In the light of the increasing onslaught of violence by LeJ it seems pertinent to question the raison d’etre behind it’s existence in Pakistan and ask why an organization, which has no meaningful popular support and upholds an overtly militant sectarian agenda, is allowed to publicly sustain itself in conventional politics through it’s parasitical relationship with mainstream political parties, the military and Saudi financing networks.
Given its socially intolerant agenda and its dismissal electoral performance the LeJ has no significant popular support in Pakistan since its exclusionary and high-strung religious narratives are at variance with the mainstream socio-religious practices in Pakistan. The regimes of disinformation, which have sought to radicalize Sunni and Shia identities in Pakistan, have not been overly successful. This is because the agendas of the religious elite and extremist groups like LeJ, ASWJ or Sipah Sahaba do not resonate with people’s religiosity, are not representative of the aspirations of the ordinary Pakistani people. The predominant popular religious culture in Pakistan, is syncretic, spiritual and manifestly tolerant of religious diversity. Recent events have shown have sectarian hostility exists largely between the extremist and orthodox elements on both sectarian sides, but not amongst the mainstream society. So while the particular puritanically orthodox vision of Pakistan upheld by the LeJ allows it to cultivate ties with Salafist networks to strengthen itself, at the same time makes it irrelevant to the general public in Pakistan. The LeJ’s vision of Pakistan, like their other Islamist contemporaries, is so radical that they are ‘looked down upon’ not only by the general public but also by the political and military establishments that continue to give it socio-political space.
Their anti-Shia vitriol however provides LeJ with a potent array of political and financial advantages not the least of which, comfortably places them at the receiving end of massive Saudi charity. It is no coincidence that the LeJ leaders are received as state guests in Saudia Arabia and rewarded generously for their ‘service to Islam’. Indulgently patronizing the LeJ also serves important foreign policy goals of the Saudis. Apart from a plethora of anti-Shia polemics penned by LeJ scholars, financed by the Saudi charities, the LeJ leaders willfully serve as apologists for the Saudi-American regional interests and promoting their rhetoric against Iran. Much of their literature routinely portrays Saudi Arabia as ‘an ideal Islamic state’, and the Saudi rulers are consistently depicted as the ‘ only true Muslims’. It does not come as a surprise then that the LeJ scholars remain assiduously silent on the publicly acknowledged decadence and corruption of the Saudis, their ‘un-Islamic private lives’, and their intimate ties with the US.
Furthermore inspite of their continuous parasitical political presence over the past few decades the LeJ seem to offer no specific solutions to the problems that beset the country or engage with the common man. Ultimately, even though its power-hungry agenda is articulated in theological terms, it is more reflective of political ambitions than religious ones. This is significant given that Islam is the haloed rationale for LeJ’s existence around which it rallies it’s sparse public following. Consequently, the Shia genocide being carried out by LeJ should not be seen as a Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict, framed in theological terms, but as a socio-political struggle between intolerant political Islam and an inclusive popular Islam. But while they have no significant popular social support, they are increasingly visible due to their disruptive violence that seems to be expanding phenomenally. The LeJ’s political status allows it’s militants to operate freely under the cover of it’s ostensibly respectable political facade. So much so that the notion of a meaningful moral or political separation between their radical religiosity and militant violence becomes harder to maintain or even define.
It is imprudent to expect any change through state policy, simply because actions of the state are at odds with its official narratives of rejecting militancy. Officially the state rejects sectarian terror, but behind the farcical attempts the successive regimes and mainstream political parties continues to collaborate with radical elements like the LeJ for their own objectives. Given the potent strength of such groups, the state’s power over such groups has been described as ‘a facade’ that could crack sooner or later’. Infact it is already questionable if the state has any control at all. Given their increased ability to raise funds globally through Saudi networks, groups like LeJ have become less dependent on direct state assistance and hence less amenable to state influence. The LeJ, seems aware of it’s strength and the state’s weaknesses. This can be ascertained from the impunity of their expanding operations with the lack of fear of any consequences. Unfortunately given the history of the present government’s alliances with such groups it seems irrational to hope of political action against them. In the past the PML-N has come up with pitiful excuses of lack of mandate and resources for its inability to take action against such extremism. Presently however there is no logical excuse left for the PML-N not to act, other than the appeasement of its Saudi benefactors.
The LeJ’s ‘successful’ violence is alarming but equally disturbing is the absence of concerted public-opinion and a lack of consensus among the mainstream society, regarding the ways in which to respond to such incendiary sectarian rhetoric. While there is no ambiguity about their subversive agenda (to ‘decimate Shias from Pakistan’) there seems to be a general confusion about dealing with their menace. A recent survey suggests that only one in every two Sunni Muslims in Pakistan considers Shias to be Muslims. In this sense there is a dire need for Pakistanis to educate themselves about the shared Islamic history and the tolerant diversity that is inherent in Islam.
Prevalent commentary on Pakistan continues to insist that the hatred Sunni groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological. In reality it has little to do with theology and everything to do with the politics of the times. Much is consequently being said about the need to accept and overcome religious ‘differences’ among both sects in Pakistan presently, but the exact nature or scale of these differences is hardly ever a point of reference . This is unfortunate because not very many people realize how similar Shi’ism and Sunnism are in theological terms. In this context, the very premise of such arguments seems intrinsically flawed, as it insists on portraying the Shia as the ‘other’. A few embellishments on matters regarding inheritance, commerce and personal status distinguish Shia jurisprudence from Sunni law. These few, visible differences between the two sects are mostly superficial in nature and informed more by politics and culture than theology. The actual distinction between Sunnism and Shi’ism is not theological details or legal practice but the underlying ethos which scholars describe as the predominant ‘spirit’ working behind these ‘rather minor divergences’. However these minor differences are upheld assiduously by the religious elite on both sides of the sectarian divide with an urgency that has more to do with identity politics and less with any ideological and theosophical constructs. In this sense the Shia ‘other’ is more a symbolic rather than a practical reality. Such information should invite honest introspection about the implications of continuing to see the Shia as the ‘other’ and allowing social-political representation to groups who have no understandable reason to exist in Pakistan.