16 September 2022
By Rehan Piracha
LAHORE: A local branch of the militant outfit Islamic State (ISKP) and Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) have created a renewed sectarian strife in Pakistan, warned the International Crisis Group in its report.
The rise of a local Islamic State franchise, and the growing influence of TLP that draws support mostly from Barelvi Sunni majority, open a new chapter in Pakistan’s sectarian violence, which until recently was driven largely by Deobandi Sunni groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, according to the think tank.
“Perhaps even more worrying is that sectarian militancy now runs across the range of Sunni-Islamist groups, including adherents to what was once regarded as the more moderate Barelvi sub-sect, believed to constitute a thin majority of Pakistan’s population,” the ICG said.
Pakistan’s clamp down on sectarian violence has led to a period of relative peace but these two entities are at the forefront of a new era of sectarian conflict.
ISKP making inroads in Punjab
Many former Lashkar-e-Jhangvi foot soldiers have turned to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Together with TTP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi recruits, they have helped the ultra-sectarian ISKP gain traction in Pakistan.
ISKP competes for influence and recruits with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, which share long borders with Afghanistan.
The outfit has claimed sectarian attacks in both provinces including a blast in a Shia mosque in Peshawar in March this year.
A senior intelligence official in Balochistan noted that the vast majority of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives in his province have now begun to identify with ISKP.
Counter-terrorism and intelligence officials are closely monitoring the growing ISKP threat in places in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with sizeable Shia populations, including Peshawar, the western districts of Dera Ismail Khan and Kohat, and the tribal districts of Kurram and Orakzai.
According to these officials, the ICG report said, militant groups claiming affiliation with ISKP are making inroads in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. They believe that ISKP is moving in both directions across the border between Bajaur, a district in those areas, and Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces.
“The ISKP threat extends beyond Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Serving and retired Punjab police officials who monitor sectarian outfits identified several northern and western Punjab districts, including Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Faisalabad and Dera Ghazi Khan, where ISKP is present and low-level sectarian clashes now occur regularly,” the ICG report noted.
TLP inciting sectarian violence
According to the think tank, another worrying development is the rise of organised and violent Barelvi political groups, most notably the TLP, whose appeal rests on exploiting the emotive issue of blasphemy. The TLP is said to be responsible for some of the most egregious acts of sectarian violence in the country, the ICG said.
The report said TLP’s influence lies in using the blasphemy issue to raise its profile, expand its support base and incite sectarian violence. “It is difficult to establish a causal link between the steep rise in blasphemy cases and TLP’s politics, but the group’s mobilisation to defend the Holy Prophet’s honour has created an environment where judges, police and private citizens are likely to see rewards rather than repercussions for making blasphemy accusations.”
A former top counter-terrorism official said TLP’s politicisation of blasphemy “is turning so many people into extremists”. TLP supporters often use blasphemy cases to flex their local muscle by, for example, congregating at the trials to intimidate judges and witnesses.
However, the Pakistani establishment has done little to rein in the TLP, the ICG report said. “The group’s most significant impact on mainstream politics is visible in former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which supported its demands at the 2017 Faizabad sit-in, including for the law minister’s ouster.”
Imran Khan’s 2018 electoral campaign included a “full-throated” defence of the blasphemy laws.
The report pointed out that when his own government faced a TLP threat, and relations between the PTI and the TLP soured as a result, Imran Khan made exporting Pakistan’s blasphemy provisions part of his foreign policy. In an April 2021 televised address, while his government was negotiating an end to TLP’s anti-France protests, Imran Khan called on Muslim countries to pressure Western governments to make insulting the Prophet a crime, likening this measure to laws against Holocaust denial.
The ICG report noted that the TLP had now embraced the Deobandi antipathy for Shias as its own.
Though Barelvis and Shias share many observances, particularly rituals at shrines, divisions have grown more pronounced according to rights activists and analysts who follow such trends closely. “Barelvis used to be the buffer between Shias and Deobandis”, said an activist quoted in the ICG report. “Now, thanks to the state’s interference [in other words the support for Labaik], that buffer has been dismantled.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported, based on anecdotal evidence, that some 40 blasphemy cases, mainly against Shias, were registered in September 2020, and warned of the potential for inter-communal bloodshed.
Govt should ensure violent acts are prosecuted
The ICG said the state’s failure also to prosecute those responsible for sectarian attacks is feeding into a permissive legal environment, calling on the Pakistani government to use a proactive rather than reactive approach.
“It will require major investment in intelligence gathering in order to build strong evidence against those preaching, inciting and conducting acts of sectarian violence.”
The Supreme Court has a role to play, including holding the executive accountable if governments fail to comply with rulings calling for action to curb hate speech and protect minorities, the think tank suggested.
Countering the TLP’s influence is particularly challenging since its appeal is based on the emotive issue of blasphemy.
Repealing discriminatory blasphemy laws might be desirable, but it is politically inconceivable in Pakistan, the ICG.
‘The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which leads the new coalition government, and its junior partner, the Pakistan Peoples Party, should nonetheless revive debates inside and outside parliament on tackling misuse of the laws. They could do so by requiring consultations between leaders of religious – including minority – communities and district administrations before police can register blasphemy cases; adding strict punishments for false blasphemy allegations; and prosecuting those involved in and inciting vigilante violence against people accused of insulting Islam, said the report.
The ICG report warns that Pakistan could very well see sectarian hatred spread further into parts of the population previously unaffected, and attacks mount. In present circumstances, those who perpetrate or incite violent acts in the name of religion see more reward than risk in doing so.
‘A consistent application of the law remains the best way to reverse that equation and to spare the country a slide back into the terrible sectarian strife of past decades,’ the ICG report said.