sunnis are generally held to account for at least eighty per cent of Pakistan’s population, while some estimates put the total proportion of Shias as high as 20 per cent. Nobody knows for sure, however, how many Shias there are in Pakistan and one authoritative survey by Fair, C. Christine , Malhotra, Neil and Shapiro, Jacob N suggests that the true proportion of Shias may be closer to four percent. []
  6. Waseem, Mohammad in association with Kamran, Tahir; Ahmed Ali, Mukhtar; Riikonen, Katja ‘Dilemmas of Pride and Pain: Sectarian Conflict and Conflict Transformation in Pakistan’, Working Paper 48- 2010, Religions and Development Research Program []
  7. Fair, C. Christine , Malhotra, Neil and Shapiro, Jacob N.: ‘Islam, Militancy, and Politics in Pakistan: Insights From a National Sample’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 2010, 22: 4, 495 — 521 []
  8. A website called Let Us Build Pakistan run by Shia activists estimates the total number of Shias killed by the Taliban, ASWJ and allied groups is about 20,000  http://lubpak.com/archives/132675 []
  9. Khattak, Daud: A Profile of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi leader Malik Ishaq, CTC Sentinel, Jan 2013, Vol 6, Issue 1 []

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