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ISLAMABAD — A volley of gunfire that followed a grenade attack last month in a small village two hours from Islamabad shattered the myth that the government had begun to effectively contain the country’s religious extremists.

The 14 dead in that attack were all members of Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority. The attackers were believed to be the members of a hardline Sunni Muslim group known as the Sipah-I-sahaba, which has campaigned for years for the Pakistani government to declare Shiites as non-Muslims.

The latest massacre in this unpleasant saga was not the first time that Pakistan’s Shiites have became a target of the Sipah-I-sahaba. For Pakistan, the massacres of Shiites present a major challenge for internal security, political stability and foreign policy.

The Shiites, who are a minority in Pakistan, draw their inspiration from Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Every year, the Shiites commemorate the killing of Imam Hussain, the son of Imam Ali, more than 1,400 years ago in Karbala, southern Iraq, after Hussain refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, a tyrannical ruler.

The occasion is annually marked with processions of Shiites walking through the streets after holding prayer meetings. The Shiites consider the massacre of Hussain and his 72 supporters at Karbala to be an event that must always be remembered. They argue that the example of Hussain’s defiance to Yazid must be a guiding principle for all times to come, demonstrating the difference between good and evil.

It’s this philosophy that has led Shiites from Iran to Lebanon to defy Western influence in the Middle East.

While the Iranian regime of President Mohammad Khatami has recently made conciliatory gestures toward the West, it’s still not clear if such actions will lead to an end to Iran’s anti-Western stance or whether the more hardline elements within the Iranian hierarchy will prevail in the end by resisting pro-Western policies. With such activism, the Shiites, who look upon themselves as a symbol of defiance, have won the wrath of groups such as the Sipah-I-sahaba, who consider Shiite activism to be a threat.

For Pakistan, this polarized environment poses a threat to internal security. While successive governments have tried to fight sectarian violence, their success has been limited. Part of the problem has been that groups such as the Sipah-I-sahaba are believed to be funded by predominantly Sunni Arab governments, who at one time viewed the community of Pakistani Shiites as proxies of Iran. Hence, the Arab-Iranian rivalry spilled into Pakistan, with the two external sides backing rival groups in a proxy war.

The killings have also had political implications. The country has seen increasing political violence during the past decade, mainly because rival group members have gained increasing access to lethal and sophisticated weapons. While the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, has banned Pakistanis from publicly displaying weapons as a first step in a disarmament campaign, the country remains awash with illegal weapons, including those supplied to religious Islamic groups by outside sponsors.

The religious violence has many implications for Pakistan’s foreign policy. While Musharraf has launched a new effort to improve relations with Iran, it’s not clear how far he will succeed in alleviating Tehran’s concerns about the activities of Sipah-I-sahaba. Iranian officials have been among the victims of Sipah-I-sahaba, but Pakistan thus far has failed to Iranian demands for the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of the culprits believed to be involved in all the major sectarian attacks.

For Pakistan, which was created as a Muslim state, the issue of religion and politics remains central to the country’s future. The fact that the population is 95 percent Muslim helps to provide an element of homogeneity; however, there are limitations to how positive the role of religion in mainstream life can be.

Pakistan needs to adopt a new perspective on Islam that can promote peace and stability, and serve as a basis for improving relations with Iran, a strategically important neighbor.

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