Healing Our Sectarian Divide
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
February 21st, 2015
SHIKARPUR on Jan 30, Peshawar on Feb 13, Rawalpindi on Feb 18. In less than three weeks, suicide bombers have targeted three imambargahs packed with worshippers. Outside of Syria and Iraq, Pakistan is the world’s deadliest country for Shia Muslims. Hazara are fleeing Balochistan, and barricades surround segregated Shia urban neighbourhoods. The government said yesterday it will issue gun licences for imambargah defenders. But even high security often fails: a suicide bomber made it through to Abbas Town in Karachi with a carload of explosives, leaving dozens of broken apartments with flesh and body parts hanging from balconies.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s Shias see themselves as victims of religious persecution. Some speak dramatically of a Shia genocide. This is surely an exaggeration. But the irony should not be lost: Mohammad Ali Jinnah, without whom Pakistan might not have been possible, was a Gujrati Shia Muslim. He mobilised millions stating that Muslims and Hindus could never coexist but Muslims, irrespective of sect, could. He was partly correct. Pakistan’s early years were largely peaceful, except for occasional flare-ups around Ashura time. Intermarriages were fairly common, and Shias had joined orthodox Sunnis into enthusiastically supporting Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1974 decision to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslim.
But, in a curious flip of history, a 2012 Pew Global Survey shows that 41pc of respondents in Pakistan believe that Shias are non-Muslim. A popular explanation of this blames Gen Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation. His policies distinguished between different sects and indeed did promote discord. However, the massive ongoing fratricide across the Middle East suggests that religious tensions would have anyway boiled over.
The question of what constitutes the truest form of faith is seen as ever more important.
What changed and why? At the core of a rapidly increasingly globalised conflict is the relatively recent insistence, equally by Shias and Sunnis, that religion must fuse with political power. Shia Muslims were led towards political Islam by Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, were inspired by Egypt’s Syed Qutb and Pakistan’s Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi.
Sizeable fractions of today’s Sunnis and Shias demand a political system that goes beyond an individual’s contemplation of God. Both say that true justice is possible only when religious law replaces secular law and religious practices are enforced in society. Both see the secular West as their mortal enemy. But thereafter the agreement grinds to a halt. With irreconcilably different versions of early Islamic history, different choices of exemplars, and different religious rituals, it is only the Holy Quran upon which they can fully agree.
But here comes the rub. The Quran does not prescribe any kind of political system. On matters of state and politics, the Holy Book is silent. In fact, as various scholars have pointed out, the Arabic language had no word for “state”. That which came closest was dawlah. But the word acquired its current meaning only after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which led to the emergence of geographically defined nation-states in Europe.
Crucially, the Quran is silent on how a state’s ruler is to be chosen and what might be legitimate grounds for his removal. Revealed for the purpose of separating right from wrong rather than politics, the Book does not specify the limits of the ruler’s power or that of the shura’s (consultative body). Also unmentioned is the manner in which the shura, which could potentially appoint or remove a ruler, is to be chosen. Would there be an executive, judiciary, or government ministries and what should their functions be? Islam’s other source of definitive authority, the Holy Prophet (PBUH), did not outline the process for selecting future leaders of the faithful. Whether he actually specified his immediate successor remains deeply contentious.
Let’s fast forward to the 21st century: the Iranian revolution of 1979, the promotion of jihadism in Afghanistan by the United States, and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. These have created a brand new reality and an uncertain world. The West must deal with the consequences of its former policies of conquest, and Muslims with ancient animosities that time has failed to bury.
In 2015, the Shias of Pakistan, though better off than Ahmadis of Pakistan, must contend with three principal threats to their physical security. These are similar, but also different, from those faced by most Pakistanis who also feel embattled.
First, as religious faith takes a firmer grip over the lives of ordinary citizens, the question of what constitutes the truest form of faith is seen as ever more important. Since a substantial portion of Pakistan’s population sees Shias deviating from mainstream Islam, sympathy for victims of mass killings, or individual assassinations, is limited. This, in turn, gives licence to the killers.
Second, a plethora of militant organizations flourish across Pakistan. Some remain within the control of the state. Others have turned rogue and violently anti-Shia. Earlier this week, Gen Pervez Musharraf confirmed the widely suspected fact that, with the aim of damaging India in Kashmir, and destabilising Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan, the ISI and military had helped create a variety of extra-state actors. The Sipah-i-Sahaba, an anti-Shia organisation, was tolerated because of its participation in the Kashmir jihad. Having morphed into Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, it now claims credit for attacks on Pakistani Shias. Malik Ishaq, its operational leader, is a man considered too powerful for Pakistan’s courts to touch. His family enjoyed support of the ruling PML-N party while he was in jail.
Third, state policy insists on seeing all its citizens through the prism of religious affiliation. For example, security clearance forms in many government organisations, including PAEC and SPD, require one to state his sect, name of murshid (religious mentor), name of mosque usually prayed in, as well as zat (tribal affiliation). But, as primal identities are reinforced, citizenship is proportionately weakened.
More razor wire, guards, and gun licences cannot assure the safety of Pakistani citizens. Whether Sunni, Shia, Christian, Hindu, or Ahmadi, they all live in fear. Real protection can come only by educating Pakistan’s upcoming generations that all faiths are entitled to equal respect, moving firmly and equally against all militant groups, and giving every Pakistani citizen exactly the same legal rights and privileges as any other.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.