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Geopolitics & Security

Rising Sectarianism and the Promotion of Tolerance in Pakistan

Briefing14th November 2014

Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia and is second only to Iran in the size of its Shia population. Yet violent sectarian tensions in the country, particularly between Sunni Deobandi and Shia Muslims, have seen a worrying escalation in recent years. 

Rising conflict in the Middle East has strengthened the sectarian political narrative in Pakistan and emboldened militant networks on both sides of the divide, with local tendencies proving highly responsive to international events.

Rising Middle Eastern conflict strengthens the sectarian narrative

Two recent reports from the United States Institute of Peace look at the historical and contemporary factors behind the increasing brutality of sectarian violence in Pakistan within  a local and regional context, as well as ways in which religious leaders can use their local influence to work towards a rejection of these intolerant narratives.

The first, 'Pakistan's Resurgent Sectarian War' examines how the persistence of sectarian militant groups relates to their continued usage by the state apparatus, as well as the intermingling of politics and religion in the country. Meanwhile, 'Religious Authority and the Promotion of Sectarian Tolerance in Pakistan', looks more closely at the role that religious authorities may play in reducing sectarian prejudice and violence, and improving Shia-Sunni relations.

A key argument is that while the sectarian violence that has gripped Pakistan does not simply represent the unleashing of ancient religious hatreds, understanding differing views on religious authority is an important practical step in strategising a peace-building process between communities.

For more detail on the roots of sectarian conflict outlined in these reports, see our Pakistan situation report, written by Frederic Grare, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Chapter 1

The Factors Behind Rising Sectarianism
  • Sunni-Shia tensions have been a recurrent problem in Pakistan for more than three decades, but tension has escalated in recent years, with the Shia minority bearing the brunt of the recent violence. 

  • Sectarian violence has resulted in approximately 2,300 deaths in Pakistan's four main provinces between 2007 and 2013 and at least 1,500 deaths in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The average annual figure of those killed in sectarian attacks now is three times the annual rate during the 1990s.

  • While most of this violence is perpetrated by local networks, the sectarian phenomenon also has important ties to regional security dynamics and transnational terrorist networks. 

  • Pakistan's sectarian tensions have deepened over the course of its history: Whilst initially founded as an inclusive Muslim-majority state, a political campaign of Islamisation that began in the 1970s privileged particular schools of extremist Sunni thought and began to polarise Sunni-Shia relations. Vestiges of this trend can still be found in Pakistan's school curriculum. 

  • Despite sporadic state crackdowns, including most recently Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan's leading Sunni Deobandi sectarian militant groups have been able to maintain a persistent presence thanks in part to reluctance among mainstream Pakistani military and political leaders to directly confront groups that are sometimes seen as serving their own political interests.

  • Many of these groups owe their continued resilience to the "Faustian bargains" Pakistan's civilian and military leaders have made with them. However despite this uncomfortable proximity between sectarian militancy and the state apparatus Sunni Deobandi militants have also established links with terrorist groups that target the Pakistani state, such as al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). 

  • The increasingly politicised global Sunni-Shia divide has strengthened the sectarian narrative in Pakistan. Press reporting on foreign fighter presence suggest the number of Pakistani Shia fighters in Syria fighting on behalf of the al-Assad regime may be roughly comparable to the number of Pakistani Sunnis fighting against it. 

  • Iran is currently believed to play a limited though significant role in Pakistan's sectarian war: Tehran may be backing a new Shia political party, the Majlis Wahdat-e Muslimeen. In February, a TTP splinter group launched the network's first attack on an Iranian installation inside Pakistan, targeting Tehran's consulate in Peshawar.

  • Foreign actors and regional conflicts have and will continue to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Pakistan. But sectarianism in Pakistan is not dependent on external influences. 

Chapter 2

The Role of Religious Leaders
  • Polls reveal that many religious clergy and authorities across the sectarian divide consider playing a role in politics to be a religious obligation. 

  • Religious clerics and scholars may be uniquely positioned to influence people's beliefs about social norms, especially to counter extremist ideologies that may confuse public opinion in the name of religion. Clerics have a regular platform through which to espouse tolerant messages. 

  • These findings encouraged the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies to organise a national seminar in June 2011 that brought together 46 scholars of different Islamic traditions to "discuss the role of religious scholars in promoting peaceful and tolerant religious/sectarian narratives in Pakistani society." 

  • In June 2014 the Pakistan Ulama Council issued a statement saying no Islamic sect could be declared infidel. 

  • The Pakistan state has also made some effort to engage clerics in promoting interfaith and intersectarian relations. Including the establishment of cross-sectarian forums, roundtables on interfaith harmony and a sect-free Mosque. 

  • Shiism places supreme authority in clerics situated at the apex of a formal religious hierarchy, making religious leaders important powerbrokers equipped to contribute to conflict resolution. 

  • Identifying specific religious authorities suited to promote tolerance in Sunni communities is more difficult given the relatively decentralised nature of religious authority in the community. 

  • Pew polls show that the more concerned an individual was with extremist religious groups operating in society, the more likely they were to express tolerant sectarian views. As such Shias' minority status made them especially sensitive to the dangers of intolerance and benefits of interfaith harmony. 

  • In Quetta, highly educated individuals were more likely to agree with messages of tolerance, while polls found that attending religious seminaries or madrasas was not a predictor of tolerance.

Chapter 3

  • Until it is dealt with structurally, Sunni Deobandi–Shia sectarian violence will continue. Pakistan is unlikely to see Iraq-style sectarian violence that existentially threatens the country. However, the continuation of sectarian bloodshed, along with the mainstreaming of purveyors of sectarian hatred, will further radicalize elements in both Sunni Deobandi and Shia communities and consolidate Pakistan's transition toward an ugly majoritarian state.

  • There are Pakistanis promoting peaceful coexistence between Sunnis and Shias at governmental and nongovernmental levels. They should be encouraged and presented opportunities to engage on this issue at both official and grassroots levels. Further research should focus on studying the effects of these real-world activists to determine what types of messages are most effective at shaping individual beliefs.

  • Changing attitudes on tolerance in the short term is difficult, so policy interventions should focus less on changing particular beliefs about other groups and more on changing the norms that govern behaviours. Islamic clerics could be among elites especially well suited to shaping such norms in general and norms concerning Sunni-Shia interactions in particular. 

  • Additional research is necessary to understand how ordinary Pakistanis select which religious authorities to follow might contribute to our understanding of Muslim religiosity and potential influence networks. 

  • Some commonly held beliefs about the factors linked with holding intolerant attitudes—such as attending religious seminaries in Pakistan and being less educated—were not borne out by our survey and should be reexamined. More detailed research attempting to discern how curriculum, pedagogy, and peer beliefs affect individual beliefs regarding sectarian tolerance might contribute to a fuller understanding of the consequences of religious instruction. 

  • Sectarian violence in Pakistan cannot be divorced from an evolving political context that has witnessed the passing of laws that discriminate on the basis of religion and that have gradually redefined the notion of national identity along an increasingly sectarian basis. Efforts must be devoted to initiating a broader national dialogue to sensitise Pakistanis, including clerics, on the contributions that members of minority communities have made to Pakistan.

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