Source: View Point
Iranian- Saudi war spills over to Pakistan: Unloading the entire blame on a foreign pedestal would be unfair. The sectarian strife in Pakistan, to a larger extent, is a Frankenstein’s monster of its making. However, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry aggravated the Shia-Sunni conflict
“During my frequent visits to Pakistan in the 1990s, all kinds of theories were expressed whenever there was an attack on members of the Shia or Sunni community,” the German journalist Hans Bremer wrote in The News (Feb 26, 2003). “One that always struck me as strange was that a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia was being fought on the streets of Pakistani cities.”.
Speaking in the National Assembly during the second Benazir government (1994-96), the Interior Minister, General Naseerullah Babar, even candidly expressed his dismay over the situation saying: “two neighboring countries (Afghanistan, backed by Saudi Arabia, and Iran) are fighting their war in Pakistan” (Amin Lakhani. Why Sectarian Violence Must End, Dawn, Aug 19, 2004).
Unloading the entire blame on a foreign pedestal would be unfair. The sectarian strife in Pakistan, to a larger extent, is a Frankenstein’s monster of its making. However, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry aggravated the Shia-Sunni conflict. As a matter of fact, Shia-Sunni conflict is a misnomer. The conflict in Pakistan is not between Shia and Sunni sects. It is, in fact, an anti-Shia crusade by a Sunni sub-sect (Deobandis with a Wahabist bent).
Until the 1980s both sects were living in harmony in Pakistan. ‘The sectarian intolerance, we are experiencing today, came to Pakistan initially after the 1979 Iranian revolution, when the Iranian regime exhibited enthusiasm to “export” the revolution. This gathered steam when a Baathist-led and Sunni-dominated Iraq forced a war on Shia Iran. Then, in an effort to win the support of the Pakistani public, both parties to the conflict poured large sums of money and indoctrinated the mullahs. “That Pakistani clerics allowed themselves to be so used can be attributed more to greed than to religious zeal,” wrote Najmuddin Shaikh, former foreign secretary in the Dawn of June 16, 2004. Mr Shaikh’s statement can be taken as an insider’s testimony.
As petrodollars from Saudi Arabia poured in, ‘Iranian funding to Shia organizations also increased, making Pakistan a battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran to settle their scores. No effective measures were taken by the Pakistan government to halt this slide into chaos,’ according to South Aia Tribune of Sept 15, 2004.
The slide into chaos was deliberately allowed since the 1977 military coup, spearheaded by a fundamentalist general keen to seek legitimacy through religion, ending the Pakistani experiment with inclusive Muslim nationalism. Though under the Zia dictatorship, Shia politicians, generals, and business leaders remained on the scene yet a steady “Sunnification” of Pakistan made the country look more and more like the Arab kingdoms (see: Pakistan: Transition from Shia to Sunni Leaderhip, Far Outliers, Oct. 13, 2006).
Zia was robustly backed by Sunni fundamentalists. He portrayed himself as the leader of the Muslim world. In the neighborhood of Iran, Saudi rulers got a great opportunity through him to counter the Iranian influence. During Zia dictatorship, lavish Saudi funding led to the formation of notoriously anti-Shia organization called the Anjuman Sipah-i-Sahaba (ASS), which was subsequently rechristened the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Later this terrorist organization split into splinter groups with the same mission. The mission was sabotaging the Iranian interests, with official blessings, in Pakistan by attacking Shia community. Hasan Abbas in his marvelous book “Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism” reveals how the Iranian Consul General Sadiq Ganji was shot by notorious terrorist Riaz Basra. “The other person on the motorcycle with Basra conducting the Ganji murder operation was an ISI official named Athar, a low-level official from the Pakistan Air Force.” Ironically, prior to the Iranian revolution, all these three countries were closely allied to Washington.
Iran was the first country that accorded recognition to Pakistan in August 1947 and its diplomatic mission started functioning in Karachi the same year. Pakistan appointed its first ambassador to Iran in May 1948, and a treaty of friendship was signed between the two countries on February 19, 1950, providing for good neighborly relations, and a ‘most favoured nation’ treatment to each other (Khalida Qureshi, ‘Political System in Pakistan’ (ed.) New Delhi, 1995. p. 326).
Iran and Saudi Arabia had established diplomatic relations in 1928, four years before the unified kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established. King Faisal (1904-1975) visited Iran in 1966 and the Shah of Iran (1919-1980) paid the return visit to Saudi Arabia in 1968. By then, the countries had successfully resolved their dispute over the two islands of Farsi and Arabia by agreeing to Iran’s possession of Farsi and Saudi Arabia’s possession of Arabi.
During the cold war, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were concerned about the threat of communism. Both were opposed to the radical Arab nationalism symbolized by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). The 1979 revolution initially ended decades of friendly ties between the two Persian Gulf countries. Tehran’s revolutionary regime accused the Saudis of corruption and of acting as an “American puppet” with which it could not have friendly relations. It also called for the overthrow of all monarchies as being un-Islamic.
From the Saudi point of view, the rhetoric of the Iranian revolutionary leaders was subversive. Political disturbances in Saudi Arabia during 1979 and 1980, including the violent seizure of the Grand Mosque in Makka by Sunni religious dissidents (Nov 20, 1979) and rioting by Saudi Shias in the Eastern Province, reinforced the perception that Iran was exploiting, even inciting, discontent as part of a concerted policy to export the revolution. Saudi Arabia decided to hit back. Thus began a Saudi-Iranian war that has been mostly fought by proxy forces in many Muslim countries, most notably, Pakistan and of late Iraq. The seminaries (madarassas), funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran, became the breeding grounds of proxy crusaders.
The madarassas networks and hate literature:
The madarassas are rightly considered the nursery of sectarian violence. The Daily Times editorial on Feb 26, 2003, read:
The latest research tells us that the madrassas continue to be nurseries of hatred and extreme views. In comparison with students from Urdu and English medium schools, a survey found that over 60 per cent of the respondents in seminarians are opposed to giving rights to the minorities. What is remarkable is that despite indoctrination 60 per cent of the pupils from the other two education streams responded positively to giving rights to the minorities, proving once again that the general non-clerical population of the country is neither sectarian nor warlike in its thinking. In response to the question whether equal rights could be given to Ahamadis and Hindus, the Urdu school response was nearly equally divided, but the seminarian response was negative up to 80 per cent. Not surprisingly, the English medium schools were pluralist in their thinking with over 60 per cent positive responses. No wonder the Brussels-based International Crisis Group chaired by former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, expressed its dissatisfaction last year with Pakistan’s response to the UN directive to reform its madrassas.
Shias established madrassas with Iranian funding and Shia clerics―many of them graduates of Iranian religious universities―introduced Iranian-style political activism. However, Allama Arif Hussein al Hussaini, a Pashtun Shia mullah, studied in Najaf, Iraq. He was sent back to Pakistan after the Iranian revolution to organize the Shia community.”Iran’s tacit support to Shia groups in Pakistan proved to be counter-productive as the Sunni groups, who viewed growing Shia militancy with suspicion got support from Saudi Arabia and Iraq,” says Dr Moonis Ahmar (The News, Oct 5, 2004).
Meanwhile, anti-Shia literature was promoted in Pakistan and the Iranian revolution was presented as a Zionist conspiracy to capture the Holy places of Makka and Medina. Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer (1945-1987), former chief of the Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith (a puritanical Wahabi organization) wrote in 1980 a book entitled “Shia and Shia-ism” in which he denounced Shia faith as a heresy and described the Shias as the Zionist agents in Islamic countries. After translating into Arabic and English, it was widely distributed.
Iran paid in kind. Pakistani students studying in Iran translated the works of Iranian clerics into Urdu. This literature was a damning indictment of Wahabi vision of Islam. Understandably, the columnist Farrukh Saleem points out, ‘Globally, America is playing both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide. In Iraq, America is allied with Iraqi Shiites and outside of Iraq America is allied with Sunni-ruled kingdoms’ (The News, Jan 28, 2007). It is like a vicious circle and Pakistan has been caught in it with deadly consequences.
Anwar Syed adds: ‘In our own time, the support that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait extended to Saddam Hussein in the long war he had imposed on Iran may be seen as a most brutal conflict between Sunni and Shia regimes’ (Dawn, Oct 24, 2004).
The Afghan factor
The origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan can be traced to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan became a happy frontline state for US adventurism in Afghanistan. It lent thousands of ‘Mujahids’ for the Afghan ‘Jihad’. Since money to train these Mujahid was coming from Saudi Arabia, hence, it was kept in mind that only Deobandis or Wahabis were imparted training. Shias and Brelvis, were kept out of training camps. Once Afghan adventure was over, Pakistan military began to dispatch the trained militants to Kashmir. Many, on their own, arrived places like Bosnia, Chechnya, China and the Philippines. The Afghan policy led to a further deterioration of Pak-Iran relations when Pakistan sided with the Taliban, who were backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
In 1998, when the Taliban captured the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Taliban not only killed 10 Iranian diplomats allegedly supporting the Northern Alliance, but also massacred thousands of Hazara Shiites. Thinking that it had considerable influence over the Taliban, Iran blamed Pakistan.
Iran, in turn, adopted a proactive approach in Afghanistan, and intensified its support to Shia groups and the Northern Alliance. Iran’s limited financial means necessitated coordinating its assistance to anti-Taliban Afghan factions with Russia, India, and Central Asian States, as it also provided Iran with an opportunity to improve its relations with these countries. Therefore, the more Iran became involved in the Afghan crises, the more it headed towards strained relationship with Pakistan. It is hard to term it a mere coincidence that anti-Shia attacks in Pakistan reached a fever pitch when the Taliban were in control of Kabul.
Adnan Farooq did his Masters in Political Science and has worked with daily The Nation, Lahore and daily Jang, Lahore. He has also volunteered for Milieudefensie, Amsterdam. Friends of the earth, Europe, on environmental issues. He has been working with ON FILE, an Amsterdam-based publication run by journalists from all around the world. He studied Conflict Resolution at University of Amsterdam and is living in Paris.