In this Punjabi city of shrines, Shiites and Sunnis prayed side by side during Ashura this week, the holiest holiday for the world's 150 million Shiite Muslims. But a province away, suicide bombers attempted to strike Shiite processions throughout Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, leaving as many as 21 dead and more than 40 injured in three separate incidents, including two suicide attacks.
The violence, the latest in a sharp uptick against Pakistan's Shiite minority, has heightened concerns that Iraq's conflict may be feeding sectarian violence here. Whether the conflict in Iraq is capable of igniting Pakistan's simmering sectarian tensions raises questions about a growing global sectarian war.
The answer is important, analysts say, because Pakistan's 30 million Shiites – numbering more than Iraq's – could become a flash point if sectarian violence spreads.
"In Pakistan, it is not a battle like in Iraq. But in Pakistan, you have the same violence ... driving the conflict," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revivial, a study of global Sunni-Shiite conflicts. "We are going to see increasing occurrences of the bombings like we've seen over the weekend." [ Editor's note: The original version incorrectly titled Vali Nasr's book.]
It is said that Shiite Islam in Pakistan began here, in this dusty corner of Punjab, more than 200 years ago. Shiites, who constitute only 20 percent of Pakistan's 165 million people, have found themselves beleaguered ever since. As many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan in the last two decades, 300 in the last year alone. One of the largest attacks took place here in Multan, when a car bomb killed 40 members of an extremist Sunni organization in 2004. A Shiite militant was later tried and sentenced to death for the attack.
Multan's discord closely mirrors the age-old schisms in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere which, taken together, constitute a Shiite-belt stretching from the Gulf to Pakistan.