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KARACHI: When Aurangzeb Farooqi survived an attempt on his life that left six of his bodyguards dead and a six-inch bullet wound in his thigh, the Pakistani cleric lost little time in turning the narrow escape to his advantage. Recovering in hospital after the ambush on his convoy in Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital, the radical Sunni Muslim ideologue was composed enough to exhort his followers to close ranks against the city’s Shias.
“Enemies should listen to this: my task now is Sunni awakening,” Farooqi said in remarks captured on video shortly after a dozen gunmen opened fire on his double-cabin pick-up truck on December 25.
“I will make Sunnis so powerful against Shias that no Sunni will even want to shake hands with a Shia,” he said, propped up in bed on emergency-room pillows. “They will die their own deaths, we won’t have to kill them.”
Such is the kind of speech that chills members of Pakistan’s Shia minority, braced for a new chapter of persecution following a series of bombings that have killed almost 200 people in the city of Quetta since the beginning of the year.
While the Quetta carnage grabbed world attention, an inquiry into a lesser known spate of murders in Karachi, a much bigger conurbation, suggests the violence is taking on a volatile new dimension as a small number of Shias fight back.
Pakistan’s Western allies have traditionally been fixated on the challenge posed to the brittle, nuclear-armed state by Taliban militants battling the army in the bleakly spectacular highlands on the Afghan frontier.
But a cycle of tit-for-tat killings on the streets of Karachi points to a new type of threat: a campaign by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and allied Pakistani anti-Shia groups to rip open sectarian fault-lines in the city of 18 million people.
Police suspect LeJ, which claimed responsibility for the Quetta blasts, and its sympathisers may also be the driving force behind the murder of more than 80 Shias in Karachi in the past six months, including doctors, bankers and teachers.
In turn, a number of hardline Sunni clerics who share Farooqi’s suspicion of the Shia sect have been killed in drive-by shootings or barely survived apparent revenge attacks. Dozens of Farooqi’s followers have also been shot dead. Discerning the motives for any one killing is murky work in Karachi, where multiple armed factions are locked in a perpetual all-against-all turf war, but detectives suspect an emerging Shia group known as the Mehdi Force is behind some of the attacks on Farooqi’s men.
While beleaguered secularists and their Western friends hope Pakistan will mature into a more confident democracy at general elections due in May, the spiral of killings in Karachi, a microcosm of the country’s diversity, suggests the polarising forces of intolerance are gaining ground.
“The divide is getting much bigger between Shia and Sunni. You have to pick sides now,” said Sundus Rasheed, who works at a radio station in Karachi. “I’ve never experienced this much hatred in Pakistan.” Once the proud wearer of a silver Shia amulet her mother gave her to hang around her neck, Rasheed now tucks away the charm, fearing it might serve not as protection, but mark her as a target.
Fully recovered from the assassination attempt, Farooqi can be found in the cramped upstairs office of an Islamic seminary tucked in a side-street in Karachi’s gritty Landhi neighbourhood, an industrial zone in the east of the city. On a rooftop shielded by a corrugated iron canopy, dozens of boys wearing skull caps sit cross-legged on prayer mats, imbibing a strict version of the Deobandi school of Sunni that inspires both Farooqi and the foot-soldiers of LeJ.
“We say Shias are infidels. We say this on the basis of reason and arguments,” Farooqi, a wiry, intense man with a wispy beard and cascade of shoulder-length curls, said. “I want to be called to the Supreme Court so that I can prove using their own books that they are not Muslims.”
Farooqi, who cradled bejewelled prayer beads as he spoke, is the Karachi head of a Deobandi organisation called Ahle Sunnat wal Jama’at. That is the new name for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a forerunner banned in 2002 in a wider crackdown on militancy by then army ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Farooqi says he opposes violence and denies any link to LeJ, but security officials believe his supporters are broadly aligned with the heavily armed group, whose leaders deem murdering Shias an act of piety.
In the past year, LeJ has prosecuted its campaign with renewed gusto, emboldened by the release of Malik Ishaq, one of its founders, who was freed after spending 14 years in jail in July, 2011. Often pictured wearing a celebratory garland of pink flowers, Ishaq has since appeared at gatherings of supporters in Karachi and other cities.Reuters