April issue 2013
Who’s Fanning the Sectarian War?
Renowned writer Khaled Ahmed’s book, Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its Links to the Middle East, is an eye opener and an insightful study of the origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan. It challenges certain assertions, namely that the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq was the godfather of sectarianism in Pakistan.
In fact, Ahmed maintains that Zia was just a pawn in the hands of the Saudi and US governments. The Afghan jihad was at its peak, and the Saudis were not only fighting the US war but also furthering their own agenda by using the jihadis to kill members of the Shia community. The agenda of the Afghan jihad was so huge and scattered that Zia could not have stopped it. However, Zia was guilty of promoting sectarian violence by providing institutional support to sectarian outfits and their leaders. For example, he asked three key seminaries — the Jamia Ashrafia in Lahore, and Maulana Samiul Haq’s Darul Aloom Haqqania and Jamia Binoria in Karachi — to issue an edict that Shias were infidels. Samiul Haq is considered the godfather of the Taliban, and Mullah Omar studied in his seminary.
The book’s broader message is that no theocratic state can function smoothly, as religion is not the business of the state. Although Pakistan was founded on the basis of religion, it became sectarian with the passage of time. Before Partition, the subcontinent was secular. The British administration ensured that no law was passed that could fan sectarianism. The Shia-Sunni divide did exist in the subcontinent, but it was only after the creation of Pakistan, that Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims through legislation — and, ironically, the Shias voted in favour of it.
After Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims, the Shia community became the next target. The masses had no idea of the Shia belief. Shockingly, even the Shias did not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim. It was the Afghan jihad and the Iranian Revolution that brought the differences to the fore.
The Arab rulers felt threatened by the Iranian Revolution. They feared that the Saudi dynasty could be destroyed by Iran. The Saudi rulers started using Pakistan against the Shia community. Deobandi clerics were considered ideal for this job because the Deoband Movement had already declared Shias as infidels before Partition. Interestingly, only the Deobandis were groomed as jihadis for the Afghan jihad. The Barelvis were sidelined. They were declared good for nothing except reciting naat. The Shias participated in the Afghan jihad, but as a separate stakeholder raised by Iran, by joining hands with the Afghan Hazara community.
It was sectarian outfits like Sipah-e–Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) who instigated hatred against the Shia beliefs among the gullible masses. They spread stories that the Shia considered it part of their religion to abuse the wives of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his companions, thus provoking anti-Shia sentiment. The SSP and LeJ not only demanded that they be declared infidels like the Ahmadis, but they also incited people to decimate Shias by killing them. Ironically, this thinking persists to this day, both among the sectarian outfits and even at the establishment levels
Ahmed’s book takes not just the media but even the Shia leadership to task for condoning sectarian killings by declaring acts of sectarian violence as conspiracies hatched by the US, India and Israel. Even Sajid Naqvi, head of the Tehrik Jafria, subscribes to this view. His outfit became part of the Muttahida Majlise Amal (MMA), an alliance of Deobandi outfits that glorified the Taliban. Ironically, Samiul Haq’s party was also part of the MMA and it was his seminary that had declared Shias ‘infidels.’ The other important ally in the MMA was the Jamiat Ulema Islam (F), which also held the same view.
An interesting revelation in the book is that two kinds of funeral prayers were held for the Father of the Nation Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his sister, Fatima Jinnah — one was according to Shia rites and the other according to Sunni traditions. The Shia rites were conducted in secret. Interestingly, Fatima Jinnah had to submit an affidavit in a court of law confirming that she was a Shia Muslim in order to inherit the family property.
The book says that after 9/11, the sectarian war grew and the Barelvis started becoming its target. The Nishtar Park incident in Karachi (2006), in which 50 leaders of the Sunni Tehrik were killed, was a suicide attack but the police were hell-bent on proving that it was a simple blast that was carried out by Al-Qaeda in collaboration with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Now the shrines of the Barelvis have also become the target of the Taliban, who are Deobandis and consider both the Shias and the Barelvis as infidels.
The book says that the Shia community has, by and large, remained peaceful in Pakistan. And understandably so. Being in a minority they are not in a position to retaliate. However, the Hazara Shias have started living in ghettos in a bid to secure themselves. This ghettoisation has, in fact, made the task of the sectarian killers even easier as they can be targeted as a group, without much difficulty.
One can draw many lessons from Khaled Ahmad’s comprehensive book — the fundamental one being that the state will have to stop patronising sectarian killers. Once that happens, sectarian killings will die down. The monster of sectarianism has destroyed Pakistan’s vitals and the country has virtually been reduced to a failed state. Pakistan will have to stand up against sectarian elements and that is possible only if state policies rise above religion. Unfortunately, religion has become an excuse to kill the innocent. Only a secular Pakistan, in which the state has no role to play in the interpretation of religion, can hope for peace.
Mohammad Shehzad is an Islamabad-based journalist and researcher.