Sectarianism In Pakistan (Daily Times)

Why sectarian extremism is getting bloodier?

By Babar Ayaz

Worried about the rising sectarian killings in the country the media and all other humane people are groping for the solution of this serious threat to the harmony of our Pakistani society. Television channels, to give them their due credit, tried to telecast positive messages. Some anchors asked politicians and Ulemas why the sectarian violence is increasing. And how this fire-spitting dragon could be put back in the bottle, if not eliminated?

Replying to such questions, Mufti Mohammed Naeem, the founding principal of Jamia Binoria, said that all hate material against each other should be expunged from the religious books of various sects and no hate speech should be allowed. Nobody would dispute this sane suggestion.

But it is easier said than done. Consider this. There are according to one conservative estimate over 250,000 mosques in the country. As most of the mosques are for male only, and children usually don’t go to the mosques, these mosques are roughly catering to around 40% of the population. So my guesstimate is that there is one mosque per 288 persons. Aren’t they one too many? The mosques have proliferated mainly because of Muslims are divided into many sects, so they patronize the mosque of their own sect. Each of the three major sects—Sunni, Shi’ah and khawarji—are further divided in number of sub-sects. The fragmentation continues.

Similarly, there are 20,000 madaris in the country even if 100 students graduate from these institutions every year, we have 2,000,000 persons who are trained in the vocation of becoming either the Imam of mosques, or teachers at one of these madaris or if they are radical to join one of the Jihadi organisations. Now suppose half of these students go back to join their parents’ occupation or some other jobs, per capita trained Maulanas annual production is 180. Compare this with one doctor or nurse per around 3500 Pakistanis. Also keep in mind that there are there are six large federations of madaris each teaching their own syllabus. Each has to justify why they different from other sect and are following “true Islamic teachings,” which others are not. That’s where hate material and speeches enter.

In this backdrop the logical question is how to bring all the Ulema on one platform and make them agree that they will expunge all the hate material from the books. They have to tell their respective sect’s Pesh Imams and Ulema to stop making hate speeches not only against each other sects, but also against the religious personalities revered by one sect or another.

The present Shi’ah-Sunni strife has roots in the Islamic history and is almost as old as Islam. What first started differences in the family of the Prophet Muhammad turned into a political issue soon after his death on the choice of first Khalifa.  Over the years these family likes and dislikes and political issues have acquired religious dimensions creating a deep fissure between the Shiat Ali and followers of other three Khalifas, who succeeded Prophet Muhammed. The literature, practices and debate that followed on this mid 8th century conflict to this day has divided the Muslims sharply. There have been many instances in Muslim history when these sects have quarreled spilling blood of each other. But such acts of intolerance have been few and far between. The Muslim history shows that most of the time Shi’ahs and Sunnis have co-existed peacefully respecting each other believes in spite of difference of opinion among the two sects’ followers on the politico-religious developments in the early Muslim history

So why this conflict has turned so violent now, particularly in Pakistan, Iraq and now in Syria too. Let’s restrict the discussion to Pakistani society. From its inception to the eighties the incidences of violence against each other were rare although there use to be some tension in the month of Moharram on the routing of the processions taken out be Shi’ahs supported by Barelvi Sunnis, but disliked by the Deobandis. But the bomb blasts or firing with lethal arms were not heard off. But there are two major factors that have made this conflict bloody. One, the killings of Shi’ahs and in retaliation the anti-Shi’ah Sunni activists and ulema has acquired an alarming dimension because the Pakistani society has become dangerously weaponised. Thanks to Pakistani establishment involvement with Afghan and Kashmir Jihads. Not only religious conflicts but political, ethnic and crime have become nastier and bloody because of the easy access to arms. The CIA and ISI took pride during Afghan war in the eighties that they have created ‘techno-guerillas’ by imparting training on how to make different kinds of explosives. Now the once-loved ‘techno-guerillas’ have become master trainers of the people who consider killing people of opposite sect a service to true Islam.

Two, for the first time in the recent history a Shi’ah theocratic state was established in 1979 by the Iranian religious leader, who hijacked a democratic revolution against the autocratic Shah of Iran. This jolted the Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern monarchies. They fear the rise of their much-pampered clerics and bringing their kingship system down. The Saudis had invested heavily in the Afghan and Pakistani Sunni sects which were close to their Wahabi/Salafi thinking. The anti-Shi’ah extremists were financed to nib the religious revolution in the bud. This started a proxy war in Pakistan. The Iranian religious fascists invested in their Shi’ah extremists. Hence we see this proxy war being fought by the militant extremists of both sects on the streets of Pakistan. Once a tolerant Pakistani society where different sects coexisted peacefully has become too dangerous for the Shi’ahs who is in the minority. They are like an endangered species now. Ghettoisation on sect basis has gathered momentum and many who can are fleeing the country.

This ruthless fight between sects reminds me of an interesting observation made by an American journalist Gregg Easterbrook. He is quoted by Nader Hashemi in his book ‘Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy.’ Easterbrook wrote in Washington Post: “Ought Islam to be considered barbarian because religion sometimes sparks rioting and has followers who endorse that internally contradictory concept ‘holy war’? Neither speaks well for Islamic values but consider an intriguing historical parallel. Today’s Muslems (sic) extremism is occurring about (over) 1300 years after the death of Mohammed, in 632 A.D. The low ebb of Christianity—the Inquisition, followed by decades of mutual slaughter among Catholics and Protestants—began approximately the same number of years after the death of Christ….”

Why it takes 13 to 14 centuries for the sectarian extremism to rise to such an extent is question for the anthropologists and historians to ponder? Is it the last flickering of religious extremism flame before it normalises and become more tolerant? These questions need to be explored by scholars. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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