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SPOTLIGHT | Rise In Anti-Shia Sentiments: A Disaster In The Offing

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A wave of sectarian hatred and hostilities against the Shia community erupted in Pakistan at the beginning of Muharram with several Shia scholars, activists and speakers being booked and arrested on blasphemy charges. The charges include ‘insulting’ companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Many detainees include elderly citizens.

Moreover, various anti-Shia gatherings were held in multiple cities last week where hate speech against the community was openly practiced. At least 30,000 people attended these rallies in Karachi, according to security officials. One of the rallies held in Islamabad called for ‘social boycott’ of Shias.

Barelvi and Deobandi outfits join forces against Shias

In the past, there were sporadic acts of violence against the Shia community by radical Deobandi groups, such as Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) — now operating as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) — and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). But in the absence of a strong political movement, the intensity of these acts depended on favourable conditions on the ground.

However, this time Barelvi and Deobandi radical outfits seem to have put up a joint front against the Shias by taking to the street against ‘people who insult companions of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)’. The hate speech practised by these outfits went unpunished. The state, in fact, took action against Shias on the insistence of these extremist groups, arresting and booking several people under the blasphemy law.

On Friday, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) held a rally followed by a bigger demonstration organised by Barelvi groups on Saturday. Another outfit Markazi Jamaat-e-Ahle Hadith held its power show on Sunday, which was readily joined by ASWJ to boost their numbers.

“The groundwork for such type of rallies had been laid before the 2018 general elections when extremist elements were allowed space in the national mainstream,” says Bilal Farooqi, a Karachi-based journalist covering extremism.

He added that ASWJ supported the ruling PTI in a symbiotic relationship in the lead up to the general elections in 2018. After PTI assumed power, the ASWJ found increasing space for hateful politics that revolves around anti-Shia sentiments, he said, linking the rise of ASWJ to its pre-election activities.

Farooqi notes that the radical Deobandi outfit that is at the forefront of these rallies also managed to enter the Punjab Assembly, with Mauwiya Azam Tariq becoming a provincial lawmaker and a member of special committee of lawmakers. “The influence of the party gradually increased which could be seen by the recent Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam Act.”

The rise of ASWJ, as evident from its massive power show in Karachi, reflects that the group has regained its strength to an extent that it can pressurise the state authorities into muzzling the voices of a religious minority group, the journalist added.

Karachi as launching pad

“These groups chose Karachi as their launching pad for a nationwide anti-Shia movement because of their ‘strong pre-partition network’ in the port city,” argues another Karachi-based reporter who wished to remain anonymous. He said that the extremists groups knew that holding a march in the metropolis would garner much media attention, in addition to attracting a large number of followers based in urban areas.

Speaking about Barelvi groups that organised the biggest demonstration of the three, the journalist said the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) revived by the tradition of Barelvis – started by Sunni Tehreek in 80s—and also brought violence to the movement.

He added that the politicisation of blasphemy allegations by Khadim Rizvi-led TLP translated into massive support for the party, which helped it bag three seats in the Sindh Assembly as well.

The journalist further noted that it was significant that Mufti Muneebur Rahman, Ruet-e-Hilal Committee Chairman, was the organiser of this rally. “He is considered the most important leader of the Barelvi school of thought after the entire leadership was killed in the 2006 Nishtar Park blast.”

Social media hate speech contributing to sectarian tensions

As Muharram approached in late August, the social media cells of the banned outfit started churning out hashtags declaring Shias ‘infidels’ and ‘traitors’. In September, a hashtag named declaring Shias kafir (infidel) trended on the microblogging site in the wake of three rallies in Karachi that provoked the anti-Shia sentiments across the country.

One of the accounts active in inciting violence against the minority Muslim community was named ‘Pakistani’ who declares himself to be a ‘jihadi (partisan) with zero tolerance for Qadyani (Ahmadis) and Shias’, whereas other accounts included users with affinity to the views held by ASWJ and other radical Sunni outfits e.g. TLP.

The accounts spreading hate against the Shia Muslim community remained especially active before and after the multiple protests organised by radical Sunni parties in Karachi and Islamabad, suggesting that the online campaign was well-organised.

Social media hashtags peddling bogotry and hateful sentiments often remind one of how radicalised the Pakistan society has become.

But Bilal Farooqi thinks however polarising, the social media hate trends rarely translate into active public support, barring TLP that circumvent the ban on mainstream media by using Facebook and Twitter to amplify its pro-blasphemy law narrative.

He thinks that these outfits, especially the likes of ASWJ, have a strong support network in the form of madrassas across Pakistan. “ASWJ has a strong presence in interior Sindh; has been introduced in Balochistan over the past decades; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has also seen the rise of ASWJ. And Punjab, well it’s the birthplace,” he opines.

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Action against extremist elements post-APS was selective

Farooqi said the National Action Plan (NAP) developed in the aftermath of the Army Public School (APS) attack provided an opportunity for the state to act against these elements. “But the state chose to act in a selective manner and temporarily ‘tamed’ these groups actively polarising society through their sectarian agenda.”

‘New extremist alliance may revive targeted killings of the Shia community’

The journalist on anonymity said the outfits that took to streets over the week have a history of violence against each other but if they managed to put up a joint front against the Shia community which is not off the table, it would be an ‘alarming’ development.

If this happens, that would be much dangerous than previous anti-Shia movements primarily operated by ASWJ with a focus on violence.

“An alliance among these groups on the said issue would have far-reaching ramifications as they would do their best to mount pressure on the state to take action against the Shia community to limit the so-called influence of the minority group,” he adds.

Observers also fear this campaign may lead to violent attack against the Shia community, which has long been at the receiving end of violence. According to media report, 4847 Shias were killed in incidents of sectarian violence and targeted attacks between 2001 and 2018. The ideology of the Deobandi extremist outfits such as SPP and ASWJ that are currently villainising the Shia community is clear: rid Pakistan of Shias.

But a well-placed police officer, who was also serving in Rawalpindi in 2014 at the time of Sunni-Shia clashes in Muharram, said that this recent wave of sectarian tensions is not unusual, adding that the 2014 campaign against the Shia community was more charged and polarised. He further opined that the registration of FIRs against Shias was not a new trend either. “When laws are made [to enable persecution of minorities], they can be invoked by a group and used any time,” he said.

Regional factors influencing the rise in anti-Shia sentiments

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the country’s faultlines could be manipulated by internal as well as external actors. This has certainly been the case in the past, when brutal proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, spanning much of Muslim world from the Levant to the Indian Subcontinent, ignited tensions between Muslim communities belonging to different sects.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran, unleashing intense religious and sectarian passions in many Muslim countries, is often cited as a turning point in this process.

In countries affected by sectarian divides, the strategic goals of ruling elites can have an impact on communal faultlines. This is true also for Pakistan, where successive administrations have backed religious fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan – mostly hardline factions of Sunni Muslims. While this was done with strategic goals in mind for Afghanistan and Central Asia, the blowback was felt within Pakistan in the form of increased activity from sectarian organisations targeting Shia Muslims. From the time of the mujahideen up to the recent campaigns of the Afghan Taliban, generations of militants have been trained to view other Muslim sects in very hostile terms.

As various regional and global powers position themselves to advance their interests in the Afghan peace process, Pakistan is also likely to continue strongly backing factions which it sees as supportive of its goals. And so, for the foreseeable future, this will continue to have an impact on sectarian tensions within Pakistan.

The past few months have seen major strategic shifts and realignments throughout Asia, including Pakistan’s evolving relations with China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In particular, as relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia take a frosty turn, analysts see this as a factor in the escalating sectarian tensions within Pakistan.

Are sectarian tensions in Pakistan triggered by recent spat between Riyadh and Islamabad?

“The current sudden upsurge involves, in addition to other factors, the current Pakistan-Saudi distancing or downturn in relations – where the expected Pakistan-Iran-China-Russia alignment is exerting an impact. We must remember: since the 1980s, the Saudi influence via Wahabi/ Takfiri Islamists has increased. And that increased influence is also an important factor in this sudden eruption of huge anti Shia demonstrations in Pakistan. This probably reflects displeasure over Pakistan’s new regional geo-strategic alignment,” says International Relations scholar Prof. Ijaz Khan

Mainstream media coverage of the sectarian upsurge has been muted – at least partly by design. It is clear that authorities are not comfortable with too much discussion on the subject. At the best of times, there is sensitivity in official circles when it comes to Pakistan’s sectarian fault-lines. There is much anxiety that such divides are a vulnerability which can be exploited by external forces for strategic leverage within the country.

The rise in public mobilisations featuring hate-speech and bigotry have attracted supporters from both the older sectarian anti-Shia organisations and newer tendencies which arose over the past few years.

Despite the sensitivity of the sectarian question in society, and the difficulty in having an open discussion, commentators on social media have pointed out some aspects of the current situation which are not easily explained away. The rise in activity by sectarian forces is especially perplexing at a time when authorities have been directing unprecedented scrutiny towards mass media, social media and political mobilisations in general.

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There has also been discussion around the roots of sectarianism in Pakistan – and whether the current upsurge has more to do with long-term historical factors spanning decades or with more recent political developments over the past few months.

Naya Daur Media asked two academics to weigh in on what is happening.

“It is difficult to say exactly why we are seeing a surge in anti-Shia bigotry. Some suggest there is an international dimension, with Saudi Arabia flexing its muscles, while others wonder if this is being engineered to pressurise the government as the TLP did with the PML-N a few years ago,” says academic Hassan Javid.

He is of the opinion that holding a rally of this kind is Islamabad could not happen without the knowledge and, perhaps, approval of the federal government. “The ASWJ is either being used to achieve some nebulous political adjective or the government is powerless to stop them. The implications are disturbing either way.”

Weaponisation of blasphemy law

Historian Ali Usman Qasmi highlights some of the broader forces at play. According to him, sectarian forces are now able to weaponise the country’s blasphemy-related legislation towards the goal of marginalising minority sects within the Muslim population. He says: “The scale of violence from extremist organisations has been such that it would be wrong to describe this as a clash of the Sunni and the Shia. It would be more accurate to understand this as one-sided violence with the goal of capturing public space.”

Extremist organisations appear to be insisting that it is their right to express the views of the majority. “To put it crudely,” explains Qasmi, the message from ongoing sectarian anti-Shia rallies is that “minorities must accept the lot of a minority and live accordingly. This attitude is analogous to Hindu nationalists’ attitude towards Muslims in BJP-led India.”

‘State faciliated ASWJ’s rise’

Hassan Javid says that by choosing to nurture extremist groups as proxies to be used in pursuit of domestic and international political goals, and by insisting on enforcing an official nationalism based on an increasingly narrow vision of Islam (in the face of demands for greater representation from ethnic and other marginalized groups), the state has facilitated the rise of groups like the ASWJ.”

For Ali Usman Qasmi, the latest episode of sectarian tensions can be traced back to a recent moment, when some Shia clerics mobilised to demand that authorities take action against Asif Ashraf Jalali for his alleged provocative remarks. It was claimed that Jalali, leader of his own faction of the Tehreek-e-Labbayk (TLP), had inflamed the religious sentiments of Shi’ite Muslims and that if he were not stopped, the law and order situation in Muharram might be affected. Even though other factions of the predominantly Sunni Barelvi TLP did not agitate in favour of Jalali, it appears that sectarian passions were inflamed across factional lines by the action taken against him.

‘Asif Alvi was encouraged by the establishment’

Further, a firebrand Shia cleric Asif Alvi recently issued provocative remarks which the Sunni groups saw as an attack on their beliefs, and his speech is being described as one of the main reasons for anger among the extremist outfits and the subsequent rise in anti-Shia sentiments in the country.

But a source close to Shia religious leaders told Naya Daur on the condition of anonymity that the controversy involving Asif Alvi had been ‘staged’. The source added that Shia leaders had disowned Asif Alvi, suggesting that his outburst that was seen by Sunni groups as an attack on their beliefs, was encouraged and enabled by the powers-that-be.

“When we look at the sentiments being expressed now at sectarian rallies, there is a sense of anger at any restriction on figures from the majority community and resentment that the government appeared to concede to a minority community in this case,” Ali Usman Qasmi says.

Strategic shifts in Pakistan’s policy towards various religious groups have taken place since around 2000 – with the rise of Barelvi clerics as an assertive political force. Earlier billed as representing a ‘softer’ or more ‘Sufi’ approach to Islam, Barelvi outfits such as the Sunni Tehreek have been looking to take back space from the previously ascendant but numerically smaller Deobandis. According to Qasmi, “We may now be seeing the next stage in this process of Barelvi mobilisation and consolidation of power, where the country’s blasphemy legislation is being invoked against other Muslim sects, such as the Shia.”

Qasmi is concerned that this could mark a very dangerous new phase for the country as it holds the potential for more violence. “Minority groups have long contended with discrimination, hate speech and physical violence to varying degrees,” he says. “But now we can say that these rallies have resulted in a sense of despondency, even more than fear. People worry that if the largest denomination from the country’s majority community were to adopt such an attitude, it is difficult to say where this process will stop – and what room will be left for communities whose beliefs differ.”

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