Encouraging Sunni Militants: The Rise of Shia Iran
There were still other factors in and around Pakistan that contributed to the transformations that Gartenstein-Ross addressed. For instance, the religious radicalisation of Shia Iran under the clerical leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini beginning in 1979 played a significant role in the Pakistani military’s Islamisation. As Dr. Hassan Abbas, a Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, points out in his article “The Redefinition of Pakistan Under General Zia” (The Middle East Institute, Viewpoints: Islamization of Pakistan, 1979–2009): “Parallel to the religious transformation imposed on Pakistan by Zia, was the rise of Shi‘ism as a popular religious symbol in Iran under the inspirational leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who significantly influenced Pakistani Shi‘ites. Even some Sunni political forces, such as Jamaat-e Islami, initially supported the revolution in Iran, seeing in it a model for Pakistan and a role for themselves. In contrast, Pakistani Shi‘a initially were reluctant to take a clear position, because historically they had been supportive of the Shah of Iran and were more connected with the Iraqi Shi‘a clerical establishment, who believed in remaining aloof from the political arena. This began to change as the younger Shi‘a generation in Pakistan was galvanized. Young Pakistani Shi‘ites felt empowered by the rise of ‘Shi‘a’ Iran and attracted to the anti-imperialist and revolutionary tone of the movement in Iran.”
“¦Zias aim was to reinvigorate “anti-India nationalism” in Pakistan. The first target was the Indian part of Punjab, bordering J&K, where the Khalistani movement was launched using Sikh religious fanatics and some disgruntled locals.
But the rise of Shia Iran was a matter of concern to a large number of countries, including the West. Western support (especially from the United States and Britain) helped Zia to take on the increasingly aggressive Shias within Pakistan. Saudi Arabia, upset by the “Shia revolution” in Iran, helped to finance the anti-Soviet effort. As a result, the Afghan mujahideen received ample funds to wage their ultimately successful guerrilla war against Soviet forces and some funds were diverted to create murderous Sunni groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who were organised to eliminate the Shia organisations within Pakistan.
In his article, Dr. Hassan Abbas says that with the outbreak of a Saudi-Iran proxy war in Pakistan, sectarian conflict intensified. Shia leaders and activists increasingly became victims of targeted killings, and in a few cases, Pakistani Shia responded in kind. Iranian diplomats in Pakistan also came under attack. The rise in 1985 of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (the army of the companions of the Prophet, or SSP), a rabidly anti-Shia militant group, added fuel to the fire.
The rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba, funded generously by Saudi Arabia, was in many ways a game-changer in Pakistan. General Zia’s role in the rise of SSP widened the sectarian divide and provided the momentum for strengthening the Wahhabi variety of Sunni Islam to become the dominant Islamic face within the country. The rise of the Sunni terrorist groups gave them some “political power.” As Tahir Kamran points out in his article on the SSP (The Middle East Institute, Viewpoints: Islamization of Pakistan, 1979–2009): “The local traders and bazaar merchants who had wealth but no political clout extended unequivocal support and funding to sectarian Sunni organizations such as Sipah-e Sahaba and its offshoot Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LJ).”
“¦argument suited both the Pakistani military and its foreign supporters, such as London and Riyadh, which wanted this dispute to continue in order to undermine India and control the weak Pakistani establishment.
“Like most militant struggles,” Kamran says, “the anti-Shi‘a campaign of the SSP thrived on bloodshed. Sectarian killing began with the murders of Ehsan Ellahi Zaheer in 1987 and Tehreek Nifaz-e Fiqh Jafariya Pakistan (TNFJ) leader Allama Arif ul-Husseini in 1988. On February 22, 1990, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the SSP’s founder, was killed in a retaliatory bomb attack. Following Haq Nawaz’s death, his successors used the cult of the martyr — around which, ironically, Shi‘a theological discourse is structured — to enhance the SSP’s electoral standing and its renown. Scores of martyrs and ongoing sectarian strife afforded the SSP ‘functional utility’ that contributed immensely to perpetuating its hold.
“The SSP’s rhetoric always had been aggressive,” Kamran continues, “but following Haq Nawaz’s death, its deeds matched its words. In 1996, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi emerged as an armed offshoot of SSP. Militancy not only intimidated Shi‘ites, but also increased the SSP’s electoral support. From the outset, the SSP leadership sought influence in the National Assembly in order to amend the Constitution and create a Sunnification of the Pakistani state.
“The SSP expanded beyond its roots in sectarian rivalries and biraderi (brotherhood) politics in Jhang. It organized itself remarkably well at the district and tehsil level. According to one estimate, by the time that the SSP was outlawed in January 2002, it controlled 74 district- and 225 tehsil-level units. In addition, the SSP ran 17 foreign branches, in countries that included Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Canada, and the U.K. With its 6,000 trained and professional cadres and 100,000 registered workers, the SSP was the best-organized Islamic party in Pakistan after Jamaat-e Islami.
“The SSP’s growing influence was accompanied by an association with violence. While Jhang was the scene of many sectarian killings, they spread to other areas of Punjab and beyond. Although the SSP attempted to distance itself from the activities of its armed offshoot, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, this was never done convincingly. The LJ had links with ‘international terrorist’ movements, which led then-President Pervez Musharraf to ban it and the SSP. The ban merely drove supporters of the SSP and LJ underground.”