Pakistan’s military commanders gathered in August to assess the impact of the massive bombing in Quetta that killed some 70 people and wiped out a generation of lawyers in the province of Baluchistan. The Generals believed there was a sinister foreign-inspired plot that aimed to thwart their efforts to root out political violence. The commanders’ analysis fits with their selective military campaign that targets specific groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Sunni-Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The commanders failed to acknowledge the real lesson of Quetta: Funding from quarters in Saudi Arabia for sectarian and ultra-conservative groups in Pakistan has divided the country almost irreversibly. Generations of religious students have had their critical faculties stymied by rote learning and curricula dominated by memorization of exclusionary beliefs and prejudices resulting in bigotry and misogyny woven into the fabric of Pakistani society.
Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani columnist, notes that the enemy within is not a fringe. Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbors. The forces have to operate not only in areas on the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to look in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders to strike.
The military campaign against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose leadership has largely been wiped out in encounters with Pakistani security forces, is a case in point. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is closely tied to a banned anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi group, Sipah-e-Sabaha, which continues to operate openly with government support under a succession of different names.
Sipah leaders, in a rare set of lengthy interviews, have little hesitation in detailing their close ties to Pakistani state institutions and Saudi Arabia. They are also happy to discuss the fact that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are pushing them to repackage their sectarian policies in a public relations effort to steer Pakistan away from a more tolerant, inclusive society.
One co-founder of Sipah noted that the Saudis sent huge sums of money, often through Pakistani tycoons who had a long-standing presence in Saudi Arabia. These people maintained close relations with the Al Saud family and the Saudi business community. They also had operations in the UK and Canada. One of them gave 100 million rupees a year. “We had so much money, it didn’t matter what things cost.”
Sipah leader Ahmad Ludhyvani, a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar, speaking in his headquarters protected by Pakistani security forces in the city of Jhang, noted that Sipah and Saudi Arabia both opposed Shiite Muslim proselytization.
“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities… We are the biggest anti-Shia movement in Pakistan…. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan.”
The soft-spoken politician defended his group’s efforts in Parliament to get a law passed that would uphold the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The law would effectively serve as a stepping stone for instituting anti-Shiite sentiment. This would be much like a Saudi-inspired Pakistani constitutional amendment in 1974 that declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslim. As a result, all applicants for a Pakistani passport are forced to sign an anti-Ahmadi oath.
Sipah officials said a Pakistani cleric resident in Makkah who heads the international arm of Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi Pakistan-based group, closely affiliated with Sipah, acts as a major fundraiser for the group.
Sipah also put Pakistani and Saudi support on public display when it last year hosted a dinner in Islamabad’s prestigious Marriott Hotel for Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen Al-Turki, a former Saudi religious affairs minister. He is also the general secretary of the Muslim World League, a major Saudi vehicle for the funding of ultra-conservative and militant groups. Hundreds of guests, including Pakistani ministers and religious leaders, some designated as terrorists by the United States, attended the event at the expense of the Saudi embassy.
The corrosive impact of such support for groups preaching intolerance and sectarian hatred is demonstrated in another disturbing trend in Pakistan. There is a spike in honour killings as well as a jump in lethal attacks on artists, writers and journalists. The aim is to maintain subjugation of women, ensure the dominance of religious over secular education, and undermine traditional and contemporary popular culture.
The corrosive impact is also evident in a controversy over the Council of Islamic Ideology, which was created to ensure that Pakistani legislation complies with Islamic Law. (It is ironic that their offices are located on Islamabad’s Ataturk Avenue.)
The Council has condemned co-education in a country whose non-religious public education system fails to impose mandatory school attendance. As a result the system produces uncritical minds, similar to those emerging from thousands of madrasahs run by ultraconservatives and those advocating jihadist thinking.
The Council declared in 2014 that a man did not need his wife’s consent to marry a second, third, or fourth wife, and that DNA found in a rape victim did not constitute conclusive evidence. This year, it defended the right of a husband to “lightly beat” his wife. It also forced the withdrawal of a proposal to ban child marriages, declaring the draft bill un-Islamic and blasphemous.
Continued official acquiescence and open support for intolerance, misogyny and sectarianism calls into question the sincerity of government and military efforts to curb intolerance and political violence. The result is a country whose social fabric and tradition of tolerance is being fundamentally altered in ways that could take a generation to reverse.
James M. Dorsey PhD is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, Germany.