Sectarian split in Pakistan

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The rising tide of fundamentalism

When it comes to sectarian strife in the Muslim world, no phenomenon makes the headlines more than the Sunni-Shia conflict. Each year, especially during Muharram, reporters and talk-show hosts bring this issue to light, but to little avail. It is as if the bereaved Shias have accepted their destiny to be martyred during an Ashura procession, while the puritan Sunnis have made it their religious obligation to purify Islam of all such deviants when the latter come out of their fortresses. And yet, how naive it is to consider the Shias and the Sunnis each a monolithic entity, without understanding the internal dynamics of each group. There are many theological, political as well as religious divisions within the Shias and the Sunnis. While the Shias are predominantly divided into the Ismailis, the Zaidis, the Imamis, and the Ithna’asharis; the Sunnis are also largely divided into the Deobandis, the Barelvis, and the Wahhabis. And although all call themselves Muslims, the crisis in the Islamic world today cannot be understood without first dissecting such differences.

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‘While many popular Shia clerics condemn the bloody self-flagellation that is very popular in South Asia and many parts of Lebanon, the entire Shia community is united on declaring it to the world that they would sacrifice their lives but not the truth. The Ashura processions for them are a re-enactment of the battle of Karbala in which Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet (PBUH), chose to give away his life than to pledge allegiance to a tyrant. The entire political history of the Shias is painted in martyrdom.’

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While the Shias gather around in Muharram and mourn the martyrdom of their beloved, followed by a thumping rhythmic beating on their chests, the Sunnis are busy telling their sons and daughters how mischievously abhorrent such acts are.

While many popular Shia clerics condemn the bloody self-flagellation that is very popular in South Asia and many parts of Lebanon, the entire Shia community is united on declaring it to the world that they would sacrifice their lives but not the truth. The Ashura processions for them are a re-enactment of the battle of Karbala in which Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet (PBUH), chose to give away his life than to pledge allegiance to a tyrant. The entire political history of the Shias is painted in martyrdom.

Ali, the first Imam of the Shias, was also assassinated by an extremist after he refused to make war with those who killed the third Caliph of Islam. The Shiite Ali, or the Party of Ali, felt betrayed.  For the Shias, Ali had exhibited a great act of general amnesty and followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, the Prophet (pbuh). Ali was buried in the town of Najaf, and his grave was later made into a shrine. For the Shias, the town of Karbala and Najaf are the two holiest places after the three mosques in Mecca, Madinah and Jerusalem respectively.

In Iraq, the Shias were always in a majority but were suppressed brutally due to the ideology of Pan-Arabism promoted by Saddam Hussein, for which the Shias were considered as Ajmis, or outsiders. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought great relief to the Shias, as they could now freely visit two of the five holiest sites, Najaf and Karbala, both of which are situated in Iraq.

But Pakistan today seems to be a hot-bed of sectarian violence especially in the wake of recent tragedies in Rawalpindi, Kohat and Karachi during Muharram 2013. But then perhaps, Pakistan has only itself to blame. The story begins with the Deobandi movement that started in 1866 in the subcontinent that sought to revive Sunni Islam as a reaction to British colonialism in India. Babar Ayaz in his book ‘What’s Wrong with Pakistan’ talks about how Saudi Arabia with its puritan Wahhabi ideology funded the Sunni Islamists in Pakistan since the 1960’s. What’s astonishing is the fact that the number of Deobandi madrassas multiplied rapidly to 64% of the total maddrassas in Pakistan, while only 15% of the total population of Pakistan adhere to this sect. The majority of Pakistanis in fact subscribe to the Barelvi sect from which the Sufism in South Asia took root. The Deobandis not only consider the Shias as heretics but also condemn the Barelvis for their veneration of saints and shrines. They became associated with the Afghan war in the 1980’s and have a lot to contribute to the Jihadi ideology of Tehreek-e-Taliban. President Zia-ul-Haq in collaboration with the U.S. and Saudi Arabic promoted militant Islam during this time to fight the threat of the communist Soviets. These militants with their jihadi ideologies are now back-stabbing Pakistan and haunting its very existence.

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‘In Iraq, the Shias were always in a majority but were suppressed brutally due to the ideology of Pan-Arabism promoted by Saddam Hussein, for which the Shias were considered as Ajmis, or outsiders. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought great relief to the Shias, as they could now freely visit two of the five holiest sites, Najaf and Karbala, both of which are situated in Iraq.’

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The Sipah-e-Sahaba is a Deobandi Pakistani organization that is currently banned for its terrorist activities. It was established in the 1980’s with the prime goal of deterring the Shia influence in Pakistan as a response to the Iranian revolution. Lakshar-e-Jhangvi is another militant Deobandi organization, based in Punjab, which broke away from Sipah-e-Sahaba over some dispute but continues to wreak havoc on the Shia civilians. The Jamat Ulema-e-Islam is another Deabandi organization that is bent upon enforcing its strict interpretation of Islamic law in Pakistan.  But the rise of these militant organizations owes a lot to the Shia threat perceived by Saudi Arabia. Whether it was the fear of losing the oil-rich regions that the Shias dominated in Saudi Arabia, or its insistence of exporting Wahhabism to other parts of the Muslim world, the fact is that Sunni militancy in Pakistan was in large part a response to the Shia ascendancy in Iran and Lebanon.

Over 86 Hazara Shias were killed in January 2013 as a car bomb ripped through a busy road in Quetta. The relatives of the dead refused to bury the victims and demanded that the provincial government be taken over by the army. But to no avail.  In March 2013, over 45 Shias were massacred as a suicide bomber exploded himself in a mosque. Just four months later, two Shias were shot dead in a taxi by gunmen from the Sunni terrorist group Lakshar-e-Jhangvi. Seven Shias already lost their lives before the beginning of Muharram 2013, and many more succumbed to martyrdom as sectarian violence exacerbated in Rawalpindi wherein many Sunni extremist groups and vigilantes attacked Ashura processions. Curfew was imposed in Kohat as well when two Shias were killed by gunmen belonging to the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat terrorist group.

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‘Over 86 Hazara Shias were killed in January 2013 as a car bomb ripped through a busy road in Quetta. The relatives of the dead refused to bury the victims and demanded that the provincial government be taken over by the army. But to no avail.  In March 2013, over 45 Shias were massacred as a suicide bomber exploded himself in a mosque. Just four months later, two Shias were shot dead in a taxi by gunmen from the Sunni terrorist group Lakshar-e-Jhangvi. Seven Shias already lost their lives before the beginning of Muharram 2013, and many more succumbed to martyrdom as sectarian violence exacerbated in Rawalpindi wherein many Sunni extremist groups and vigilantes attacked Ashura processions. Curfew was imposed in Kohat as well when two Shias were killed by gunmen belonging to the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat terrorist group.’

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Vali Nasr in his book ‘The Shia Revival’ reveals that with the Islamic revolution in Iran during the 1980’s and the coming of Ayatollah Khomeini to power, the Shias had achieved what the Sunnis couldn’t; an Islamic state. Also, when Hezbollah, funded by Iran, repelled the Israeli invasion after carrying out successive suicide bombings in 1982 killing as much as 600 Israelis in two days, its tales became exemplary lore throughout much of the Arab world. The Shias had achieved what the Palestinians couldn’t for decades. The Sunnis felt the balance of power in the Islamic world shifting. Throughout Islamic history, the Sunnis had occupied the mantle of the caliphate, the Deobandis and the Wahhabis just can’t let that change now.

The recent killing of the Shia cleric Allama Nasir Abbas in Lahore as he was heading towards his residence only shows how religiously corrupt the Pakistani society has become. Religiosity according to the extremists is not measured by the amount of mercy you show, but by the amount of mercilessness you can exhibit. Apparently, the assailants had no sympathy for the five daughters and a son the leader of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafaria left behind, but felt it was their divine right to eradicate Shia infidelity off the planet. Majlis-e-Wahdatul-Muslimeen announced three days of mourning and blamed the government for failing to protect the Shias. Indeed it seems, the government is trying to hide its own ineffectiveness by labeling the entire issue as sectarian violence which has been raging for years. Many left-wing activists like Murtaza Haider, however are more vocal and allege that it is the Shias that are massacred in large numbers, not the Sunnis.

Perhaps it may come up as a surprise to many, that there are about 45 million Shias in Pakistan and most of them are located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. Although these areas are perceived to be strictly Talibanized, the majority of the Shias in Pakistan still live there. While many politicians and media buffs are quick to deny any planned massacre of the Shias, blaming it all to be an international conspiracy, Shias are being taken off buses and shot dead after their verification as Shias through National Identity Cards.

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‘The recent killing of the Shia cleric Allama Nasir Abbas in Lahore as he was heading towards his residence only shows how religiously corrupt the Pakistani society has become. Religiosity according to the extremists is not measured by the amount of mercy you show, but by the amount of mercilessness you can exhibit. Apparently, the assailants had no sympathy for the five daughters and a son the leader of Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafaria left behind, but felt it was their divine right to eradicate Shia infidelity off the planet. Majlis-e-Wahdatul-Muslimeen announced three days of mourning and blamed the government for failing to protect the Shias. Indeed it seems, the government is trying to hide its own ineffectiveness by labeling the entire issue as sectarian violence which has been raging for years. Many left-wing activists like Murtaza Haider, however are more vocal and allege that it is the Shias that are massacred in large numbers, not the Sunnis.’

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If even the educated Shia doctors in the major urban centers of Lahore and Karachi are not safe from such sectarian attacks, then who is? When the Hazara Shias were butchered in the hundreds after a suicide bombing carried out by the Sunni militant group Lakshar-e-Jhangvi, many political analysts were quick to hide the Shia identity of the Hazaras and portrayed the entire incident as only an ethnic massacre. In response, Shia militant groups including Majlis-e-Wahdat-i-Muslimeen and Sipah-e-Muhammad have risen up, and while the former usually seeks political means, the later is a banned terrorist organization known for killing Sunni rival leaders.

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‘What the Sunnis don’t realize is that the incident of Karbala is so entrenched in the identity of a Shia that it is impossible to separate the two. The Shias believe that Karbala wasn’t just a terrible episode in history, but a destined resurrection of Islamic spirituality.’

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What the Sunnis don’t realize is that the incident of Karbala is so entrenched in the identity of a Shia that it is impossible to separate the two. The Shias believe that Karbala wasn’t just a terrible episode in history, but a destined resurrection of Islamic spirituality.

Many Arabs blame the Shias for their non-Arab origins and they are partially right about it. The wife of Imam Hussein, Bibi Sheharbano, was the daughter of a Persian king. So the Iranians feel an attachment to Shia Islam that was already pre-determined, according to them. It is as if the Shias seek to rescue Islam from its rigidity adhered to by the Sunnis, and bring it back to its true core of spirituality. The Shias have a lot in common with the Sufis, and believe that certain holy and divinely favored people have access to mystic knowledge that can lead an individual beyond the trivialities of life. According to Vali Nasr in his book ‘The Shia Revival’, the Shias believe that the Prophet (pbuh) possessed certain spiritual qualities that he passed down to his successors or the Ahl-e-Bayt i.e. the Twelve Imams. And although the Sunni-Shia violence has escalated only recently, the schism still acts as a hallmark for 1400 years of Islamic history. When the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife Aisha and his son-in-law and cousin Ali could take up swords against each other, it only was to have disastrous consequences for the Muslim community later.

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‘Perhaps it may come up as a surprise to many, that there are about 45 million Shias in Pakistan and most of them are located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. Although these areas are perceived to be strictly Talibanized, the majority of the Shias in Pakistan still live there. While many politicians and media buffs are quick to deny any planned massacre of the Shias, blaming it all to be an international conspiracy, Shias are being taken off buses and shot dead after their verification as Shias through National Identity Cards.’

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They say that religious minorities like the Shias, Ahmadis and Christians are no longer safe in Pakistan, but aren’t the Deobandis a religious minority too? Who has let them hijack the true spirit of Islam? Many liberals in Pakistan condemn the Sunni-Shia violence and the Deobandi ideology which is leading to the growing militancy in Pakistan. The very fact that Islam embraced the different lifestyles and cultures it became a part of and not kicked them out, shows its nature of inclusiveness. Islam did not wish to make everyone carbon copies of each other, but instead encouraged diversity. It did not come to exclude people, but to include them. Islam came for everyone, not for a chosen few.

 

The writer is a status quo critic by habit and a marketing scientist by profession. She tweets @mehreen_omer

17 COMMENTS

  1. you are referring lots of things particularly to Shia Belief whereas they are just as well a part of Sunni history as well.

  2. You write as if Iran has no designs of increasing and exerting its influence. the way it is trying to support Assad government in Syria despite the fact that he is no democrat. Iran has also tried to export its ideology in many forms and hence the resistance.

  3. u wrote unbalanced article as if u r biased when u mention saidi influence why not of iran trying to have influence like in yarmouk where 50people mostly Palestinian refugees have died to statvation due to seige by assad also why not of hazaras who supported communists during soviet invasion also iran played imp role in destroying Taliban regime also those abusive words that these shia scholars use against wives of prophet pbhu

    • This article was specifically focused on the plight of the Shias. This is not to say that the Shia radicals do not inflict atrocities on the Sunnis as well. However the fact of the matter is that it is predominantly the Shias who are being massacred regularly in Pakistan, and one must not label it as a sectarian violence when it should rightly be termed as Shia genocide. That being said, it doesn't exonerate wrong committed from any side – Shia or Sunni.

  4. good article about plight of Muslims, their history and forces behind intolerance is Political gains, like Saudis doing in Pakistan since 1960s.

  5. Ridiculous………..its so one-sided….whatever happened to Iran and Sipah-e-Muhammad's role in the killing of Sunni Ulama……..Binori Town is a prime example of targeting Ulama of one particular madrassa…..in the last 14 years….6 prominent teachers of the madrassa have been gunned down……in isolated events

    Its not just Saudia who is to blame…..where is Khomeini's rhetoric about destroying the zia regime if he doesn't give rights to Pakistani Shiites……….and what abt the name of the organization 'Tehreek Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafria' (Movement for the implementation of Jafri Law)…..Pakistan is a majority Sunni country,….isn't this name signifying the aggressive designs of Shiites to impose their brand of Islam……aint this responsible for sectarianism????

    There are always 2 sides to everything……………….UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE

  6. PT is relying on this young lady to do this level of analysis.. its no wonder the article smacks of the author taking a safe refuge in smashing the Deobandi Sipah Sahaba and Lashkar Jhangvi.. need to be noted that the names are touted in the mainstream media.. there was no mention of Hezbollah and its role in Syria.. may be the author is led into writing this piece..

  7. Like all religions Islam too has so many versions and keeps them busy trying to prove or kill each one of them is correct.the image that it is monolithic is so misleading

  8. Biased Article. So called DEOBANDI MILITANCY would not have risen up if Iran had keep its REVOLUTION with in its boundries

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