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The Rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan

Tracing the origins and state support for the anti-Shia militant group in Pakistan

by Khaled Ahmed

Maryam Abou Zahab, writing about the sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in The Armed Militias of South Asia: Fundamentalists, Maoists and Separatists edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot, traces the organization’s history from its origins in the 1980s to an eventual ban in 2002, and then again in 2012.

Established in Jhang by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the SSP grew to prominence in Punjab in 1985 under the Islamization policy of Gen. Ziaul Haq that saw the state promoting its version of “true Islam,” setting the stage for politicization of religion. At the time, the SSP was often described as a reaction to the aggressive militancy of Iran. In reality, it was the result of “outside interference” when politico-religious figures had grasped the power of anti-Shia rhetoric as a means of mobilizing Sunni communities.

According to Zahab, Jhang’s social structure was particularly conducive to the birth of the SSP. In this specific context, the Shia-Sunni conflict might be interpreted as the outcome of a struggle for political power between rural Shia feudal landlords and an emergent urban middle class adhering to the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam. The SSP, thus, sprang from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a Deobandi Sunni party founded in 1945 by pro-Pakistan ulema. Formally established as a political party in Lahore in 1968, the JUI fielded candidates in the first national elections in 1970, taking 25 percent of the vote in then-NWFP, where it formed a short-lived coalition government with the Pashtun nationalist National Awami Party. The JUI also found support in Pashtun-dominated regions of Balochistan, and had access to a vast network of madrassas that would go on to play a major role in the Afghan war.

Deobandi muscle

Like other Deobandi groups, the JUI was involved in the anti-Ahmadi movement that saw the minority reclassified as a non-Muslim group in 1974 through a constitutional amendment. The controversy fueled sectarian discourse, leading to the rise of an anti-Shia movement. Apart from the JUI, the SSP’s precursors included the Majlis-e-Ahrar, a lesser known movement founded by a group of reformist Punjabi ulema in 1929. The Ahrar recruited its members from Punjab’s urban lower-middle class, campaigning against British rule, feudalism and Ahmadis. In the early 1930s, it launched a movement for the defense of Islam in Kashmir. In Lucknow, its members were involved in violent clashes between Sunnis and Shias from 1937-1938. The movement declined after Partition, with its adherents resorting to violence first against Ahmadis and later against the Shia, preceding the trajectory of the SSP.

In Karachi, too, the SSP found a predecessor in the Sawad-e Azam Ahl e-Sunnat, a virulently anti-Shia organization created by Pashtun clerics in the early 1980s. This group, believed to have been set up by the military establishment, counted Haq Nawaz Jhangvi as a member and was the first to call publicly for Shia Muslims to be declared kafir. Even today, the SSP maintains an ambiguous relation with the JUI, with the latter saying it differs with the former’s methods but agrees with its ideals.

The leader from Jhang

Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, born in Jhang district in 1952, attended a madrassa in Multan and launched his career during the anti-Ahmadi agitation of 1974. He also denounced the beliefs and practices of the Barelvi school of thought, as well as the influence of Shia Islam on the rural Sunni population through Shia landowners, many of whom claimed a spiritual power derived from their status as descendants of saints. At the time of the SSP’s formation, Jhangvi was vice-president of the Punjabi branch the JUI.

At its launch, the SSP was primarily comprised of shopkeepers, local residents and muhajirs, who met at a mosque in the Piplanwali quarter of Jhang. To fuel their anti-Shia propaganda, they recruited and manipulated a number of extremist mullahs, notably Jhangvi, with support from the Zia regime that wished to punish the Shia community for defying the martial law and successfully resisting the state collection of zakat. Zia also saw it as a way to break the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which had significant support among Shias. The anti-PPP strategy also gave rise to the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi in 1984. Jhangvi, despite the SSP’s insistence on being a purely religious movement, made no secret of his political ambitions, referring to the separation of politics and religion as a plot devised by enemies of Islam.

Foreign inputs

At the time, Saudi Arabia was also concerned by Iran’s exploiting of Shia activism in Pakistan and provided financial support for movements such as the SSP. The U.S., whose ties with Iran had deteriorated considerably, had no objections. Iraq, too, contributed to SSP’s coffers as part of its countering of Iran in the dissemination of sectarian literature across Pakistan. As such, the 1980s primarily saw the SSP denunciating “Shia heretics” and producing and distributing sectarian literature, much of it authored by Ziaul Rehman Farooqi, an employee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The SSP sought to push-back Pakistan’s Shia community by having it declared a non-Muslim minority. It advocated the defense, through constitutional and legal measures, of the Companions of Islam’s Prophet, demanding death sentences for anyone insulting them. The organization also called for the restoration of the caliphate system of government.

Guiding the erring state

The SSP further demanded the observance of the anniversaries of the deaths of the first caliphs—particularly Caliph Umar—as public holidays. It claimed sectarian violence could be eliminated by banning Shia public mourning ceremonies, and also demanded an end to Iranian interference in Pakistan’s domestic affairs and a prohibition on the distribution of Shia sectarian literature through Iranian cultural centers and the Iranian embassy in Pakistan.

Because of the potential of its aggression beyond Pakistan, the U.N. banned the SSP alongside the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi on Aug. 14, 2001. The SSP was clearly the dominant political force in South Punjab, with its offshoots Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkatul Mujahideen entrenched in various cities. Traditionally, the state has backed the SSP, the last time in 2006 when then-president Pervez Musharraf allowed it to organize a large congregation in Islamabad. Just a year later, Musharraf came under fire from religious forces over the Lal Masjid operation.

Religion tends to affect the internal capacity of the state to nurture modern cohesion with equal rights for all citizens. It tends to award lower status to minorities and—self-damagingly—to women. In Islamic states, the religious man challenges the state from his superior status as a follower of sharia, which cannot even be uniformly agreed upon. This phenomenon weakens the state and undermines its legal status through extremism and consequent violence. Extremism springs from the condition of certitude which is the gift of religion in an uncertain human condition. And no certitude is possible without reductionism. The cleric can become the fascist who imposes his creed on others ultra vires of the Constitution of the state. People who are fired by conviction look impressive. On the other hand, more “inclusive” liberals fail to impress because they find fault with creeds and are singularly lacking in symbolism of power.

Aided—and abetted—by the Islamic world

The Muslim world, faced by democracy and lack of “legitimacy of rule,” tends to support extremist religious organizations. Sectarian violence has damaged several Arab states in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Further south in Yemen, no state actually exists and an intra-Muslim proxy war has annihilated what existed of the state. All this has transpired as a result of the extremism springing from religious belief negating the sovereignty of the modern state.

Pakistan has suffered from the same affliction in the past and present. The state has often resented secular NGOs, but produced no official reaction against religious NGOs, often funded from abroad. The religious groups attract support from the bureaucracy, while a virtual police state always on the lookout for anti-state material tends to ignore anti-Pakistan statements—such as a Taliban-affiliated leader claiming the Quaid-e-Azam had not done any work for Islam—from religious leaders.

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