Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East by Khaled Ahmed

(First published 2011)

This book is one of the most comprehensive and impartial accounts of sectarianism in Pakistan. It evaluates the development and solidification of Pakistan’s religion-based nationalist discourse through the decades and charts the origins and politics of Pakistani sectarian organisations and explains how the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East was shifted to Pakistan in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and how it turned into a proxy war between Iran and Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia with the connivance of Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The book further links recent sectarian violence in and out of Pakistan with the shift in Al-Qaida’s focus to include Muslim targets which were perceived to be “collaborating” with the West in the so called War on Terror. Read below for details:

After gaining Independence from Britain, the Pakistani leadership attempted to divide people on the basis of religion, into Muslims and non-Muslims, under what the they termed as “the ideology of Pakistan”. This attempt at carving a uniform and homogenous identity in an otherwise extremely diverse country, with a mosaic of different Islamic sects, cultures, languages, ethnicities and, indeed, religions, was bound to turn the society into a cesspit of sectarianism. This not only led to the exclusion of non-Muslim religious minorities, who were practically delegated to the status of second class citizens, it also led to the chastisement of minority Muslim sects who were seen by some sections of Sunni majority as deviant and therefore, outside the pale of Islam.

The first practical expression of this ideology reached its crescendo in anti-Ahmadis riots of 1952 (a sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims). The lack of meaningful state policy to deal with the outlandish demands of mainstream Islamic parties led, in 1974, to the declaration of Ahmadis as “heretics” and therefore “non-Muslim” by the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was just the beginning. It was only a matter of time before sectarian groups turned on other minority Muslim sects. Shia Muslims, by logical extension, became their next target.

The book then focuses on the history and dynamics of anti-Shia politics in Pakistan. The most vehement opposition against Shia community came from the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam which is ideologically closer to the puritanical Wahhabi sect (the official religion of Saudi Arabia) than Barelvi branch of Sunni Islam, which happens to be the largest Islamic sect in Pakistan. Three major factors contributed to the systematic targeting of Shia.

First, the success of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the perception that it supported Pakistani Shia against that country’s Sunnis. The Arab Sunnis, fearful of Iran exporting its Revolution to countries like Pakistan, moved in to counter Iran by arming anti-Shia sectarian groups in Pakistan. Second, the rise to power of Islamist Zia-ul-Haq, a Deobandi army general whose religious sympathies lay with Saudi Arabia. And third, the US-Saudi backed Jihadi resistance to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which further strengthened the Deobandi sectarian-cum-jihadi groups.

Anti-Shia edicts were already pouring in from certain Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan in the 50s, 60s and 70s but with little appeal. Pakistani politics and the society were not yet polarized to the point of these edicts having any larger, practical effect. However, in 1986, when the afore-mentioned three major factors were in full swing, an Indian Deobandi scholar called Manzur Naumani, fearful of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its outreach, published a collection of religious edicts from classical Sunni jurists to the contemporary scholars with the singular aim of apostatising the Shia Muslims. It had a profound effect on sectarian politics in Pakistan.

Naumani’s anti-Shia credentials were already established with the publication of a polemic against Ayatullah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. An organisation funded by Saudi Arabia, Rabita al-`Alam al-Islami, tr. Muslim World League, commissioned the said polemic to be translated, among other languages, into Arabic and English. Some Pakistani Deobandi scholars lauded Naumani’s anti-Shia anthology and circulated it widely among their seminaries and general public. Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the flagship Shia-killing politico-sectarian outfit, was created just a year ago, in 1985, with the tacit approval of General Zia-ul-Haq who was fearful of Iranian Revolution spilling into Pakistan. Naumani’s anthology couldn’t have come out at a better time.

The mayhem started.

The book documents major Shia massacres committed by Saudi funded Deobandi outfits during the ‘80s, including the Parachinar massacre and the Gilgit massacre of Isma’ili Shia. The Shia Turi tribe of Parachinar (concentrated in border regions with Afghanistan which was then a major supply route of so called Mujahidin fighting the Soviets) did not cooperate as they naturally looked toward newly formed Islamic Shia government in Iran. For instance, the famous Allamah Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, later assassinated, was a Turi Shia with intimate ties with Iranian leader Ayatullah Khomeini. This did not sit well with the Saudi-backed jihadi groups.

The sectarian conflict was, in large measure, one-sided. The Sunni sectarian groups killed Shia without discrimination. On the contrary, the Shia militant group, Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM), created specifically to defend Shia properties and lives didn’t participate in the killing of ordinary Sunnis. Instead it targeted those Sunni elements which were responsible for inciting the killings of Shia and took part in it. In effect, the sectarian conflict of the ‘80s, thanks largely to the policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, was politicised to such an extent that it become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who supported their respective loyal groups with arms and money, turning Pakistan into a cesspool of sectarianism.

The last section of the book takes a critical look at the sectarian shade in the politics of Al-Qaida. The author links Shia killing in and outside Pakistan post 9/11 with Al-Qaida’s policies. Not many view Al-Qaida as having a sectarian nature, which, according to the author, is a view based on limited information.

So long as Al-Qaida, lead by Osama bin Laden, remained under the influence of its ideologue, Abdullah Azzam, it prime focus was to target and harm Christian and Jewish “infidels”. However, an important shift took place within the terrorist organisation when it fell under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He expanded the target base to include Muslim “collaborators” and made them the prime target of attacks. Henceforth almost all Muslim countries and Muslim minorities unsympathetic to Al-Qaida became potential targets. The Shia Muslims, who did not share Al-Qaida’s view of Jihad, were viewed, in the case of Iraq, as collaborating with the United States and therefore legitimate targets. Al-Zawahiri allowed the rabidly anti-Shia Al-Qaida operative, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to attack the Shia in Iraq.

Even before this development Al-Qaida accepted within its ranks those jihadist militants who doubled as part-time Shia killers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus the author concludes that Al-Qaida and its militant allies, unlike previously believed, have a distinct sectarian nature. The book also includes a study of inter-Sunni violence between Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith and Barelvi schools. Most attacks were aimed at Barelvis who were viewed by hardline Deobandi sectarian groups as not being “Muslim enough” and therefore legitimate targets.

This book is a scathing indictment on the role Deobandi militant nexus played in turning Pakistan into a cesspit of sectarianism and terrorism. A big share of blame lies with the Pakistani establishment which fostered ties with those groups in pursuit of strategic advantage in Kashmir and Afghanistan at the cost of great social instability at home and abroad. It’s a must read for those who want to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of sectarianism in Pakistan and Islamist terrorism in the region.

My rating definitely 5/5. Look it up on AMAZON.

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