Pakistan has always been on a round trip between Religious Conservatism and Political Radicalism. Conversely, the founding fathers of Pakistan were westernized and saw politics as a common and collective secular activity distinct from Religion. Pakistan had a non-sectarian agenda and was neutral before 1977. However, the state actors are considered responsible for the creation of Sectarianism in Pakistan, which is not a religious reserve but an ideology that makes use of religion as a tool rather than a faith.
Pakistan is highly fragmented and has never been a nation-state. Making the Pakistani identity the most valuable property has failed to unite the people into a nation. Whether it was an ethnic group, caste, language, baradari, or sect, people had to find new identities. The situation is becoming increasingly complex. Since the 1990s, radical movements have arisen in abundance. This is due to two main reasons. First, there is the division based on ethnicity, mainly between Sindhis, Baluchis, and Muhajirs on the one hand and Punjabis and Pashtuns on the other. Second, and principally, the religious divide places the Shias, who comprise 15-20 percent of the population, in opposition to the Sunnis.
The sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been a source of tension and violence in Pakistan for many years. Unfortunately, sectarian violence and targeted attacks have plagued the country, resulting in numerous casualties and destabilizing the social fabric. Extremist groups have exploited these divisions to further their own agendas, leading to deadly attacks on mosques, processions, religious gatherings, and prominent figures from both sects.
Emergent categories have used the SSP as a vehicle for social change, a strategy not dissimilar to those employed by Hindu nationalist movements. Moreover, state exploitation of the SSP and other Jihadist movements has led to increased violence against Shia Muslims, which intensified after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thus, Sunnis and Shias murdered one another in the name of religion.
Sectarianism comes from the belief that the sect one professes is the only true one and that the followers of other sects should be converted to one’s own sect or exterminated. It is linked with the power struggle and, due to the lack of confidence in the state and the absence of channels of political participation, primordial identities come to the forefront. They are instrumentalized by the protagonists in a conflict involving class, baradari, factions, or ethnic identity.
The latent tensions between Sunni and Shia were intensified by the Islamization policy introduced during the rule of General Zia-ul Haq. The Islamization policy was based on a narrow interpretation of Hanafi Sunni Islam and favored the Deobandi school of thought. The dynamics of sectarian strife demonstrate that religion is nothing more than a pretext. Above all, the sectarian conflict reflects the socio-economic tensions that flooded a society in transition and an expansion of the complex trajectories of modernization.
However, the battle against sectarian terror is not coherent. Pakistan is not Iraq: Muslim sects are not spatially segregated, and rural and urban areas are not stratified along sectarian lines. The ideology of sectarian parties has already had a destructive effect on society. Sectarian strife cuts much deeper than is officially acknowledged: it is a much bigger problem than Talibanization, and it has the potential to destabilize the region, posing an existential threat to the country and beyond. The growth of sectarianism in Pakistan is primarily attributed to state policy, foreign involvement (Saudi versus Iran proxy war or presence of transnational organizations such as Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits), and the local social dynamics.
The need of the hour is to engage the tribals who have been alienated and have turned towards the Taliban, particularly to create jobs to reduce social inequality and implement political reforms to ensure the participation of marginalized groups in the decision-making process. This is the only way to help them overcome their frustrations and respond to their aspirations regarding security, justice, political empowerment, and socio-economic development. To combat religious extremism (due to sectarianism) effectively, the government must revive the economy, restore political parties to their rightful position and strengthen its own institutions.
Moreover, ending sectarian cleavage in Pakistan requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses the root causes and promotes inclusivity and harmony. It begins with strong, committed leadership that actively discourages sectarian discrimination and violence. Promoting interfaith dialogue, fostering tolerance, and encouraging respectful engagement among religious communities can help break down barriers and build understanding. Investing in education that emphasizes religious tolerance and diversity while countering extremist narratives is crucial for long-term change. Additionally, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, and implementing effective law enforcement to curb hate crimes and punish perpetrators are essential steps toward ending sectarian cleavage in Pakistan. A comprehensive strategy combining these efforts with community engagement, socio-economic development, and promoting a pluralistic society is key to fostering a more united and peaceful Pakistan.