October Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Forty-two-year-old Maulana Azam Tariq played with fire throughout his life. Because of his virulently anti-Shia incendiary rhetoric, which he often voiced from public platforms, his Sunni extremist followers dubbed him “a man who could ignite fire in water.” But it did not end with inflammatory speeches: Tariq was also charged for involvement in several sectarian murders which earned him two jail terms.

In less than 10 years, Tariq went from being an ordinary worker to the head of the rabidly anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and in the process amassed a fanatical following.

“I was just a madrassa student eight years ago when I first heard Azam Tariq speak; it changed my life altogether,” says Aurungzeb Farooqui, now a central leader of the SSP, of which Tariq was the leader until his death. He adds, “Like me there were hundreds of students who came out of the madrassa that day raising slogans against the ‘infidels,’” — the derogatory word often used by Sunni extremists for Shias.

Born to a poor farmer Mohammad Fateh and his peasant wife in Chicha Watni, a small town in the Punjab, Azam Tariq was always inclined towards religion. He studied at a local madrassa and then enrolled in Pakistan’s second largest seminary, the Jamia Uloom Islamia Binori Town, in Karachi, to pursue his Islamic education.

This was at a time when thousands of Pakistani mujahideen were heading to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invaders, and then military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, was pushing his Islamisation agenda for the country forward with great zeal.

Binori Town was the headquarters of Sunni extremists of the Deobandi order, who were trying not only to hoist the Islamic flag in Afghanistan, but also to counter the increasing power of the Shias in Pakistan which had been fuelled by the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Cognitive of his abilities, clerics at Tariq’s madrassa advised him “to use [his] powers of speech as a weapon.” He never forgot the advice. During his stint in Binori Town, Tariq developed the art of delivering firebrand sermons (khitabat), and then, like other madrassa students, ventured to Afghanistan for jihad. There, while his facility with weapons was found wanting, he further honed his oratory skills in the war zones of the country, giving emotional, inspirational speeches to motivate the ‘holy’ warriors.

On his return to Pakistan, he became the pesh imam of the Masjid-e-Siddiq-e-Akbar in North Karachi, which the founding leaders of the SSP, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, and Zia-ur Rehman Farooqui, used to frequent. Here they would scout for young men to recruit for their cause, and once they set eyes on Azam Tariq they knew they had a prime candidate.

Tariq officially joined the SSP in the ’80s and soon, largely by virtue of his powerful oratory, became a prominent leader of the party. His diatribes against the Shia community went down well with his ideological affiliates, particularly since sectarian tensions in Karachi and elsewhere in the country were at an all-time high.

In 1990, when Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was assassinated by suspected Shia militants in Jhang, Azam Tariq climbed another rung up the ladder of the party’s hierarchy, and became its central leader. Thereafter, another chief of the SSP, Isar-ul Haq Qasmi, was killed during a bye-election campaign in Jhang. The leader of the party asked Azam Tariq not only to take his place in the party’s headquarters in Jhang, but also to contest the polls.

Since 1990, Tariq was elected as a member of the National Assembly four times, twice while he was in prison on charges of inciting and participating in violence.

As the SSP’s murder index shot up, so too did Azam Tariq’s popularity graph in his party — and his vulnerability. “I have lots of enemies,” Azam Tariq would tell his colleagues. Now he could only venture out with convoys of vehicles of armed men accompanying him, and have a battalion of guards standing by as he delivered speeches in cities, towns and villages across the country, inciting his party workers to violence.

In 1993, Azam Tariq used derogatory words for Imam Mehdi, a revered Shia figure, and photocopies of the speech in which these were contained were circulated around the country. That may have made him more popular in Sunni extremist circles, but prompted a series of attacks on his life.

In 1996, a bomb attack by Shia militants in a Lahore court killed 30 people, including SSP chief, Zia-ur Rehman Farooqui and other party leaders. Mehrum Ali, said to be a member of a Shia militant organisation, was sentenced to death on charges of masterminding the attack. Azam Tariq was critically injured, but miraculously survived.

Azam Tariq’s escape earned him a badge of honour from his party members. A few months later, a rocket was targeted at his car while he was on his way to Jhang. Once again he survived. The head of the rival Sipaha-e-Mohammad, Ghulam Reza Naqvi, was accused of carrying out the attack and is still in prison.

The repeated attacks prompted increased security measures. His corps of bodyguards grew and he would constantly change his schedule and the vehicles he used to avoid being targeted. But ultimately, he could not escape the death that lay in wait for him. He would tell his party men, “If I am assassinated, take revenge by fulfilling my ambition to make Pakistan a Sunni state.” Given the rumblings and the sporadic incidents of violence that have already occurred, it seems his followers have not forgotten.