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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Saudi Arabia Has Devastated Pakistan’s History of Religious Tolerance and Diversity


Kamal Alam
June 3rd, 2015

Since Pakistan’s founding, religion, namely Islam, has fundamentally defined its political affairs. Despite this reality, however, Pakistan has historically accommodated its rich and long-standing history of Buddhist and mystic cultures, both of which predate the arrival of Islam around 720 CE. Indeed, for the first few decades of its existence, Pakistan was largely tolerant of its religious minority groups.

Since the 1980s, however, a more stringent political Sunni-Islam, imported from Saudi Arabia, has come to replace Pakistan’s culturally tolerant version of the faith. The rise of this new form of Islam was a product of a political alliance between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that began in the 1970s. As a result of this relationship, Pakistan’s various religious and ethnic groups, particularly Christians and Shi’as, have been the victims of increasing attacks in the country.

How Pakistan’s Regional Politics Bred Sectarianism

Following the struggle for independence in 1947, Pakistan quickly emerged as a leading military, economic, and cultural center in the wider Middle East and West Asia. Its religious and ethnic diversity contributed to its success, with its most significant minority groups comprising Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians, among others.

This diversity was reflected across various political and cultural fields. The founder of the Pakistani state, its first President, and some of the country’s earliest military chiefs were Sunni and Shi’a. Prominent academics, human rights activists, and military figures were Christian, particularly during the 1960s. Other high-ranking figures, including the Nobel Prize winner Abdus Salam, were from the Ahmadiya sect.

Pakistan’s political, military, economic, and cultural prowess also meant that, for much of its history, it enjoyed strong relationships with a diverse range of Arab countries, including Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and Libya.

During the Arab wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, former Syrian President Hafez al Assad received substantial help from Pakistani pilots who helped fly Syrian aircraft and bring down Israeli planes. The Pakistani military went on to become a major trainer for the Syrian Air Force, regularly exchanging officers and providing military equipment to the Syrian regime.

Between 1970 and 1971, during the Jordanian civil war known as “Black September,” the Jordanian government deployed the Pakistani military to fight members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The events led to the permanent expulsion of Palestinian fighters from Jordan, which ultimately strengthened Pakistani-Jordanian relations.

When Gulf States were still in an embryonic state, throughout the 1960s and 70s, Pakistan was a driving force behind the development of infrastructure and military in these countries. Throughout this period, the Gulf’s rising elite, including former Crown Prince Muqrin and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, studied at Pakistan’s top boarding schools, army and air force academies, and staff colleges.

Ultimately, however, it was this growing affinity between Pakistan and the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, that gave rise to waves of anti-Shi’a and anti-Christian sectarianism in Pakistani society.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan: a Growing Friendship

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Pakistan dates back as far as 1969 when the Kingdom requested that Pakistan fly Saudi jets to support Yemeni Royalists against Southern Yemeni dissidents in the Yemeni civil war. A report by the Brookings Center observed that, “In the 1970s and 1980s up to 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in the kingdom, some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border. The close ties continue between the militaries today.”

Several coinciding regional events in the 1970s and 80s brought Saudi-Pakistani relations to a crescendo: the overthrow of Iran’s Shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, accompanying rise in Shi’a militantism, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, all of which posed a major threat to Saudi Arabia’s regional power.

By pouring money into Pakistan’s political and military leadership, Saudi Arabia hoped to brace itself for what it perceived to be a coming Shiite threat. In fact, Zia ul Haq, who was president of Pakistan between 1977 and 1988, as well as current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have received significant financial backing from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also financed the growth of various groups, including Jamat ud Dawa, Sipe Sahaba, and the Pakistani Taliban, – which also received patronage from the Sharif and ul Haq families – that have grown increasingly hostile toward religious minorities over the last few decades.

These events marked the beginning of what has become a lasting relationship, threatening Pakistan’s diverse religious fabric.

Nawaz Sharif and the Continuation of Saudi’s Legacy in Pakistan

Saudi Arabia’s continuing influence in Pakistan is largely a function of its strong relationship with the country’s elite. Nawaz Sharif, who was re-elected as prime minister in July 2013 after over a decade in exile in the Kingdom, has made no attempt to hide his penchant for his Sunni-Muslim friend, Saudi Arabia.

Despite Pakistan’s strong military and counter-intelligence ties to Syria’s ruling al-Assad family, Sharif put this five-decade old relationship on ice following heavy pressure from the Saudi Crown Prince Salman. Sharif went as far as to declare that Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government had lost credibility, demanding he step down.

Likewise, Sharif has revealed his overt support for Lebanon’s Hariri family, a prominent Sunni-Muslim family with close political and economic ties to Saudi Arabia. Sharif received help from the Hariri family during his years in Saudi exile.

But the most barefaced moment in Sharif’s Sunni-bias was when he supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention into Bahrain to suppress the on-going popular uprisings, which included various Shiits members of the Bahraini population. In return, Bahrain has naturalized Pakistani Sunni-Muslim families, particularly those associated with the Pakistani military and security service.

In a sense, Saudi Arabia already views Pakistan’s military and nuclear arsenal as part of its own repertoire of assets. And although Saudi officials would likely deny such claims, they see Pakistan as their right hand in dealing militarily with regional crises and responding to a perceived Shiite threat.

Given Sharif’s long-standing affinity toward Saudi Arabia, it is unsurprising that Pakistan initially indicated it would support the latest Saudi-led military attack on Yemen. It was only after opposition parties in Pakistan objected to the move’s unconstitutionality that Sharif withdrew military backing.

This was immediately followed by furious backlash from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose foreign minister publicly insulted Pakistan for the change in position. When Sharif’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, criticized the UAE in response, Sharif downgraded him. Since then, Sharif has made a number of visits to Saudi Arabia, in which he repeatedly reassured his Saudi partners that Pakistan would help enforce a blockade on Yemen and potentially help devise a new battle plan for Saudi intervention in the country.

The Sharif Family – Saudi Arabia’s Puppet Regime?

Since the 1960s, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Pakistan has evolved to resemble that of a master and a puppet. While Sharif has remained close to the Saudi regime since he first received the Kingdom’s support in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and the GCC States have exercised their military relationship with Pakistan with growing bravado. This has including trying to covertly purge the Pakistani military off Shi’a elements.

Sharif’s sectarian, pro-Saudi bias and his involvement in the attack on Yemen could potentially escalate this sectarianism domestically as well as regionally. Iran, for its part, is likely alarmed by Pakistan’s growing pro-Sunni bias. As Pakistan’s 40 million Shi’as are abandoned by the state and increasingly the targets of sectarian violence, Iran may begin actively helping this population, with potentially disastrous consequences for the region. Meanwhile, Christians, Ahmadis, and Buddhists, amongst other religious minorities, will continue to be exposed to rising sectarian attacks without anyone to protect them.

Against this backdrop, the country’s opposition parties and various intellectuals have spoken out against Sharif’s political gambit. Ultimately, however, Sharif and his proxies are likely to remain under the grip of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This begs the question: to what extent is Sharif willing to develop relations with Saudi Arabia, at the expense of religious tolerance in his own country?

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