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Sectarian War: Pakistan's Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East

Khaled Ahmed, Pakistan Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Consulting Editor, The Friday Times and The Daily Times; Yitzhak Nakash, 2006-07 Carnegie Corporation Scholar and former Wilson Center Fellow

Date & Time

May. 2, 2007
2:30pm – 4:00pm ET


In today's Middle East, the fault lines of conflict are increasingly sectarian. Iraq is aflame in Sunni-Shia Muslim violence; divisions along sectarian lines hamper political reconciliation in Lebanon; and the Sunni Gulf states face restive Shia minorities. And yet while Shia-Sunni unrest has arguably become a defining element of Middle Eastern politics, it has also spread to Pakistan—a Sunni-Muslim majority nation whose Shia minority may constitute as much as 20 percent of the total population. Pakistanis are "in denial" about the sectarianism in their country, according to Khaled Ahmed, yet the reality is that thousands of Pakistani Shia have died in sectarian violence.

Ahmed, speaking at a May 2 Asia Program event cosponsored by the Middle East Program, argued that Pakistan is not a truly sectarian country; Sunnis and Shia largely "don't hate each other" and most of the internecine violence is restricted to portions of some cities like Karachi and Quetta and in the provinces of Punjab and Northwest Frontier. Why, then, does a nonsectarian nation suffer sectarian strife? The answer, says Ahmed, is that Pakistan has become a "relocated battlefield" for the Sunni-Shia violence of the Middle East. Prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Pakistan's Shia minority was unresponsive to Iran's radical Shia ideology. Instead, many Pakistani Shia clerics studied in the Iraqi Shia city of Najaf and developed views at variance with those of Iran's revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet Iran's Shia-led revolution kindled a sectarian fervor that eventually spread to Pakistan. Pakistani Shias began training at the Iranian holy city of Qom. Pakistani authorities used jihadist militias in their proxy wars. And the seminaries that trained the jihadists began apostatizing through the issuing of fatwas. Later, questions arose as to whether Shias were responsible for the mysterious death of Pakistani leader Zia ul-Haq in 1988. Sectarianism has increased in Pakistan during the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Ahmed contended, because the Pakistani president is unable to control Pakistan's "ungovernable spaces," into which non-Pakistani sectarian-minded groups are entering and which may comprise as much as 60 percent of Pakistani territory.

Ahmed argued that some aspects of Pakistan's national identity have stoked its sectarian sentiment. After 1947, Pakistani leaders identified "exemplary personalities of the past." These people were anti-Hindu—yet also anti-Shia. In effect, the Pakistani state was "lionizing" sectarian personalities. Similarly, following independence, Pakistan's flag changed from an all-green shade to one that featured a white patch next to the green, meant to denote Pakistan's minority sects. Yet instead of representing national inclusion, this patch became a symbol of Pakistan's exclusion of minorities. A constitutional amendment was passed in 1974 allowing minority communities to be "excludable," and Pakistan's parliament declared that followers of the Ahmediyya sect of Islam were non-Muslim.

Ahmed's presentation underscored that Pakistan's sectarian violence is part of a "transplanted war," and that understanding this war requires a comprehension of sectarian divides across the Middle East. In his commentary, Yitzhak Nakash provided case studies of two different manifestations of sectarianism in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Sunni minority ruled over the Shia majority (and Kurdish minority) for 80 years until Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003. The Shias' resulting rise has reinforced sectarian struggle, which Nakash described as a political battle over the right to rule and how to define nationalism. Until the Iran-Iraq War, Iraqis—like Pakistanis—denied their sectarian problem, instead attributing it to the legacy of foreign rule. Conversely, in Lebanon, sectarianism has long been accepted as a "fact of life." This attitude accounts for the willingness in Lebanon to establish political parties along sectarian lines. The Taif Accord of 1990 (which ended Lebanon's civil war) codified what is known as the fragile "confessional" system, under which Lebanon's 17 sects are organized along communal lines and governed by a pact arrived at by mutual agreement. Ultimately, Nakash averred, sectarian tensions have long existed in both Iraq and Lebanon—yet they have been exacerbated by external interventions.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Assistant
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020


Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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