Chitral: A Portrait of Sectarian Tension in Pakistan

CHITRAL, PAKISTAN — Three hours after Friday prayers on April 21, 2017, thousands of people gathered in front of the Chitral police station, intent on killing a man named Rasheed. They were trying to enter the police station to get to him, but the police officers were taking stringent measures to protect Rasheed from the outraged mob. While the police discharged their weapons in the air and dispersed tear gas, the furious mob demanded that the police either handover Rasheed to them, or give him the death penalty on the spot.

Rasheed was accused of making blasphemous comments. During the Friday sermons in Shahi mosque, he stood up and tried to snatch the microphone from the imam, who leads the prayers. Though he failed to grab the microphone, Rasheed claimed prophethood in a loud voice.

As soon as Rasheed spoke, the worshipers present in the mosque inched toward him to beat him to death but the imam, Khaleeq-Uz-Zaman, dispersed the worshipers while locking Rasheed up in a room. Without wasting time, Zaman called the police, who came and took Rasheed to the police station.

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The news of Rasheed claiming prophethood spread like wildfire in the city. Three hours later, a bloodthirsty mob had surrounded the police station. At last, security forces succeeded in dispersing them.

“The imam cheated us. He should not have protected the enemy of Islam and a blasphemous person, who deserves death,” an eyewitness, who requested anonymity, told The Diplomat. “He [the imam] told us that he would hand over Rasheed to us after talking to him in private, but cunningly, he called the police to save the life of an infidel.”

From the mesmerizing icy mountain peaks to the green forests to the roaring Chitral River, a sense of fear and insecurity looms over this beautiful valley. Chitral is the largest district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It shares a border with Afghanistan to the northwest and with Gilgit-Baltistan to the east.

There are two major Muslim sects in the district: Sunnis (which make up 65 percent of the local population) and Ismailis, followers of a branch of Shia Islam (35 percent). The Kalash people, who once were the rulers of the district, now are a minority. There are fewer than 4,000 Kalasha in the district, which has a total population of 447,362.

Sectarian violence is one the most pressing issues in Pakistan, and Chitral is no exception. The valley seems to be inching toward religious discord. But more disturbing is that political-religious parties are fueling the fire rather than promoting religious harmony.

Vote for the Book

A few weeks after Pakistan’s general election, held on July 25, we left for a reporting trip to the northwestern part of Pakistan. Chitral city was the first stop. While roaming in the city, I asked our driver which party had emerged victorious in the district.

He replied with a smile, “MMA,” meaning Muttahida Majlis e Amal. The MMA is an alliance of religious-cum-political parties that took part in the election through a single platform.

The MMA had dismissed the general elections as rigged, but in Chitral district they won both provincial and national seats.

“Whom did you vote for?” my colleague asked the driver.

“Of course, I cast my vote for the book and Islam,” said the driver with confidence. A book is the election symbol of the MMA, but “the book” is usually a reference to the Quran.

“How could I vote for a non-Muslim candidate?” the driver asked back.

We were in a state of shock but said nothing.

He added, “Despite the fact I love Imran Khan [now Pakistan’s prime minister], I did not vote for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf because he offered a seat to a Ismaili, non-Muslim.”

Mosques were used for political purposes during the general elections. Ismaili candidates, in particular, were declared non-Muslims. “In all of Chitral, it was announced that the elections are [a contest] between Muslims and non-Muslims,” or believers and nonbelievers, said Shahzada Hasnat, president of the All Pakistan Muslim League. “The most commonly used phrase in the election was that any Muslims who would not vote for the book will burn in hell.”

Shahi Mosque in Chitral. Photo by Rabia Bugti

Politics of Extremism

Across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), from Peshawar to Malakand division to Chitral, religious-leaning political parties use the language of “believers” vs. “nonbelievers” to grab votes.

Saleem Khan, a former provincial minister from Chitral, is from the Ismaili community. He was the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidate in the district, and his religious identity seems to have been a major factor in his defeat. He was declared a nonbeliever by his political opponents; there were even rumors accusing him of blasphemy. Khan denied all the speculation.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Saleem Khan said, “In KP, Balochistan, and many parts of the Pakistan, they use these tactics for defeating their political opponents. But they have succeeded in Chitral, which is worrisome. They used mosques against me. Even my Sunni followers were not allowed to enter into many mosques in the valley.”

Khan wrote to the Election Commission of Pakistan about the issue but no action was taken. He said that he informed deputy commissioner of Chitral, who led the election monitoring committee in the district, but no action was taken.

“More than my defeat in the election I am worried about the rising intolerance and extremism in Chitral,” said Khan, in an incredulous tone.

Both sects see each other with suspicious eyes. There is a lack of trust and communication between them. The lack of integration leads to conflict, and political parties manipulate the schism.

When it comes to accusations of blasphemy, Pakistan’s political parties keep silent. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was famously gunned down by one of his own body guards; the reason for the murder was Taseer’s alleged blasphemous remarks. Even his own party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), distanced itself from the case. Taseer’s killing was symptomatic of the widespread religious intolerance and fanaticism in Pakistan.

Taseer was not the only person to be killed over this controversial issue; the list of victims is long. But it is very disturbing to see that Pakistani political parties are not ready to take on the issue, even seven years after Taseer’s assassination.

A few weeks ago, the PTI, now the ruling party of Pakistan, succumbed to pressure from religious parties and withdrew the name of world-renowned economist Atif Mian from the government’s Economic Advisory Council. Why? Because Mian is an Ahmadi, who are non-Muslims according to the Constitution of Pakistan.

Back in Chitral district, sectarian suspicions are even scuttling necessary development projects.

Aga Khan University bought a piece of land in Jughor, Chitral with the intention of establishing a subcampus of the university there. Sunni residents resisted the move. Aga Khan is a title used by the imam of the Ismaili community, who runs the Aga Khan Development Network.

“The district chief propagated hatred in the minds of our Sunni brothers, who did not allow for establishing the university. So the university sold the land which was bought,” Saleem Khan explained. He further said that there have been many developmental projects which were rejected and termed “haram” – forbidden by Islamic law — because they were initiated by the Aga Khan Development Network.

Around 20,000 households are being provided electricity by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). But many Sunnis refuse to use that electricity, said Khan. “Not only this, there was a big project of building female schools in the district, but our Sunni fellows called it a conspiracy against them and did not allow the construction of schools on their lands.”

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture even spoke to the Mehtar, or prince, of Chitral with an offer to reconstruct and save the ancient Fort of Chitral and open it to the public. The trust has already preserved and opened Altit and Baltit Forts for tourists but the prince declined the offer.

Chitral Fort, which was built by Nadir Shah in the 14th century, is situated on the banks of the Chitral River, with astonishing views. But now it is in dilapidated condition. Its very small gate, which hardly could welcome person at one time, was blocked by a guard. “You can’t enter without permission,” he said gruffly.

After showing the permission card, we entered into Chitral Fort. The first thing we saw were the rusted iron cannons placed in a row. The guard did not allow us to walk around the fort because it was closed to the public.

We were told by people in the valley that the prince did not accept the Aga Khan Trust’s offer because of mounting pressures from the Sunni community. As a result, an ancient piece of national heritage is going to ruin because one Muslim sect is reluctant to let another sect preserve it.

Rusted cannons in Chitral Fort. Photo by Rabia Bugti.

Back to the City

As we were preparing to leave for Islamabad, I called on Hasnat, the president of the All Pakistan Muslim League, again. I wanted to know more about Rasheed’s case.

Hasnat said that Rasheed, who was arrested for making blasphemous remarks, has been shifted to a jail in Mardan due to security reasons. Rasheed is now known as Gustaak e Rasool, the blasphemer, in town. He is detested and some want to kill him if he ever is released from jail.

Hasnat added, “It is worth noting that Rasheed is a mentally challenged person. He was deported from Qatar, where he worked, because he had mental and psychological issues.”

“Was he psychologically unfit?” I asked.

“Yes, he was. And still, he is,” replied Hasnat.

Saleem Khan, the former PPP minister, also seconded Hasnat’s argument that Rasheed had mental issues. He further added that “health specialists have conceded it.”

The 20-some people, who led the mob against Rasheed and demanded his death are being called lovers of the last prophet. They were released one month after their siege of the police station.

“They were given a heroic reception on their release in Chitral,” said a politician from Chiltan, who did not want to be named. “All political parties struggled for their release. Whether those were opposition parties or the ruling ones, secular or religious, all were on the same page on this issue.

“We wanted them to be released because people loved them. And no party wants to lose its vote bank for siding with a blasphemer, even if he is abnormal.”

An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Saleem Khan as a PTI candidate. 

Shah Meer Baloch is a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign and Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/IFA), and a freelance writer.

Rabia Bugti is a student of MS Journalism at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism in IBA. She is a photo journalist and video maker.