Sectarianism in Pakistan: the radicalization of Shi'i and Sunni identities

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This essay is an enquiry into the context, nature, and significance of militant sectarian conflict in Pakistan. The parties to the conflict are the Sunnis, who constitute the majority of Muslims in Pakistan, and the Shi'a, a small but influential minority. Conflict between these two religious communities has deep roots in the history of Islam and of South Asia. In Pakistan, which aspires to be in some sense an 'Islamic state', sectarian conflict is part of, and interacts with, broader issues concerning the place of Islam in public life. This essay seeks to analyse some of the factors which have contributed, especially in the past 25 yr or so, to militant sectarian conflict in Pakistan and to assess the significance of this rather neglected form of Islamic radicalism. A remarkable configuration of political, social-economic, and religious developments has given it a new significance in contemporary Pakistan. Sectarian identities are in the process of being not just revived but, in many ways, also constructed and redefined. Some of the means of imparting a sense of a sectarian identity are relatively new. With vast quantities of sometimes scurrilous polemics always ready at hand, a print culture makes it possible, for instance, to discover a sectarian identity by perceiving, or imagining the existence of threats to it. In recent years, the production and dissemination of their own literature, and variously combating that of their rivals, have become major concerns of sectarian organisations in Pakistan. These organizations have emerged since the early 1980s and thus are themselves a new and powerful means at once of fostering sectarian identities and of expressing the, frequently with the threat or the actual use of violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)689-716
Number of pages28
JournalModern Asian Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1998
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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