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Karachi: Where walls tell tales of sectarian conflict

Updated Nov 08, 2016 12:39pm

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Activists of ASWJ during a rally in Karachi on November 16, 2012 | AFP
Activists of ASWJ during a rally in Karachi on November 16, 2012 | AFP

In Karachi, sectarian hatred is visible on the walls of the city. From slogans about one sect being infidels to proclamations about the ideological lineage of the other, all perspectives are up there for everyone to read. Law-enforcement agencies in the city have identified a number of “sensitive areas” as part of their plan to deal with sectarian violence that keeps flaring up in the city every now and then. They have tagged Shia-dominated Ancholi, Malir, Jafar-e-Tayyar Society, Rizvia Society and Numaish as areas from where law enforcers expect a reaction if and when a Shia is killed anywhere in Karachi. Sunni sectarian groups are strong in areas such as Nagan Chowrangi, Quaidabad, Banaras, Patel Para and Orangi's Tawheed Chowk. The security officials see strong footprints of Sunni groups such as Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, in all these neighbourhoods.

“Karachi has been divided into pockets along ethnic, sectarian and political lines,” says Arif Mehmood, a Karachi-based crime reporter. Each group “often tries to assert its authority” over the neighbourhood it dominates by forcing the shops to close down and traffic to stop whenever it wants to send a sectarian message across, he adds.

Sectarian hatred has poisoned entire neighbourhoods, and not just through venomous graffiti. A vast body of openly sectarian literature is available to radicalise the unsuspecting. Hate-filled books, pamphlets, audio and video cassettes are easily available in all the markets of Karachi. Perhaps even more convenient is the material available at your fingertips if you are tech savvy. From video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Dailymotion to social networking websites such as Facebook — there is plenty of material containing aggressive sectarian propaganda of your choice.

Shia scholars also allege that Sunni sectarian organisations are part of a state-sponsored policy to promote and support religious militancy.

If you have the appetite for more, then there are a good number of mosques and seminaries around the city where you can go for a dose of sectarian hatespeak. It is not what is being said and taught that is shocking but the fact that children as young as 10 year olds can be heard raising sectarian slogans with as much gusto as others of their age would sing nursery rhymes. Even when they do not know the meanings of what they are saying, they strongly believe that the people belonging to the opposite sect are simply to be loathed.

“People are convinced that their sect is right; everyone else is wrong, everyone else is to be hated and done away with,” explains a political analyst who does not want to be named. He believes the overall uncertainty and insecurity in Karachi both feeds and plays into the hands of the preachers and practitioners of sectarianism. “In this environment when you increase fear, you increase your influence,” he says.

It was under such an atmosphere of fear and influence perpetuating each other that a Sunni vegetable-seller has moved from Rizvia Society to Lyari. He says his business would suffer every time a group called a strike. “I have five daughters; sometimes I didn't have money to feed them even one meal a day. So I moved to live with my extended family,” he tells the Herald. Lyari is no better in terms of violence, he admits, but at least his sectarian affiliations have not been targeted here.

A girl chants a slogan during a protest against Shia killings in Karachi in January, 2014 | Reuters
A girl chants a slogan during a protest against Shia killings in Karachi in January, 2014 | Reuters

Not everyone, however, has the willingness to leave their homes after becoming targets of sectarian marauders. “Why should they? Where should they go?” asks Mariam, a young lawyer. Her father, a small-scale businessman belonging to the Shia community, was shot dead one year ago when he was leaving for work in the morning. A week later, the police informed the family that his was a sectarian murder. The news came as a shock to the family. Mariam, her parents and siblings had never bothered if their sect made them any different from their mostly Sunni friends. “We couldn't understand it. It was like what we read in newspapers, except the horror this time was ours,” she says, refusing to give her full name.

As the two examples show, sectarian violence is not a one-way street. Activists of each sect would try to ensure that no incident of violence goes unretaliated, though it is harder to identify some Sunni killings as sectarian, mainly because of the confusing mix of ethnic, criminal and political violence that goes on unabated in the city. “When a Shia is killed, it is easy to identify the killing as a sectarian attack,” says the political scientist. “But when a Sunni is killed, it becomes harder to identify the real cause.”

This is exactly what happened in the case of a doctor who spent more than half of his life in Karachi but moved to Lahore with his family after his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting incident. “There seemed to be no explanation of the killing at first,” he says. It was only months later that it was found to be a sectarian death.

Yet, the political scientist says, it “is the bitter truth” that most of the people killed in sectarian violence in Karachi happen to be Shias. Given the strength of the Sunni organisations and their reach and ability to strike, their retaliatory attacks are almost always deadlier than the original incidents they seek revenge for. On January 25, 2012 three Shia lawyers were shot dead in the city’s Arambagh area. Investigators believe that they were killed in response to the murder of a lawyer affiliated with ASWJ a day before.

Sectarian hatred has poisoned entire neighbourhoods, and not just through venomous graffiti.

According to Dr A, a Karachi-based social scientist preferring to remain anonymous, in such an atmosphere of hatred breeding reprisals and vice versa it is no longer possible to contend that sectarian killings take place owing to an intolerant section of the society and that only a handful of poor, illiterate, reactionary bigots are involved in them. The average sectarian militant these days looks nowhere close to this stereotype.

A case in point is Abu Khalid al-Khorasani. He is associated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and spends most of his time between Khost (Afghanistan) and North Waziristan. Once upon a time, Khorasani was a resident of Karachi. Hailing from a well-off family, he graduated from the University of Karachi with a degree in International Relations. "It is foolish to suggest that we kill Shias just for the sake of it," he tells the Herald in a telephonic conversation. “We detest their expansionist designs,” he says and claims that Khomeini, the first supreme leader of post-revolution Iran, “made it clear that he plans to spread his influence to even places such as Makkah and Medina.”

Apart from such regional influences, sectarian affiliations have got confusingly tangled with political ones to make it extremely difficult to understand what is happening in Karachi. “A number of politicians have made alliances with banned sectarian outfits. The idea is that militants would help them get more votes in return for a free hand once those politicians are in power,” says Jawad Naqvi, a prominent Shia scholar.

“During interrogation, target killers belonging to some mainstream political parties disclosed that they had been involved in sectarian killings as well. We are talking about political parties in power,” says an intelligence official, confirming what Naqvi says. "It has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt that many extremists have joined major political parties for a cover while their loyalties lie with their sectarian cause,” he adds.

Mourners in Karachi during the funeral of a relative who died in sectarian violence | AP
Mourners in Karachi during the funeral of a relative who died in sectarian violence | AP

Dr A agrees. “There are photographs of prominent politicians moving around with leaders of banned organisations,” he tells the Herald. “When you take the ideological leanings in some areas into account, it makes sense for politicians not to disturb the status quo. Why oppose sectarianism and lose votes?” he says, arguing that this is one of the reasons why sectarianism has been on the rise post 2008.

Senior journalists, quoting intelligence agencies, claim that Shia groups generally enjoy support from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement while the Awami National Party backs Sunni groups. The two parties, however, strongly reject these charges.

Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, argues that electoral politics has helped sectarian organisations to operate with relative freedom than before. “It is important to understand the political dynamics of sectarian violence,” he says. “Many of the banned sectarian organisations wear political hats and take part in electoral politics, whether with different names and independent candidates or through making alliances with mainstream political parties, which obviously creates more space for them,” Rana adds.

Some observers say any sectarian incident taking place in Karachi is linked to sectarian violence elsewhere in the country. “You cannot look at sectarian violence in Karachi, Quetta and Gilgit-Baltistan in isolation. You have to look at the bigger picture,” says Quetta-based senior journalist Syed Ali Shah. “There are often shared objectives and common interests [among sectarian groups operating in different areas]. On top of that, there is also sharing of logistics,” he says. Security officials say sectarian militants move around the country depending on where their services are needed. “Shia militants from Gilgit often come down to Karachi to carry out killings here and Sunni militants move from Punjab to Balochistan or from Mansehra to Gilgit, depending on their organisational needs,” says a police official.

Given the strength of the Sunni organisations and their reach and ability to strike, their retaliatory attacks are almost always deadlier than the original incidents they seek revenge for.

Shia scholars also allege that Sunni sectarian organisations are part of a state-sponsored policy to promote and support religious militancy. “Pakistani security agencies know everything,” says Naqvi. “[Sectarian] attacks in Pakistan are not possible without their support.” According to others, even the military is to be blamed for the killings. A senior journalist, who happens to be Shia, says: “Pakistan's military establishment continues to use Sunni militants as a tool for domestic and foreign policies. They have unleashed [them] on Shia community to suppress what they perceive as growing Iranian influence.” He claims knowing incidents in which police arrested sectarian terrorists but then let them go after “intervention” by some powerful elements of the state.

The Pakistani military, however, strongly rejects these charges. “It is ridiculous to accuse the military of killing Shias or supporting the killers of Shias,” argues a retired intelligence official. But then he says something that bears striking similarity to what Khorasani says. “As far as Iran's ambitions are concerned, they are an open secret. So anyone who is found to have links with any hostile state, including Iran, will be at least monitored,” says the ex-official. “It is the responsibility of intelligence agencies to guard Pakistan's national interests and we do that.”

While men in the street, even children, are gung ho about their sectarian enemies, serious researchers and academicians believe the scale and intensity of sectarian hatred and violence is even shutting out a thorough debate on the issue. “Sectarianism is a hugely complex issue. We cannot even talk about this subject openly and unreservedly,” says Dr A. “If you do, even from an academic point of view, you face the consequences in the form of a bullet or character assassination if you are lucky,” he says. “It's really a choice between censorship and silence.”


This article was originally published in the Herald's May 2012 issue under the headline "Writings on the wall". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a journalist and tweets @journalisthasan.