Sectarian violence: Pakistan’s greatest security threat?

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Pakistan is experiencing a sharp resurgence in sectarian violence. Most frequently, such violence involves clashes between members of the two main sects of Islam – Sunnis and Shias – but violent incidents between the Barelvi and Deobandi sub-sects of Sunni Islam are also on the rise. The heightened frequency and brutality of Sunni-Shia clashes threaten national security – Pakistan’s is the second-largest Shia population in the world after Iran – as well as bilateral relations with Iran and the regional power dynamic vis-à-vis Saudi Arabian influence.

The current resurgence of sectarian violence can be traced to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the mid-2000s and this organisation’s growing ties with militant sectarian organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; as such, sectarian violence is arguably the most dangerous fallout for Pakistan of the U.S.-led war against terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan. Sectarian violence has spread across the country and is increasingly directed at disenfranchised targets such as Balochistan’s Hazaras (an ethnic minority) and worshippers at Sufi shrines.

The government’s continuing failure to dismantle militant groups, enforce bans on hate speech and sectarian propaganda, improve the criminal justice system, and reform the madrassas has allowed sectarianism to thrive. In the absence of a comprehensive state crackdown, sectarian violence threatens to worsen Pakistan’s fragile security situation.