Shiite resurgence in Pakistan linked to Iran
KARACHI, Pakistan – Mohammed Naqwi worries about his son, Fahim, and the future of Pakistan.
“My son is a great supporter of Khomeini. He’s 22, and he’s an absolute fanatic,” said Naqwi, 63, a liberal Shiite Moslem newspaper commentator in Karachi. “He thinks I’m a heathen. If his imam gave him the order to desert us or do us down, he would do it.
“He’s callow and idealistic. His politics consist of mouthing slogans. The U.S. is the great Satan. He’s thrilled when the U.S. is embarrassed, when Iran is one up on them. When the Bridgeton hit a mine, he was smiling,” Naqwi said, referring to the U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti supertanker that struck a mine in the Persian Gulf while under U.S. Navy escort last July.
“Fahim is a math major at the University of Karachi,” Naqwi continued. “He doesn’t want to get a high-level degree, because he’s afraid doors might open to him and he might be tempted into a Western way of life. He just wants to finish up and then go to a seminary in Iran for seven years. I can’t stop him. He’s grown up now.”
The elder Naqwi’s anguish reflects more than just the generation gap. In Pakistan, where Shiites for years have been an acquiescent minority amid a Sunni majority, Fahim Naqwi is part of an Iranian-inspired resurgence of Shiite fundamentalism that threatens the already unravelling fabric of Pakistani society.
Signs of this religious revival are apparent at the University of Karachi, where male Shiite students wear the same beards, long robes and round cloth hats that distinguish devout Shiites in Iran. Sunni religious students also are bearded and robed, and when the two groups pass each other in the dark, dirty corridors, the tension is almost electric.
During observances of the Shiite holy day of Ashura last August, violent clashes erupted in the streets of Karachi between Shiites and Sunnis. The sectarian strife represents a new scar on a political landscape already ravaged by terrorist bombings, ethnic riots and violence spilling over Pakistan’s borders from India, Iran and Afghanistan.
Ironically, Pakistan’s Moslem identity provided the unifying force in the country’s creation when Britain’s Indian empire was partitioned in 1947. But President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s program of Islamizing Pakistan’s political, economic and social life, begun in 1979, has proved to be a divisive wedge between Sunnis and Shiites.
“The government says only one code of law – the Sunni code – applies to all, and the Shiites won’t agree to it,” says Ghufar Ahmed, a member of National Assembly from the Sunni fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami Party, an influential opposition group that has spearheaded the campaign to subordinate the state to Islam.
Zia has banned alcohol and reintroduced traditional Koranic punishments, such as stonings, floggings and amputations, though none of the harsher punishments has been carried out. He has moved toward interest-free Islamic banking, which would allow investors to make deposits that are invested in profit-sharing ventures.
All government departments now must make arrangements for prayers during work hours. Private establishments may operate on Friday, the Moslem holy day, but must close for noon prayers.
Zia has endorsed demands by Sunni fundamentalists for separate universities for women and begun resegregating schools by sex. He also has ordered the revision of textbooks and curricula to promote awareness of Islamic ideology and history.
Two bills now before the National Assembly would make the Sharia, the ancient Islamic legal code, the law of the land.
But Zia’s attempt in 1980 to levy Islam’s compulsory zakat charitable tax ran into strong opposition from the country’s Shiites. They charged that the yearly 2.5-per-cent tax on all savings, to be distributed by official committees to the poor, ignored Shiite doctrines that say the tax must be paid to the clergy, not the government.
Tens of thousands of Shiites besieged Islamabad for two days, blocking all entrances and exits to the capital in protest. Reluctant to use the army for fear of causing massive casualties, Zia backed down and altered the legislation. He has since moved carefully on Islamization, keeping Shiite sensitivities in mind.
“Under any rigid program of Islamization, Pakistani society would face actual disintegration,” Naqwi says.
Shiites make up 10 per cent to 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population of nearly 97 million. The sectarian split has surfaced in Pakistani politics only since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Last July the militant new Movement for the Implementation of Shiite Justice made its first appearance as a crowd of about 120,000 gathered in Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, to declare support for its platform: closer links with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Shiite fundamentalist government in Iran; an end to Pakistan’s military and economic dependence on the United States; and greater distance from the Sunni Arab regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Persian Gulf.
Iranian exiles attacked
The party’s Iranian-trained leaders warned that no opposition to Khomeini or the Iranian revolution would be tolerated. Within 48 hours, 13 houses in Karachi and Quetta occupied by Iranian exiles belonging to the leftist anti-Khomeini Mujahidin Khalq were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and submachine guns. Three people were killed and many more wounded.
Police later arrested nine men trying to slip across the border into Iran and, according to well-informed sources, subsequently identified them as Iranian Revolutionary Guards who had been ordered by Tehran to carry out the attacks.
Despite its success in getting Zia to retract his Islamic tax legislation, the organization formed for the demonstration in 1980 did not disband. A few months after the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in September 1980, it turned religious observances in Karachi and Lahore into political demonstrations against Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Pakistan’s first major Shiite-Sunni riots erupted in 1983 in Karachi during the Shiite holiday of Muharram; at least 60 people were killed. More Muharram disturbances followed over the next three years, spreading to Lahore and the Baluchistan region and leaving hundreds more dead. Last July, Sunnis and Shiites, many of them armed with locally made automatic weapons, clashed in the northwestern town of Parachinar, where at least 200 died.
Political experts say the evolution of the Movement for Implementation of Shiite Justice out of the last seven years of activism reflects the disciplined, unified nature of the Shiite community, the sophisticated political organization of Shiite youth at universities and the movement’s close contact with Iran, where thousands of Pakistani Shiites go to study.
“Our first priority is to end the dependence on Western values in Pakistan,” says Mohammed Naqwi, a recent medical school graduate and party activist in Lahore who has the same name as the unrelated moderate Shiite commentator in Karachi.
At the Lahore rally in July, Shiite party leader Arif Hussein warned: “Shiites will topple the government in Islamabad if it helps the United States to launch anti-Iran operations from Pakistan.”
Aligned against the militant new Shiite party is the Sunni Jamaat-i-Islami Party, whose fundamentalist inspiration comes from the severe, orthodox Wahhabi brand of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia. Though its support is estimated at no more than 20 per cent of the electorate, analysts say its own tight organization, internal discipline and alleged funding from Saudi Arabia have given it disproportionate influence. The party’s youth wing, said to be heavily armed, is suspected of playing a major role in Sunni-Shiite clashes over the past few years.
Founded in 1941, the party has always espoused an ideology based on political action, rather than focusing on religious rituals. With a modern think tank in Islamabad and a large body of literature defining its practical view of an Islamic state, it has won supporters among the religious-minded middle class, including professionals, civil servants and military officers, the most prominent among them Zia himself.
Despite Iran’s link to the July attacks, Pakistan has made no public protest to Tehran. Publicly the government says it does not have enough evidence against the Iranians who were arrested at the border.
But privately Pakistani officials acknowledge they do not want to escalate tensions with Iran, which would mean a potential third military front for Pakistan after India and Afghanistan. This is a particularly sensitive issue in the wake of recent U.S. congressional moves to cut off a $4-billion aid package because of evidence that Pakistan is developing nuclear weapons.
Islamabad has been moving to shore up its ties with Iran by rounding up many anti-Khomeini Iranians in the Karachi area and agreeing to handle Iran’s interests in France after Paris and Tehran severed diplomatic relations last summer.
Western diplomats say it is a tricky balancing act, particularly since Pakistan maintains more than 30,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and has close ties with Jordan and a number of gulf Arab states.
Analysts do not believe Pakistan’s Shiites are powerful enough to topple Zia’s government. But with the minority’s proven ability to foment trouble, many political analysts and opposition figures say the country’s best defense against Shiite fundamentalist power and greater sectarian strife lies in the democratization of the country’s Islamized military regime.
“If people are not allowed to function normally, underground activity and a greater Shiite-Sunni split are inevitable,” says Ahmed, the Sunni legislator. “Right now, young people in Pakistan no longer believe that change can come from the democratic process. They see Iran as the best example of change, and they think it should happen here.
“In Pakistan we don’t require a revolution. We require a change, but the government’s policy of divide and rule is encouraging sectarianism. This is the real danger.”
Trying to explain why his son has chosen the path of militant Islam, Naqwi sadly concedes: “He has nothing else to look toward. In my youth, a young man was attracted to socialism and democracy. They gave us a vision of an attractive future and a place in it. Today, under this government, that vision has faded, and Islam, for better or worse, has taken its place.”
Black & White Photo; Caption: Gazette; Soldier punishes curfew violator during August riots. Gazette; Shiite Moslems burn U.S. flag in Karachi in August. The U.S. is the “great Satan” for fundamentalist Shiites. MOHAMMED ZIA UL-HAQ Began Islamization drive in 1979
Credit: CHICAGO TRIBUNE