Sunni-Shia tensions have been a recurrent problem in Pakistan for more than three decades, as domestic and international factors have polarized sectarian identities. Recently, the Shia minority has suffered the brunt of the violence. This report examines what has fostered intolerance and tolerance between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan and the role that religious authorities may play in reducing sectarian prejudice.


  • Sunni-Shia tensions have been a recurrent problem in Pakistan for more than three decades, with the Shia minority suffering the brunt of the recent violence.
  • Sectarian identity has become politicized as a result of domestic and international factors. Historical case studies and interviews suggest that sectarian networks are usually local but are often bolstered by transnational religious communities and can be highly responsive to international events.
  • Surveys conducted in Punjab province and Quetta, Balochistan—regions that have experienced high levels of sectarian violence—indicate that Shia respondents consistently agree with statements in favor of sectarian tolerance at higher rates than Sunnis. Troublingly, a majority of Sunni respondents in Quetta expressed disagreement with a variety of messages of sectarian tolerance.
  • Interviews with religious scholars and clerics, government authorities, and civil society activists reveal a widespread perception that clerical authorities have key roles to play in promoting tolerance. Identifying the specific religious authorities best suited to play this role is challenging, however, particularly because of the relatively decentralized nature of religious authority in Sunni Islam. Our survey results imply that clerics who are not already widely known in Pakistan are unlikely to successfully change public opinion.

About the Report

This report examines the determinants of religious tolerance in Pakistan, particularly among Shias and Sunnis and the role that religious authorities may play in reducing sectarian prejudice. It draws insights from surveys conducted in Punjab and Quetta, Balochistan, between January and April 2014, as well as interviews conducted by the authors in Islamabad with religious leaders and experts on Shia-Sunni relations.

About the Authors

Michael Kalin is currently a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. He has held positions as a political analyst with the Government of Canada’s Privy Council Office, political officer with the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan, and program manager with the International Organization for Migration. He holds degrees from Oxford University and McGill University. Niloufer Siddiqui is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. She previously worked in Pakistan for the International Organization for Migration and the International Crisis Group. She holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a BA from Haverford College.

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