The Ismaili Moslems who follow the Agha Khan, number about 13 million, similar to the Jews. They practise a moderate form of Islam.
New target for Pakistan's militants
By Ramtanu Maitra
Pakistan's Sunni militants, who were instrumental in bringing together the Afghan Taliban and Arab al-Qaeda organizations, have found fresh fodder in Pakistan. The militants' new target is the Ismailis, the followers of the Aga Khan.
In Pakistan's Northern Territories, which border China and Afghanistan and include a part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, Sunni militants shot and killed an Ismaili leader, Agha Ziauddin, on January 8. Ziauddin's killing, in Gilgit, sparked riots that left at least 15 dead. In December, two Sunni militants were arrested in connection with the killing of two employees of an Aga Khan aid agency in the remote northern town of Chitral bordering Afghanistan that same month.
The Ismailis are a branch of the Shi'ite Muslim sect that can be found in large numbers in Pakistan's Northern Territories, as well as in nearby Tajikistan's Pamir plateau. About 350,000 Ismailis live in Tajikistan and most of them reside in the Pamirs in the Gorno-Badkashan region of the country. In adjoining China's Xinjiang region, a large number of Ismailis live in virtual isolation from the Aga Khan-run international community.
Pakistan's Sunni militants, schooled in an orthodox Deobandi school of Islamic teaching, work hand-in-glove with the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. In fact, the political arm of the Sunni militants in Pakistan, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JII) and its student wing Islamic Jamiat Tulaba (IJT), are financed generously from Saudi Arabia. The JIl have been infiltrating the Pakistani military in large numbers since the 1980s, and played a very important role in bringing the Taliban militants to power in Afghanistan in 1996.
The killing of the Ismailis - who along with the Ahmadiyyas and Shi'ites are contemptuously considered heretics by orthodox Sunnis - was not carried out by JII cadres, but by any one of a number of Sunni terrorist groups, such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, among others. All of these groups function freely within Pakistan, despite bans "imposed" on them years ago by Islamabad.
Observers point out that the Northern Territory is strategically important; to the north is China, Tajikistan in its northwest, Afghanistan in the west and the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir is in the east. For strategic reasons, since the 1980s, Islamabad has allowed a large number of Sunnis and Wahhabi Maulvis to settle in the area, causing more distress to the locals. Noteworthy is that while the latest round of killings were going on, President General Pervez Musharraf did no more than helplessly declare a curfew in Skardu and Gilgit. No attempt was made to bring the killers to justice.
There are a number of reasons for Islamabad's posture of apparent helplessness. To begin with, it is clear that Musharraf appreciates the fact that one who lives in a glass house must not throw stones. Islamabad now resembles something between a glass house and a bunker. Too many disgruntled militants with connections to the all-powerful military are seeking revenge, and without a doubt Musharraf is also a target himself.
But it should not really be surprising to Islamabad that the Ismailis are now facing the Sunni militants' guns. Whether the events were planned is a moot question, but certain actions Islamabad has taken to please Washington are certainly a factor in directing the wrath of the Sunnis against the Ismailis.
The American prod
Since the1980s, Pakistan's education ministry has depended solely on the tuition-free madrassa system of religious education, funded by Saudi Arabia and other orthodox Sunnis, to see a large number of poor Pakistani children get to school. The theocratic education of Pakistan's orthodox madrassas was tailored to produce the leaders of the Taliban movement. The madrassas also produced the Sunni militants and others who protected the anti-American Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. But after the events of September 11, 2001, Washington had a great awakening: suddenly the madrassa system was perceived as pure evil that produces anti-American, Islamic militants.
After promoting militant orthodox Islam in the 1980s, with the help of Saudi Arabia, to expedite disintegration of the former Soviet Union and save the "free world", Washington set about to "fix" Pakistan's education system. Musharraf, boxed in from both sides, did not have many choices. Some claim that his will to survive and his confidence that he would be able to work around desperate Americans to ensure his political and physical survival persuaded him to give a green signal to the Americans, and he agreed to stop proliferation of Islamic madrassas. Washington, of course, was willing to pay for some of the costs. Musharraf had no intention of making any wholesale changes, and, in fact, last week permission was given to open new madrassas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Goaded by Washington, Musharraf last year approved the establishment of the Aga Khan Education Board in Pakistan. In May 2004, Prince Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili community, called on Musharraf at the Aiwan-i-Sadr (President House) in Islamabad. During this meeting, reports indicate the Pakistani president expressed his appreciation for the various philanthropic and development projects undertaken in Pakistan by the Aga Khan Foundation. He also praised the keen personal interest of Prince Karim Aga Khan in health, education and other welfare projects in the social sector.
A new economic and educational monopoly?
The prince and Musharraf discussed Pakistan's poverty. Prince Karim Aga Khan described First MicroFinance Bank Ltd, an effort of the Aga Khan Development Network to address the root causes of poverty. The bank's US$9 million capital is subscribed by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program and the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, and discussions regarding the involvement of the International Finance Corporation are at an advanced stage. "We are also actively reviewing the possibilities of initiating microfinance programs in Afghanistan, where we have begun discussions with international development agencies for potential partnerships," the Ismaili leader told Musharraf.