Unraveling the Sectarian Divide: A Closer Look at Parachinar’s Conflict

Since several decades, Parachinar has unfortunately experienced sectarian violence, which has had a significant impact on the town and its inhabitants. Since the Turi Shia community is dominant in Parachinar, sectarian conflict arises mainly from differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The following years of sectarian violence in Kurram are 1961, 1971, 1987, 1996, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2023.

Geographical Location

Parachinar is a town located in the Kurram District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. It is located in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in the Kurram Valley. It is the closest place to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The history of the Parachinar region is vast and diverse. Numerous ethnic groups, including Pashtuns, Turi Shias, Bangash, and other tribes, have lived there in the past. 

Geographical History

Throughout history, the region has been influenced by a number of different empires and dynasties. Parachinar was governed by British colonial authorities after it joined British India in the 19th century. It served as an important hub for trade and commerce, linking diverse areas of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Parachinar was a part of Pakistan in the 20th century, when that nation won its independence from the British Empire in 1947. The town had a separate administrative structure from the rest of Pakistan, as did the rest of the FATA territory. Authorities called the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) an independent political and legal framework. In an effort to bring the FATA region under the control of the provincial government, the Pakistani government merged it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018. The FATA region was intended to be included in Pakistan’s primary political and administrative structures through this integration.

Historical Events

In recent years, Parachinar has experienced a number of difficulties, such as security concerns caused by militancy and sectarian conflict. The sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis in Kurram can be traced back to 1961. There were several small events in Kurram that led to bigger bloodshed and destruction. In 1961, the Shias were building a mosque in Parachinar when the Sunni community stopped its construction. In Sadda, where Shias were having a Muharram procession, some unidentified people fired at people, leaving many injured and killed. The Shia community accused Sunnis of this. However, these small events led to bigger conflicts in Kurram district. A local Jirga came forward and brought about a ceasefire. In 1971, tensions escalated between both parties when Sunnis started the construction of a minaret at Jamia Masjid Parachinar. The Shias stopped the construction and accused them of using it as a bunker during sectarian clashes. Also, this conflict was triggered by the arrest of a Shia leader, which resulted in protests and tensions between both communities. And these events resulted in many deaths and injuries. 

There is a uniqueness to conflicts in Kurram district in that small-scale rivalries often escalate into bigger sectarian conflicts. As in 1987, a Shia person kidnapped a Sunni person in Bushera (Sunni-dominant village) village near Parachinar and demanded from his family that unless his lost brother was brought back, he would not free him. The Jirga tried to resolve the issue but failed. Later, it turned into a bigger clash between Sunni and Shia villages. It resulted in large-scale injuries and deaths due to the use of heavy weapons. 

Political and ideological disputes, as well as external factors, were one of the primary causes of the sectarian strife in Parachinar during the 1990s. Tensions were fueled by differences in religious associations and beliefs between the Sunni and Shia communities. Violence was committed as a result of the dispute, including bombings, targeted attacks, and communal conflicts. Primarily, in 1996, some students wrote anti-Shia slurs on the blackboard at Government High School, Parachinar. The Shia students took the case to the Headmaster, who reported it to Assistant Political Agent Parachinar. The school was closed for a few days and then reopened. The elders tried to mitigate the issue, but both student groups started fighting and firing at school. Then this clash got out of the school and ended up in a bigger one. 

Violent combat, targeted attacks, and explosions marked the 2007 conflict, which resulted in a considerable loss of life on both sides. There were mainly two major struggles; one in April and one in November. In April, an unknown fired on Shia people when they were gathered for the Eid Milad un Nabi procession in Parachinar. It resulted in many deaths and injuries. They accused Sunnis of this incident, and a major sectarian strike started. The November incident is the most violent incident in Kurram district. In November, an unknown person fired at Sunni shopkeepers in the dark, leaving many injured. They suspected that it was a Shia person. Also, on one Friday, when people were coming out after offering Jumma prayer, an unknown person threw a hand grenade on people, resulting in several deaths and injuries. Afterwards, a great sectarian war started in the whole Kurram district. Also, many modern weapons were used in this strife, which continued for a few days. After this, the Pakistani army and other forces controlled the situation and imposed a curfew in the whole Kurram district.

The 2008 conflict also marked-large scale sectarian strife in Kurram district. There were again two violent events, one in April and the other in October. In April, a guy chanted objectionable slogans in the Eid Milad un Nabi procession, and at the end, there was firing, leaving several deaths and injuries. Also in October, a Shia-dominant village (Pewar) was attacked by militants, resulting in several injuries and deaths. After a few days, a Sunni-dominant village (Mangalan) was attacked by militants, resulting in a sectarian clash in Kurram district.

Numerous acts of violence between the Sunni and Shia communities occurred in different areas of Kurram in the years 2009, 2010, and 2011. Extremist organizations with sectarian goals continued to take advantage of the tensions between the two sects during this time, which resulted in bombings, confrontations, and targeted attacks in a number of places, including Parachinar. On May 4, 2023, a group of unknown gunmen entered a school where students were taking exams. They killed four Shia teachers and two Shia attendants. Also, another teacher from the same school gunned down a teacher on the road. Most of the teachers belonged to the Turi Shia sect. It escalated the sectarian tensions in Parachinar and continued for many days. The continuing existence of sectarian tensions was attributed to a number of factors, including poor governance, the involvement of militant elements, historical grievances, and external interference. 

Complex Factors Contributing to the Conflict

An intricate combination of local, national, and external forces plays a great role in the sectarian war in Parachinar. The regional tensions and bloodshed between the Sunni and Shia communities are a result of these elements collectively. 

Local elements involved in sectarian violence in Parachinar are essential to understand the complexities of the conflict in the region. These particular elements are important for preventing and escalating tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities. Local elements in Parachinar that contribute to sectarian violence include demographic composition, tribal structure, lack of trust, extremist groups, the availability of weapons, historical grievances, religious leadership, and tribal feuds. Shias make up the majority of the population in Parachinar, although Sunnis dominate the territories around it. This demographic disparity promotes the “us vs. them” mentality and fosters a sense of communal identity, which fuels sectarian tensions. The tribal system in Pakistan, which includes Parachinar, has a significant impact on the social and political dynamics in the area. Interactions between sectarian ties and tribal loyalties are frequently complex and intense. Sectarian conflicts and unsolved grievances between the Shia and Sunni groups have a history in Parachinar. Past acts of violence, such as violence and inequality, fuel a cycle of punishment that intensifies sectarian differences. Also, easy access to weapons through neighboring countries like Afghanistan, where there is already war going on, makes the environment more violent and destructive. 

National elements also play a significant role in sectarian violence in Parachinar and other regions of Pakistan. These elements are more extensive and involve national dynamics that affect the sectarian climate in the area. Some of the national elements that contribute to sectarian conflict in Parachinar are: state discriminatory policies, sectarian organizations, political exploitation, and weak rule of law, education system, and Zia’s Islamization. Zia’s Islamization has had a great impact on sectarianism in Pakistan. After his policies, people have gotten more aggressive and intolerant regarding such issues. Certain communities sometimes feel marginalized and discriminated against as a result of state actions that are regarded as favoring one sect over another in Pakistan. Allegations of unfair resource allocation and discriminatory law enforcement may worsen sectarian tensions. Also, numerous sectarian groups with radical beliefs have grown in strength in Pakistan. These organizations not only engage in violent acts themselves but also help radicalize locals and promote sectarian hatred. In order to win support, certain politicians and political parties may use harsh statements to take advantage of sectarian feelings. Further division and destruction may result from this. The curriculum at Pakistan’s educational institutions has occasionally come under criticism for encouraging stereotypes and sectarian biases. Biased educational materials can reinforce sectarian divisions and encourage intolerance. In the past, military operations in Pakistan’s tribal regions and elsewhere have occasionally had unexpected implications, such as civilian deaths and displacement, which may foster anger and provoke conflict.

Sectarian violence is significantly influenced by external elements in Parachinar and other areas of Pakistan. These elements include international dynamics that affect the sectarian climate in the area. Some of the main outside causes contributing to sectarian conflict in Parachinar are regional geopolitical rivalries, the influence of Middle Eastern states, funding from foreign sources, a cross-border militant network, Afghan conflict and refugee influx, and the involvement of non-state actors. Due to its proximity to Iran and Afghanistan’s borders, Parachinar is particularly prone to intra-regional geopolitical conflicts. As part of their larger plans, many regional countries may sponsor sectarian organizations in Pakistan, aggravating sectarian tensions. Pakistan has been impacted by sectarian strife in the Middle East, and Parachinar is not spared from this influence. Existing tensions may be made worse by Middle Eastern nations’ assistance to sectarian organizations in Pakistan. Sectarian groups in Parachinar may receive financial and logistical help from third parties, enabling them to carry out violent attacks and continue their operations. Cross-border networks that facilitate the movement of combatants, weapons, and resources may be developed by militant groups with sectarian goals, which would contribute to the increase in violence in the area. Also, over the years, an influx of Afghan refugees has arrived in Parachinar as a result of the turmoil in that country. Large refugee numbers can put a burden on resources and increase social and economic tensions, which may be exploited by extremists. 

Effective Strategies and Solutions

It is necessary to have a holistic approach that considers these regional, societal, and international variables in order to address the sectarian violence in Parachinar. It includes encouraging inter-sectarian dialogues, ensuring border security, opposing extremist ideology, building local government, enhancing economic prospects, and cooperating diplomatically with regional parties to address external factors. Also, the government should start some reconciliation initiatives in Kurram district to overcome the hostility among different villages and sects. The tribal elders should be encouraged not to use provocative language or speeches that can cause disparity in the area and to use their influence to bring peace and unity to the area. The government should guarantee quick and impartial justice for all crimes involving sects. To successfully prevent and address sectarian violence and give all citizens a sense of security, the state should enhance its law enforcement and judicial systems. The state should start inclusive initiatives to disarm sectarian organizations and stop the spread of illicit weapons. This will lessen the likelihood of violent encounters and rebuild public confidence in the security services. Promote appropriate coverage among media sources, refrain from sensationalizing sectarian issues, and highlight examples of interfaith harmony and understanding. Promoting peace and security in the region also requires strengthening national solidarity and countering polarizing narratives.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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