To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

by Nicholas Schmidle


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Nicholas Schmidle beat the Pakistani army into Taliban country. In October 2007, just weeks before thousands of troops backed by helicopters and artillery fire marched into the Swat valley to battle the gang of Talibs who had taken over the region, Schmidle rode into the town of Mingora on a public bus. Having spent the previous two years traveling throughout Pakistan, Schmidle drove through Taliban-manned checkpoints and then took a zip line into a militant camp.

Schmidle's telling of his adventures, aided by his own deep knowledge of Pakistan's history, illuminates the many reasons why Pakistan will both continue to grab headlines and show itself to be essential to America's own security.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805089387
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 9.52(w) x 6.42(h) x 0.95(d)

About the Author

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He writes for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, and The New Republic, among other publications, and received the 2008 Kurt Schork Award for freelance journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife.

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To Live or to Perish Forever

Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

By Nicholas Schmidle

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2009 Nicholas Schmidle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8590-1



THE THOUGHT OF BEING KIDNAPPED CROSSED MY MIND MORE THAN once. We trailed a member of an outlawed Islamic militant group back to his madrassa. He said we would never find the place on our own and so he offered to lead us there. Rafi drove and I sat in the passenger seat. I had met Rafi, a fortysomething journalist, about an hour earlier at the Karachi Press Club. The club teemed with hacks, drunks, and charlatans, no matter the time of day. I was never sure exactly how to classify Rafi who, during later excursions, sipped from a bottle of booze stashed in the backseat of his car. But he knew Karachi well, and he brought another pair of eyes — and years of experience — to detect when something was off. That, and he had previously met Qari Shafiqur Rahman, a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba. Rahman rode on a motorcycle a few meters ahead of us. Sipah-e-Sahaba, or Army for the Companions of the Prophet, was one of the biggest Sunni jihadi militias in Pakistan.

A few minutes earlier, we had all rendezvoused in front of a small, oilsplattered garage and auto parts store beside the main road. "We are here," Rafi said into his phone, to Shafiqur on the other end. "In the blue car."

Shafiqur steered onto a dirt path behind the garage that connected to a maze of unmarked tracks in a bedraggled slum of Karachi. At each juncture, Shafiqur swiveled his husky frame to check that we were still close behind. While this gesture was somewhat comforting, with each passing minute, and each new turn, I became more and more lost, confused which direction we had come from or how we would get out. I wish I could have been relaxed enough at the time to appreciate the trip as a metaphor for my experience in Pakistan — led by strangers into an ever more mystifying labyrinth. Instead, as Shafiqur took us deeper into the slum, I wondered anxiously — though perhaps more sensibly — where we were going and what awaited us there. Four years earlier, Daniel Pearl had been kidnapped and killed while seeking out jihadis in Karachi. His ghost hovered over the city.

Shafiqur sputtered past rows of drab, baked-mud homes with rivers of sewage flowing nearby, and he eventually parked his motorcycle in front of a one-story brick structure. He hopped off his bike and stood, a man of medium height, wearing a white shalwar kameez and crocheted prayer cap. He pointed to a sliver of shade against a building for Rafi to park under.

"Should I say that I am Canadian or something?" I asked Rafi, just before we opened the doors.

Rafi laughed. "It doesn't matter. To these guys, you are all infidels," he said. "And anyway, it will be interesting to see his reaction when we say that you are an American."

Shafiqur, as it turned out, considered Americans, Canadians, and all other "crusaders" legitimate targets, but he saved most of his vitriol for Shi'ites. His outfit, Sipah-e-Sahaba, had carved out a niche for itself among the myriad jihadi groups in Pakistan by campaigning to make Pakistan an explicitly Sunni state. (Sunnis make up roughly 80 percent of Pakistanis, with Shi'ites comprising about 15 percent.) They branded Shi'ites as kafir, or infidels, and frequently killed them.

Theological differences had split the Islamic community into Sunnis and Shia more than fourteen hundred years ago. A fight broke out after the Prophet Mohammad's death, in 632, over who should succeed him as leader of the Muslims. Those who became known as Sunnis argued that the title should be given to one of the sahabas, or companions, of the Prophet; they nominated Abu Bakr. Those who became known as Shi'ites contended that the Prophet had already tapped Ali, his son-in-law, for the role, and that Mohammad wished to keep the leadership within the family. Shia Ali, or the Party of Ali, lost the debate. The first three caliphs, or leaders, came and went, but Ali remained out of power. When he finally did assume the title of caliph, a chunk of Muslims refused to acknowledge his rule, and the schism widened. A Sunni assassin eventually stabbed Ali with a poison-tipped sword.

Twenty years after Ali's death, with the Shi'ites committed to armed opposition against the majority Sunni leadership, Ali's youngest son, Hussein, set out to avenge his father's death. The Shia believed that Hussein belonged to the same infallible lineage of imams, or leaders, as did the Prophet Mohammad and Ali. And so, as legend goes, Hussein mounted a white horse along with seventy-two of his male and female followers and marched toward Kufa, a city in modern-day Iraq where his rivals sat. On the way, a detachment of nearly four thousand Sunni warriors met Hussein in the desert, near the Euphrates River, outside of a town called Karbala. For a week, the larger army besieged Hussein's camp, denying them access to water. On the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, Hussein led his withered, outmanned force into battle. Hussein was killed, and his forces lost everything — including the horses, the women, and the children. To this day, Shi'ites consider Karbala the final, decisive break between the two communities.

Sunni Arabs soon began expanding their empire beyond the Arabian peninsula. In 711, a teenage Arab general named Mohammad bin Qasim landed his invading force on the beach near present-day Karachi, along the coastline of the Arabian Sea, and quickly proceeded north up the Indus River. Qasim was more interested in seizing on economic opportunities, however, than religious ones, and a few hundred years later, Shia missionaries swept into the area, proselytizing their own interpretation of Islam. The pendulum swung back and forth for centuries, as Sunni and Shia preachers competed for followers. Those who attracted the largest following, the Sufi mystics who arrived from Central Asia and the Middle East, straddled the ideological line between Sunni and Shia beliefs. They often synthesized local religious and cultural traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, with Islamic precepts.

During the period of the British Raj in the nineteenth century, a handful of new sects within the Sunni tradition emerged. Some historians contend that this development reflected the British goal to divide and conquer their colonial subjects. Three out of the four dominant sects of Sunni Islam in modern Pakistan — Deobandi, Bareilvi, and ahle-Hadith — formed in the late nineteenth century. Contemporary Sunni militancy in Pakistan, exemplified by the Taliban and groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, all trace their ideology back to Darul Uloom Deoband, a madrassa in Deoband, India. From the outset, the Deobandis have been virulently anti-Shia. They deem the Shi'ites adoration of Ali, Hussein, and the other imams as bi'da, the Arabic term for "innovation," suggesting deviance from orthodox beliefs.

Despite the historical tensions, sectarian differences played little role at the time Pakistan came into being. For instance, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the country's founding father, was a Shia. "The Muslim League was as Shia as it was Sunni. It was a common movement. There was no rift in the early years," explained Husain Jafri, a political scientist at the Aga Khan University in Karachi. I asked him how these tensions escalated to the point where they are today. "You can't separate sectarianism in Pakistan from global politics."

Jafri described the Islamic Revolution in Iran as the starting point. In early 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran. Khomeini touted the significance of Iran's revolution, and emboldened Shi'ites around the world to overthrow their own leaders. Pakistan's Shia minority seemed eager to follow his lead. To counter the spread of anti-American, revolutionary Shi'ism, the United States had teamed up with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, an effort that even included arming Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. "After the downfall of the Shah, the Americans would do anything to stop Khomeini," Jafri added.

Pakistan's military dictator at the time, General Zia ul Haq, promoted an assertive Islamization agenda at home, one tailored for Sunnis. For instance, he made prayers compulsory in government offices. What's the big deal, you ask? Well, Shi'ites pray differently from Sunnis, and they pray fewer times a day. Therefore, when they didn't show up for mandatory prayers, co-workers suspected that they were either insufficiently pious or infidels. That was just the beginning. In 1980, Zia imposed zakat, an annual 2.5 percent tax, specifically spelled out in Sunni theology. Shi'ites already paid their own kind of religious duty, directly to the ayatollahs. They weren't happy about getting double-dipped, and they marched on Islamabad. Zia eventually conceded to their demands and waived the zakat requirement for the Shia community.

Meanwhile, jihad raged against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, heavily supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Besides the obvious goal of expelling the Soviet army, the Americans, Saudis, and Pakistan's Sunni establishment saw another opportunity in arming and training young men for jihad. Part of the indoctrination process in the jihadi camps along the Afghan border included a reassessment of who — or what — constituted a true Muslim.

Afghans fighting alongside the Soviet army? Infidels.

Kashmiris supporting the Indian army's occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir? Infidels.

Shi'ites acting at the behest of Iran? Infidels.

"You can't just tell these guys, 'Go to Kashmir! But don't go to Karachi,'" a political analyst in Islamabad once told me. In other words, upon being brainwashed into the ways of jihad, these young men simply couldn't be reintegrated into a peaceful society. Was a neighbor who missed his prayers preoccupied? Or a Communist? A Shia? By the middle of the 1980s, with Pakistan awash in funds, rigid ideologies, and growing anti-Shia sentiments, Sipah-e-Sahaba was formed.

In February 1995, just before prayers at dawn, Sipah-e-Sahaba militants overran a Shia mosque in Karachi. They were heavily armed, and swiftly rounded up the fifteen worshippers present. The gunmen ordered them to line up against a wall and to remove their wallets and wristwatches. They sprayed the lineup with bullets, tossed the watches and wallets into a bag, and left. Eleven years later, I asked the brother of one of the victims if he thought Sipah-e-Sahaba was gunning for someone in particular; several prominent doctors and businessmen were among those murdered that morning. "They didn't have any idea who was inside," he said. "They just knew they were Shia."

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, Sipah-e-Sahaba congratulated them and offered their support. A few years later, as the Taliban conducted purges against the Hazaras, a Shia minority who lived in the central highlands, Sipah-e-Sahaba members reportedly participated in the massacres. (The Hazaras reside in the region around Bamiyan, the site of the Buddhist statues the Taliban later demolished.) "The Taliban had a very good government," Shafiqur told me. "What was their mistake? Why are they being punished now? They were doing good work."

Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001, the distinction between the Taliban and sectarian outfits like Sipahe-Sahaba grew ever more muddled. Evidently, both believed that Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and his cohorts represented the model form of governance. Soon, reports circulated of Sipah-e-Sahaba members training in camps throughout Pakistan's tribal areas, preparing to cross the border and fight against American and NATO forces. Suddenly, they all became anti-American insurgents. They shared constituencies, too. Every Friday outside of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, teenage boys hawked jihadi newspapers in one hand and copies of Sipah-e-Sahaba's treatise in the other.

Meanwhile, sectarianism became one of the world media's most common vocabulary words, owing to the situation in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shias were killing one another in droves. Sunni leaders warned about Iran's aspirations to achieve regional hegemony and create a "Shia crescent" across the Middle East, extending through Lebanon, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran. In February 2006, a suicide bomber, belonging to the Sunni-run al-Qaeda in Iraq, destroyed the al-Askari mosque in the city of Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. The bombing sparked violent retaliations in Iraq — and throughout the rest of the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, I wondered if sectarian tensions that originated in the Middle East would, once again, be felt in Pakistan. Would Saudi Arabia and Iran begin fighting a sectarian proxy war in the streets of Karachi? To find out, I wanted to meet those who represented both sides of the sectarian divide. Sipah-eSahaba, at the vanguard of Sunni sectarianism in Pakistan, seemed a good place to start.

Having led us into his one-room madrassa, Shafiqur seemed delighted to hear that I was an American. He promptly got on the phone and called for a couple of chicken salad sandwiches, a plate of samosas, and cold 7UPs to be delivered. "We have a guest who has come from far," he said into the phone. As we sat on the floor, I asked Shafiqur some basic questions — the closest thing I had to icebreakers — about the madrassa.

How many students? More than a hundred.

When did it open? 1999.

He seemed relaxed, so I steered the conversation toward jihad. Apparently, Shafiqur noticed that my tone had changed somewhat. His own voice doubled in volume. "What is wrong with jihad?" he asked. "We teach jihad as part of our teachings of the Holy Quran. Jihad is used to bring peace to the world, like the Taliban brought peace to Afghanistan. And if anyone usurps our rights or threatens our faith, then there will be jihad."

"What about the Shia? Do you consider them a threat to your faith?"

"I don't consider Shia as Muslims," Shafiqur replied, without a pause. "They are kafir."

Shafiqur then reached into his desk and removed a stack of photographs, which puzzled me a little, since ultraorthodox Sunnis typically consider depictions of the human body to be haram. But Shafiqur proudly flipped through the photos, which showed him standing beside Sipah-e-Sahaba luminaries from Jhang, a town in central Punjab where Sipah-eSahaba originated. A sign hangs over the entrance to the Sipah-e-Sahaba mosquethere saying: It is forbidden for Shia to enter, or for Shia to be mentioned inside this mosque. Most of the leaders in the pictures were now dead, victims of assassination by Shia hit squads.

One of Shafiqur's students walked into the room. The boy was in his mid-teens, with eyes the color of mahogany. His family lived in Punjab. I asked why he came all this way to attend Shafiqur's madrassa.

"Quran is everything to me," he said, either not quite understanding my question or just reciting his own prepared answer. "Since I started reading the Quran, I stopped watching cartoons. I have no wish to be a pilot or an engineer. I will become an alim" — Islamic scholar — "like my father one day, inshallah."

Rafi spoke up and asked the boy, "How do you feel in the presence of this American?"

"I feel fine, because he is also made by Allah. He is a guest, and deserves the same treatment other guests would receive," the teenager said. The even tone of his voice and maturity of his answer shocked me.

"But I also have strong emotions against the Americans. I have read the newspapers and know what they do to Muslims," he continued. "And one day, I will become a mujahid" — or holy warrior.

Shafiqur looked at me with a wide, satisfied smile. Clearly the boy was one of his prized pupils.

Rafi asked the boy what he was waiting for; there were plenty of opportunities for jihad at that very moment.

"I am too young to be recruited now," he replied. "But when the time is right, someone will come to me, and inshallah, I will go to jihad."

The Shia have their own militant wings. In October 2003, suspected Shia opponents gunned down Azam Tariq on a highway outside of Islamabad. Tariq had led Sipah-e-Sahaba for more than a decade. News of his murder fueled days of rioting and led to Islamabad's only cinema being burned to the ground. A year later, on the anniversary of Tariq's death, hundreds of Sipah-e-Sahaba supporters gathered to pray and commemorate his life in a park in Multan, a city in Punjab, not far from Jhang. As they bowed their heads, a car bomb ripped through the crowd, killing more than forty people. Again, Shia extremists were blamed.

Sectarian attacks had proceeded like this for years. It seemed a self-perpetuating and endless cycle. Local Sunni extremists blamed Iran for funding Shia groups, and local Shia extremists blamed Saudi Arabia for funding Sunni groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba. Yet the longer I spent in Pakistan, the more I realized that these ideologies were being hardened without any encouragement from outside. Sunni friends of mine, who dressed in suits and held respectable jobs, casually described Shia as apostates. And prominent Shia businessmen, like one I met in Karachi, used cell phone ring tones that blared an extremist preacher disparaging the sahaba for not recognizing Imam Ali's right to lead the Muslim community in the seventh century.


Excerpted from To Live or to Perish Forever by Nicholas Schmidle. Copyright © 2009 Nicholas Schmidle. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Land of the Pure 1

1 "To These Guys, You Are All Infidels" 15

2 "Sell Your Luxury Goods and Buy a Kalashnikov" 28

3 "Don't Speak English in Public" 41

4 "Left Alone in a Cave of Time" 56

5 "It Just Sounds Awkward to Call Myself a Pakistani" 69

6 "What Was Wrong with Pakistan?" 100

7 "We Have Accepted the Challenge" 117

8 "The Blood of Our Martyrs Will Not Go to Waste" 131

9 "If You Don't Let Us Live in Peace We Won't Let You Live in Peace" 156

10 "This Barbed Wire Stands in the Way of Democracy" 173

11 "Made Like a Sandwich" 190

12 "No Mercy in Their Hearts" 205

Epilogue: "The Fear Factor Spoils the Fun" 220

Notes 239

Acknowledgments 243

Index 247

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To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
iftyzaidi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is both an informative look at many of the socio-political currents transforming Pakistani society today, as well as a cracking good read. Nicholas Schmidle was in Pakistan for two of its most important years in its reccent history, a time when a long-simmering nationist insurgency flared in Baluchistan, a secular dictator was brough down by populist forces, sectarian strife stewed in flashpoints across the country, ethnic violence gripped Karachi and of course various militant Islamic groups launched full-fledged war against the state. Schmidle writes about all these trends and more, relating his personal encounters with many of the key people involved (including some of the Taliban commanders in Swat). Finally he runs afoul of the intelligence agencies and is first deported and then hounded out during a second visit a few months later.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great story by a daring young writer sharing his experiences in a near-failed state which has nukes. It is well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago