State Must Douse The Fire Of Sectarianism Before It Engulfs The Whole Country
Majority in Pakistan recognises the fact that the people of the Islamic republic are not sectarian-minded. Before jihad took hold of Pakistan in 1979, and extremist clerics became threatening, there was considerable harmony between the sects. Muharram was not the season of sectarian violence and pandemonium. The Tazias of the Ustad and Shagird in the city of Saints, Multan, Shah Jamal Wala Tazia of Jhang and the Tazias of Chiniot is the true legacy of Shia-Sunni unity.
Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had faced vigorous opposition throughout his premiership years. In 1977 the opposition was united under the revivalist banner of Nezam-e-Mustafa. According to supporters of the movement, establishing an Islamic state based on the Sharia law would mean a return to the justice and success of the early days of Islam. In an effort to stem the tide of street Islamisation, Bhutto had also called for it and banned nightclubs, horse racing, and the drinking and selling of wine by Muslims.
On 5 July 1977, General Zia-al-Haq led a coup d’état. He committed himself to establishing an Islamic state and enforcing the Sharia law. He went on to establish separate Sharia Judicial courts to judge legal cases using Islamic doctrine. New criminal offences of adultery, fornication, and types of blasphemy, and punishments of whipping, amputation, and stoning to death were added to the Pakistani law. Offices, schools, and factories were required to offer praying space. Conservative Islamic scholars were added to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). Separate electorates for Hindus and Christians were established in 1985 even though Christian and Hindu leaders complained that they felt excluded from the country’s political process.
Despite reservations expressed by the country’s Shia clerics, Zia al Haq promulgated a new ordinance regarding automatic annual deduction of the 2.5% Zakat from bank accounts. In July 1980, the Shia political organisation Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqh-i-Jafaria, under the leadership of Mufti Jafar Hussain, organised the largest Shia demonstrations in Pakistan’s history at Lal quarters ground in Islamabad. Most of the participants were from Multan, Shorkot and Bakkhar district.
When the demands of Shias were turned down by the military government, the Shia leadership decided to march towards Islamabad Secretariat. As soon as the announcement was made, Islamabad police was ordered to attack the crowd with teargas, which created a panic in the crowd and they all started marching towards the Secretariat. One of the teargas shells hit a demonstrator in the head which went through his skull and the victim died at the spot. The crowd reached Secretariat Islamabad after few hours, where the sit-in was announced by the Shia leadership. The sit-in forced Zia after two days to backtrack and he agreed to exempt Shias from Zakat deduction and change the laws for inheritence. Known as the Islamabad Accord, President Zia al Haq viewed it as a personal humiliation as it sent a strong message across the country that his so-called ‘Islamisation’ was not acceptable to all Pakistanis.
That was the beginning of the opposition of Shias at the state level. It was the Islamabad accord which signalled the start of sectarian war in Pakistan more than Saudi-Iran proxy war or Afghan Jihad. Military dictator President Zia al Haq viewed Shias as a threat to be controlled and, therefore, first instigated a split in the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqah-Jafaria in 1984 with the help of his intelligence agencies. Second, and more importantly, he approved the appearance on the scene of the anti-Shia sectarian organisation Anjuman Sipah Sahaba later renamed Sipah Sahaba Pakistan.
Consider the following: The formation of the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO) soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the rise of Arif al Hosseini to top positions who was later murdered in Peshawar on August 5, 1988. The emergence of a new class of Shia religious clerics who had either spent most of their time in Iran or were ideologically allied to Tehran.
It also invited backlash against Shias when the Saudis bankrolled Pakistani-state sponsored madrassahs during the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s, which resulted in the rise of sectarian outfits.
The first major sectarian riots in Pakistan broke out in 1983 in Karachi and later spreading to Lahore and Balochistan.
“In May 1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit town. The number of dead and injured was in the hundreds. But numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys,” says The Herald April 1990.
Malik Ishaq, the leader of one of Pakistan’s most notorious anti-Shia extremist groups Lashkar-e-Jhangvi declared Shia Muslims “the greatest infidels on earth” and demanded that the Pakistani state “declare Shia non-Muslims on the basis of their beliefs.” Lashkar-e-Jhangvi death squads are believed to have been responsible for the killings of thousands of Shias throughout the country, including a campaign of targeted murders in 2011 which killed Shia doctors, lawyers and politicians residing in Karachi.
A fierce crackdown by security forces in 2015 which resulted in a dramatic drop in sectarian violence. The crackdown culminated in July 2015 when Malik Ishaq was killed in a firefight with police along with 13 fellow militants. The shootout wiped out much of the top leadership of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
On September 11 and 12 this month, mainstream religious right-wing parties, allied with banned outfits, held mass rallies to demand stricter blasphemy laws and for the Islam Protection Bill recently passed by the Punjab Assembly to be replicated across Pakistan. The protesters demanding a ban on Muharram processions that marks the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and his followers on 10, Muharram 61 AH. The commotion followed the detention of a Shia cleric in Karachi under blasphemy laws for leading Ziyarat-e-Ashura, a prayer that salutes the martyrs of the Battle of Karbala, on Channel 24 News on Sept. 13. Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued a notice to the news channel and suspended its license for 15 days, and its owner was arrested.
The tragic irony of this increasingly violent sectarianism is that Friday’s demonstration saw thousands of protesters rally near the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who himself was a Shia Muslim though he maintained a secular public religious identity and preached the same for the country. Once a respected and well-integrated minority which counts the nation’s founder as one of their own, Shia Muslims within Pakistan have become a community under siege in recent years and are facing a situation which is increasingly being described by many as a slow-motion genocide.
The Pakistani state and political parties have been a bystander and accomplice in Shia genocide. The political ramifications of such anti-Shia gatherings will not spare anyone, particularly considering the fact that an anti-Shia movement there had once led to the killing of a large number of Shias, including professionals and other prominent persons. The state of Pakistan must not ignore the fact that sectarianism is a dangerous political tool, even worse than religiosity. Wake up!
The writer is a traveller and freelance writer based in UK. He has previously written for @the_nation @Dawn_com @DunyaNews @TheAsians He can be contacted on Twitter @SyedIHusain