Sectarian violence is rising and spreading across Pakistan, feeding domestic
terrorism and hatred in the region around. A just-published study says this
could grow with the current political acrimony and economic stress.
Prepared by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on
September 5, the report holds all state institutions responsible for the
competitive activities of the Sunni Muslim groups, the Deobandi Tehereek-eTaliban Pakistan (TTP), and the rival Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) that
represents the Barelvis.
The latter, it notes with concern, has had a relatively moderate or passive role
in the past, but has emerged as an influential group that is also challenging
Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Titled “A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan Asia Report” predicts that
the TLP, recognized by the Election Commission of Pakistan as a political party
despite its record of violence, could consolidate its political clout and threaten
the mainstream political discourse during the elections, as of now due in the
summer of 2023.
The report reinforces the conclusion reached by security experts earlier that
the TTP, TLP, and other militant groups have become affiliates of the Islamic
State Province of Khorasan (ISPK) that have grown out of the tribal belt that
straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan to other provinces. This threatens the vast
region around Pakistan.
“These two groups, though very different, are responsible for some of the
country’s worst inter-communal bloodshed. Sectarian militancy thus extends
across the spectrum of Sunni Islamist groups. Muslim minorities, particularly
Shias, are deeply vulnerable. Vigilantism is a danger as hardliners mobilise
around allegations of blasphemy to gain political clout.”
Of the two, the TTP, responsible for 83,000 deaths since 2008, has been
defying the Pakistani state and operating with impunity from the Afghan
territory with tacit help from the Taliban, the new rulers and ideological
“The rise of a local Islamic State franchise and the growing influence of a hardline and violent protest movement known as “Labaik” that draws support mostly
from Pakistan’s Barelvi majority, open a new chapter in the country’s sectarian
violence, which until recently was driven largely by Deobandi groups, the report
While the Pakistan government is struggling to tame the TTP, it has been mollycoddling the TLP, also using it to fight the ‘nationalist’ groups who demand
justice and jobs.
The study seriously faults the Pakistani counter-terrorism approach as mostly
reactive, when it should be proactive, because all institutions, from the
politicians and the army to the police and the judiciary, are compromised.
“Pakistan’s counter-terrorism approach has achieved short-term successes but
neglected long-term strategies to deny civic space to violent sectarian outfits.
In many instances, government policy has amplified rather than tamped down
sectarian rhetoric. Several senior serving and retired counter-terrorism,
intelligence and regular law enforcement officials rightly contend that, in the
past, the state has prematurely declared victory over such groups.”
“The primary problem is that, when the state does resolve to take action, it
tends to rely on lethal force, including extrajudicial killings, to the neglect of
intelligence and investigation-led strategy.
“Labaik’s rise to prominence, the spread of sectarian militancy outside
Deobandis, and ISKP’s increasing potency open a new chapter in Pakistan’s
sectarian conflicts. The federal and provincial governments, mainstream
political parties, the higher judiciary, and the military will all have to play a part
in addressing the conditions in which sectarian militants thrive, it says.
The study alleges that “some of these institutions might indeed have had a role
in producing such a permissive environment. If they fail to act now, it warns,
“sectarian violence in the country could well spin out of control.”
The ICG study names mainstream political parties that have covert links with
and support from the sectarian bodies whose storm-troopers are used to settle
rival political scores and spread fear and mayhem, especially during elections.
From time to time, public forums and even the floors of National and provincial
assemblies, are used to spew venom against religious and ethnic minorities.
The study says the TLP thrives on using blasphemy as an issue to rouse public
sentiments. The campaign against the French Government on cartoons
against the Prophet affected Pakistan’s relations with the West. Rather than
meet it, the former Imran Khan Government used it to launch a campaign
against Islamophobia at the United Nations and other international bodies,
which antagonized and alienated Western governments and potential
“The state has too often ignored sectarian militancy or, when it does take
action, relied solely on lethal force. It should more actively pursue, through
intelligence gathering and prosecution, those who incite or resort to sectarian
violence, while depriving groups of the civic space they use to propagate
The study expresses doubts about such a recipe being used by the Pakistani
state, given the conditions in the society. On one of the key issues, it says:
“Repealing discriminatory blasphemy laws might be desirable, but it is
politically inconceivable in today’s Pakistan.” (Ends)