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By Zia Ur Rehman
KARACHI – Militant groups are gaining ground in the Sindh interior as more madrassas open, Sindh political and social activists say.
“The rise of militant-run madrassas is posing a threat to Sindh’s non violent Sufi landscape,” Salam Dharejo, a political analyst told Central Asia Online. “Due to the deep-rooted influence of Sufism, the militancy has never flourished in Sindh; however, the proliferation of militant elements is posing a threat to what has been a liberal Sindhi society for many years.”
The October 1 torching of 27 oil tankers near Shikarpur is evidence that militants are moving into Sindh, Dharejo said. The attack was the first of its kind in the region.
The people of Sindh typically reject aggression, militancy and extremism, said Dilshad Bhutto, a Sindhi intellectual who heads the Pakistan Secular Forum.
“Islam spread in the Sindh region through the preaching of great Sufis, not by Arab fighters,” Bhutto told Central Asia Online. Sufis spread a message of love, peace and interfaith harmony, he said.
Jihadi groups now active in Sindh
Banned jihadi organisations – especially Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi , which are linked with the defunct Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda – have become active across Sindh and are backing many madrassas, an intelligence officer who oversees anti-extremism in the Interior Sindh told Central Asia Online.
The banned sectarian groups are organizing public gatherings in which many of the participants are young madrassa students, the intelligence officer said. The banned groups also circulate militant literature among the students in an effort to restrict the independent thought processes of students.
In Khairpur District, hometown of Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, 93 of 117 seminaries are not registered with the government, said Imtiaz Hussain, a Sukker-based senior journalist.
Locals have concerns over the militant-run seminaries, he said, because they stir up fear of Talibanisation, Hussain added.
Despite the growing numbers of madrassas preaching militancy, the intelligence official said the government has no official data about the madrassas linked to banned groups.
However after a recent provincial government directive, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are now collecting such information in order to determine which madrassas should be shut down.
Militancy shows itself in several ways
Militant-run madrassas and influences have begun to appear in a number of ways, civil society activists say.
In February, students from local madrassas interrupted a musical show in the Thatta District and warned the organisers they would not allow what they consider to be anti-religious activities to take place.
In December, Dr. Noshad Valiyani, a physician, was severely beaten and dragged to a local police station by students from an SSP-linked madrassa in Hyderabad. He was falsely accused of committing blasphemy, said Dr. Habib-Ur-Rehman Soomro, a leader of Pakistan Medical Association.
Attacks on Hindus and forced conversions to Islam were once rare in Sindh, but in recent years, hundreds of Hindu girls have been forcibly converted, Dharejo said. In October 2009, Hindus in the Umer Kot area, where they comprise half the total population of the area, were attacked by Muslims. Many of the attackers were madrassa students, he said.
Madrassas influence students
Militant-backed madrassas lie at the root of the problem, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst and author, said during a February 8 presentation on “Militarisation and Terrorism” at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Karachi office.
“Today’s madrassas are quietly changing from what they were in the past,” Siddiqa said. “These institutions are not imparting religious education but rather are transforming the ideologies of students and preaching hatred and violence.”
“The country is witnessing today the phenomenon of ‘ideological jihadism,’ and the militants … want to enforce religion by the edge of a sword and overthrow the government by replacing it with a hardcore Wahhabi interpretation of Islam,” she said, adding that splinter groups are killing the innocent for no reason.
Any long-term solution to extremism must include regulation of the madrassas, especially those that preach religious and cultural intolerance, said Jan Mazari, a college instructor in the Jacobabad District.
A check on highly politicised madrassas will limit their capacity to socialise youth into religious orthodoxy and thus will make them less vulnerable to the appeals of militant groups, Mazari said.
In order to curb militancy in the province, Sindh’s civil society and secular political groups are going to launch a campaign against extremism, said Murad Pandarani, a social activist associated with the Pirbhat Women’s Development Society, a Shahdad Kot-based non-governmental organisation.
Calling for a consensus-based strategy aimed at preventing militancy, he said that the government and civil society both should start a joint struggle against the menace of extremism in Sindh.
Sindh is the land of great Sufi saints like Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and will not allow militancy to dominate the region, Taj Haider, Sindh government spokesman, said.
The government has devised a policy to monitor madrassas in Sindh and will take strict action against madrassas linked with banned militant organisations, he said.