Ahmad Zaboor
Zahir-ud- din-Muhammad Babur, the King who established the mighty Mughal Empire in India, while on his death bed, bequeathed following wise counsels to his son Humayun, “overlook the differences between the Shias and Sunnis. Otherwise, the decrepitude of Islam would follow.” (John Standish: 1998) Today the sectarian violence is engulfing the Islamic world having disastrous consequences for Muslim societies. Pakistan which is not involved in sectarian wars like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, like the rest of the countries, still it has utterly failed to extricate itself from the sectarian violence which is demonstrated painfully in markets, mosques, and schools in Pakistan. If for Babur, the sectarian conflict would have brought decrepit conditions to Islam, in our times Pakistan is making itself vulnerable to the hostile forces, which if exploited could pose an existential threat to the State itself. The mass mobilization in a run up to the formation of the Pakistan relegated the sectarian fault lines to the background. However, M.A. Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, a Shia, was apparent to the broad religious cleavages between the two sects within Islam and the hidden danger in contained in store for Pakistan. The inclusive model of Pakistani society that Mr. Jinnah, had visualized has floundered, he had warned that any step away from inclusiveness was bound to boomerang.  While speaking on 11 August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, Jinnah said,
“As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, sometimes ago were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made, and bars are imposed against a particular class. Thanks we are not living starting in those days. We are starting in those days where there is no discrimination between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state”.
By any political reckoning and sagacity, persecution on the basis of religion using the analogy of Catholics and Protestants, was his running and dominant theme. Despite Shia’s being in minority in Pakistan, it still houses about 30 million of them which is the second largest population in the world after Iran. ‘The broad binary categories of Shia and Sunni has put a smoke screen on a varied and more complex sectarian landscape, Sunnis like Shia’s are internally differentiated and sharply divided along doctrinal lines with Barelvis, outnumber the most strident orthodox Deobandis.’ (Farzana Sheikh: 2001)  There are about five main interpretative traditions of Islam, each having its version of religious canons. Therefore multiplicity of interpretative traditions severely limited the likelihood of Pakistan emerging as a theocratic state along the lines of Iran’. (Christian Fair: 2014) What Pakistan finally emerged as of now is a “cocktail polity in which theocratic urges were patched onto the legislative framework as it sought to define and redefine itself”. (M. J. Akbar: 2011) The new state of Pakistan emerged from the domination syndrome of Hindus, with Muslims in the brutal majority, Pakistan treaded on the difficult path of Islamic state rather than following a much easier path of secular polity which could have generated the necessary centripetal forces and could have kept Pakistan intact with enormous clout. An astute Pakistani observer and political scientist, Eqbal Ahmad, provides spine-chilling narrative on the use of Islam, “Islam has been in Pakistan as in other Muslim countries, shelter for scoundrel regimes in modern times, whenever they face eventualities like threatening, isolation and, loss of popularity, they bring out Islam from the closet and use it as a political weapon”.  Pakistani political elite which entailed nabobs, landed potentiates along with military bigwigs coalescing into an oligarchy used ‘Islam in its politics of total domination, to keep intact an inequitable system, this social, political and military government proclaimed Pakistan as an ideological State based on Islam and but not a democracy.’  (Asim Roy: 2006) On the basis of mutual interests and reciprocity, the conservative religious leaders, hell bent on the Medieval Islamic interpretations lend their helping hand in service of Pakistani rulers defending the status quo and legitimizing authoritarian rule. The program of economic growth launched under the military regime in the 1960s was in tandem with the political system so as to ‘perpetuate the economic inequalities through concentration of income in industrial and landed magnates’. (Asim Roy: 2006)
Clash of financial interest at base of sectarianism;
Sectarian conflict is primarily the fallout of erroneous domestic and top down Islamisation project which reached its apogee in the reign of Zia-Ul -Haq.  Endeavor by the Pakistani State to ‘sunnify Deobandi sectarian understanding by the state following the Iranian revolution stoked sectarian conflict between Shia’s and Sunni’s’. (Ian Talbot: 2013)  The legal and economic Islamic reforms initiated by Zia-UL-Haq reflected the sectarian bias of establishment, as no Shia judges were appointed to federal Islamic court established in 1980, as a parallel judicial institution, leading the community to refuse to accept any of the judgments. The state’s enforcement of Islamic tax zakat, offered as a voluntary act of piety added its weight to already sharpening sectarian fault lines. Shia’s saw Zakat ordinance as a part of an attempt to achieve unification of Pakistan. Shia didn’t object to the voluntary donations but opposed the compulsory deduction of 2.5 percent from all saving accounts and ‘distributing the money among Sunni charitable institutions.’ (Christophe jefferlot: 2015) The edict on zakat had been issued on the ‘instructions of Saudi Arabia, which had to send Maruf Dubai; to enforce anti-Shia laws that Pakistan was averse to execute’.  (Stephan Cohen: 2004)
The tax collected was used to ‘fund local institutions, creating incentives to open new religious schools, at the same time the funding for government schools were cut’. (Cohen: 2004)   Stephan Cohen writes during Zia’s regime Pakistan saw growing interest in armed forces and society as a whole and a decline in social services’.  Sensing the existential danger to Shia community in Pakistan, Mufti Jafar Hussian a firebrand Shia leader founded Tehreeki-i-Nifaz Jafaraya in 1979 to challenge the ‘sunnification project which has become now an existential threat to Pakistan’. (Cohen: 2004) The organization demanded the implementation of Jafari jurisprudence, the formation of Shia trust boards. Zia was forced to make concessions in 1980 after Shia’s laid siege on Islamabad on 5th July 1980. In response ‘Sunni extremists linked with Deoband and Salafi Ideology began to claim that Shias were anti-Muslims’.(Raza Rumi: 2016)  In the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Phantom of export of revolution began to haunt Pakistan like states and Shia community felt emboldened within Pakistan. To counter the growing influence and seeming threat of Shia’s which had emerged following a widespread protest against zakat; Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhnagvi formed Sipah-I-Sahaba Pakistan receiving ‘patronage not only from Deoband institution but from Pakistan state as well after Zia had a bad meeting with Khomeini’. (Ian Talbot: 2013) The movement developed a power base in his home district, Jhnag as a result of ‘increasing tension between artisan communities enriched by remittances from Gulf countries and traditional Shia feudal lords’. (Christophe jefferlot: 2015) SSP represented the contest for the power of an increasingly ‘mobile middle-class urban community made up in large parts of Sunni migrants for East Punjab. Power has been traditionally wielded both in Jhang city and in the district by local Shia landowning elite’. (Ian Talbot: 2013)  As Nicolas Martin asserts that ‘most of its supporters of SSP were people who had migrated  to the city of Jhang from countryside and who had experienced exploitation at hands of Shia landlords’.  The radical members from TNJP were purged who later formed Sipah e Mohammad Pakistan in 1993 while the Sunnis formed Lashkar e Jhnagvi In 1994 which in association with SSP ‘morphed into a powerful criminal syndicate and hate and terror organization’.  (Christophe jefferlot: 2015)
The immediate spin-off of sudden ballooning of oil prices in 1973 enabled Iran and Saudi Arabia to amass enormous wealth in the form of petrodollars, which was used to shower political patronage on their clients in various countries. The matter was made worse by the success of Islamic revolution in Iran much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia. This resulted in ‘Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia vie with each other for influence and political leadership of Islamic world, a bitter struggle for power demonstrated most painfully in the cities of Iraq and Pakistan.’  (Lesley Hazleton: 2009)    Financing of Sunni extremist groups by Saudi Arabia and Shia groups by Iran has unleashed a proxy war in Pakistan. As Saudi money started to trickle in, it began to shape a new Pakistan, an influential madras network which followed the Ahl-e-hadith, interpretation of Islam closely tied with puritanical Wahhabi stream of Islam defined by house of Saud to control the Arab peninsula and deny the ‘Shia population their voice and status in most of Gulf states.’ (Cohen: 2004) Saudi regime provided a considerable amount of money to Jihadist groups fighting against the occupation of Afghanistan by USSR, mostly linked with Deoband or Ahl-hadith ideology. The running thread of all such groups including the popular firebrand religious leader Tahir ul Qadri, a follower of Barelvi sect has been to spew venom against Shia.  However, the money didn’t go into the kitty of Barelvi sect, which has the largest number of adherents, controlling just one-quarter of religious schools in Pakistan, while most of it has gone into the coffers of Deoband and Ahl-Hadith religious groups. Commenting on it Stephan Cohen writes ‘Deobandi’s are among the most militant of Pakistan’s Islamic groups and are behind much of anti-Shia sectarian violence that plagues Pakistan controlling sixty-five percent of religious schools.  It is not therefore surprising to find a close nexus between Jihadist groups and sectarian conflict as ‘they work in tandem both intermingle in Pakistan as Jihad was associated with Deoband and Ahl-Hadith, both schools were traditionally anti-Shia’. (Khalid Ahmad: 2011)   Sunni extremist following Deoband and Wahabi sects had long believed that ‘Shia’s have never been true Muslims and therefore should be eliminated. Al-Qaida had helped the Taliban carry out pogroms against Afghan Shia and now they helped the Sunni militants to do the same to Pakistani Shias’. (Ahmad Rashid: 2009)  Pakistani Shia feeling under siege has also produced a number of ‘militant organizations in response to a growth of militant Sunni groups.’ (Cohen: 2004)  The financial bankrolling of the Shia militant organization by Iran has gone down considerably as it has invited the wrath of Sunni militant groups. ‘The power base of sectarianism will mostly explain the transformation from religious into political conflict as Sunnis have kept both violence as well as power struggle open for themselves’. (Christophe jefferlot: 2015)  After 9/11 attack, C.I.A, the intelligence agency of USA requested Pervaiz Musharraf to allow Iranian Baluch dissident group called ‘Jundallah to have a base in Baluchistan and carry out guerilla attacks against Iranian government targets’. (Ahmad Rashid: 2013)  Shia’s in Baluchistan after 2008 came under battery of attacks, ‘these attacks are deeply embedded in the use of extremist elements to serve Pakistan’s national security objectives, instead of protecting them from radical elements individuals in the security services choose to let extremist militants have their way against shia in return for their intelligence on Baluch separatists’.  (Farahnaz Ispahani: 2015)
Fallout for Pakistan:
Pakistan is already on the edge of a precipice; killing, mayhem, breakdown of state control spread across the country while the government is continuously in denial mode. The Saudi funding has engendered ugly phenomena resulting in Saudization of Islam and culture which has considerably eroded otherwise the tolerant Islamic values and ethos. It has promoted the jihadi culture and is now a challenge to national security. The most critical threat to the citizens of a Pakistan in not only the injustice in which Pakistani state is implicit but the range of threats that foreign funding has engendered. Sectarian conflict in Pakistan has a spill over impact on the international relations of Pakistan with its neighbors. As both Pakistan and Iran are at loggerheads with regard to Afghanistan, Iran does not want it to be dominated once again by a pro-Pakistan Taliban who will persecute Afghan Shia. Pakistan under pressure from the USA and Saudi regime, Nawaz Sharif having ideological incompatibility with Iran has put in cold storage the much needed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project despite its feasibility and profitability for Pakistan. Pakistan has unnecessarily poked its nose in the sectarian conflict of Gulf countries like Bahrain where it sent its forces to quell the uprising of Shia majority community, against the tiny Sunni ruling class. As Ahmad Rashid underscores these tendencies on part of Pakistan establishment ‘sectarian war in foreign nations to which Pakistan will be a party is bound to inflame the sectarian tendencies in Pakistan’.  Sectarian divide presents a ‘favorable playing ground to the enemies of Pakistan to play their nefarious game of making the inner front more vulnerable and exploitative’. (Christian Fair: 2014)  The failure to erect the boundary walls between Mosque and state has considerably eroded the otherwise the tolerance towards diversity. The state seems to have ‘no appetite for eliminating these sectarian criminal syndicates at least in part because of their membership overlaps with groups that still serve the purpose of army’. (Christian Fair: 2014)  Polarization reflected in sectarian violence has further ‘institutionalized the perceived the differences between the two sects and has contributed to the closure of means of communication and understanding between them’. (Verniers Gillies: 2012)   The Sectarian conflict over the years has become complicated and has escalated following the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan, as the anti-Shia organization has proliferated.  It is the ‘product of Afghanistan’s militarized Sunni dogmas and Iran’s newly politicized Shia identity.'(Sana Haroon: 2016)
If Pakistani establishment continues to be in denial mode, time is not far when Rwanda like experience would be replicated in Pakistan as Shia are thinly scattered across the Pakistan. Any silence would make the State complicit in the violence, and will further embolden the extremist forces to further their interests.

Image credits: Wikipedia

Posts Carousel

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

SAJ on Facebook

SAJ Socials


Top Authors