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Healing our sectarian divide

Feb. 21, 2015 4 min read original

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 worlds 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, Pakistans 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. Pakistans 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 Bhuttos
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 Haqs 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 Khomeinis
1979 Islamic Revolution. Sunni Muslims, on the other hand, were inspired by Egypts
Syed Qutb and Pakistans Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi.

Sizeable fractions of todays Sunnis and Shias demand a political system that goes
beyond an individuals 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
Crucially, the Quran is silent on how a states 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 rulers power or
that of the shuras (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? Islams 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.
Lets 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 Pakistans 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 Karzais 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 Pakistans 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 Pakistans 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.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2015
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