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Friday, October 14, 2011

Shia- Sunni A fearful asymmetry

For various reasons, writing on Pakistan’s internal sectarian conflict is an incredibly sticky proposition. Hence Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East by senior journalist Khaled Ahmed, is a welcome attempt to analyse the causes behind the sectarian strife that has plagued this country.

Referring to the national press, the author observes that “most crucial details relating to sectarianism are either glossed over or are simply not available to a sector that is in the habit of denying sectarianism by ignoring it”.

While perhaps some in the media and among the intelligentsia may choose to ignore or water down incidents of sectarianism so as not to inflame communal passions, it can be argued that unless there is an honest debate about the factors fuelling sectarian hatred, it will be impossible to find a solution and rebuild the edifice of tolerance that has been decimated by
the sectarian warriors aided, in no small measure, by their sympathisers within the Pakistani establishment.

As Ahmed vividly argues, the growth of sectarianism in Pakistan has been a parallel development to the rise of extremism and intolerance in society. Starting in earnest from the decade of the 1980s, sectarian differences between the Shia and Sunni communities in this country have gone from exchanges of polemical tracts between clerics to the mowing down of worshippers in mosques, Imambargahs and shrines, as well as terrorist strikes targeting religious processions and gatherings.

However, it is not as if both communities are at each others’ throats. Rather, extremists belonging to Deobandi/Salafi sectarian outfits, assisted by the ‘external’ jihadi groups as well as transnational terror concerns such as Al Qaeda, have seemingly set their sights on Shias in general. It is, as Khaled Ahmed puts it, a “fearful asymmetry”. He says that “The Shia are killed more often and in larger numbers. The Sunnis don’t get killed in large numbers because the Shia terrorists select the
extremists and then target-kill them”.

In the chapter titled “Soldiers of Sectarianism”, the author presents pen sketches of some of the major actors that have been involved in playing out the gory drama of sectarian terrorism in this country, such as Azam Tariq, the assassinated Sipah-i-Sahaba chief, Riaz Basra, the dreaded mastermind behind the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, as well as Masood Azhar of Jaish-i-Mohammad, labelled “the bridegroom of Jihad”. As the writer illustrates, far from being pious defenders of revered religious figures, many of the sectarian outfits’ foot-soldiers are actually criminals who have hijacked religion.

The major regions of Pakistan affected by protracted sectarian conflict have also been profiled, such as Jhang, Gilgit-Baltistan, Parachinar, Quetta as well as Karachi. The history behind sectarian differences has been detailed in the chapter titled “The Shia-Sunni Schism” while the chapter “Shias in the Middle East” helps explain and links the sectarian situation beyond Pakistan’s borders. It touches upon Iran’s transformation into an Islamic Republic following 1979 revolution and the impact this has had on Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours, as their own Shia populations have been emboldened. Until very recently, the Arab Shia remained a neglected sector where scholarly research was concerned.

Thanks to globalisation, what happens in the Middle East very much affects the situation on the Pakistani street. For instance, when Saudi tanks rolled into Bahrain earlier this year to help the island nation’s monarchy crush pro-democracy protests spearheaded by the country’s Shia majority, there were several Shia-led demonstrations in Pakistan expressing sympathy with the Bahraini protesters. On the other hand sectarian and Jihadi outfits in Karachi organised a “Difa-i-Haramain” march ostensibly in defence of the holy places, that is, Makkah and Madina, though it was clearly a rally in favour of the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies.

The author links the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan to Islamisation of the Arab world after the failure of secular Arab nationalism, though he traces the seeds of sectarianism much further back in history. For example the anti-Shia fatwas issued by a number of prominent Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan apostatising the community in 1986 drew their inspiration from the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri, compiled during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

The book also confirms a suspicion held by many observers: that local sectarian death squads and jihadi outfits have a healthy working relationship with transnational groups, such as Al Qaeda. Ahmed states that “state-backed jihadis… were devoted to jihad but did Shia killings on the side”. One example of this nexus is the fact that Kashmir-centric jihadi outfit, Jamat-ud-Dawa\Lashkar-i-Taiba, organised a funeral prayer for the notorious anti-Shia Al Qaeda militant, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, in 2006 (as it did for Osama bin Laden this year). It was Zarqawi who had declared that the rafida [Shias] were a greater threat than the Americans.

Sectarian War is in fact so full of information (with extensive footnotes that offer great sources for further reading) that it is not possible to truly summarise the numerous issues it touches upon in this review. The narrative is gripping and bold.
However, there are points which are repetitive while the one major disappointment about the book is that it could have done with better fact-checking.

There is little argument with the writer’s narrative; it is some of the details that have not been cross-checked. For example he states that “[Shias’] Zakat is called Khums.” This is not correct, for in Shia Ithna Ashari jurisprudence Zakat and Khums are
two distinct religious taxes. Also, assassinated Pakistani Shia leader, Allama Arif Hussain Al Hussaini, is erroneously referred to as Ariful Hussaini throughout the book.

Book reviewed by Qasim A. Moini. The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East
(RELIGION), By Khaled Ahmed, Oxford University Press, Karachi, ISBN 978-0-19-547956-0 ,369pp http://www.dawn.com/2011/09/25/non-fiction-a-fearful-asymmetry.html