Pakistan, not a lost case: An example of sectarian harmony and tolerance – by Amna Imam

The following article suggests that religious fanatics (belonging to Deobandi, Ahl-e-Hadith, Shia and Barelvi sects) are a tiny minority in Pakistan. The dominant majority of Muslims and non-Muslims of Pakistan are a peace loving, tolerant nation. Unfortunately, our enemies within (the ISI) and without (the CIA) have exploited the religious and sectarian differences within Pakistani society to promote their specific strategic agendas, e.g., recruitment of extremist Deobandis and Wahhabis as cheap mercenaries in the cross-border terrorism (wrongly labelled as jihad) in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In the following personal account by an ex-bureaucrat, Professor Amna Imam states that “when people talk about weak democracy in Pakistan, when Pakistanis discuss the desirability of a military government, when people think that democracy is unsustainable in Pakistan, when the media reports of gross violence and inequalities in the Pakistani society, I take solace in my first hand knowledge of the real Pakistan.”

Pakistan, not a lost case

It was an early morning, in the holy month of Moharram in the year 2000; I was going through the daily police reports in my office in Karachi, relieved that nothing out of the ordinary was reported, when something caught my eye.

There was a report about an incident at a small Imam Bargah (Shia mosque), in a poor community, located in the treacherous hills of North Nazimabad, separating the Urdu speaking Mohajir community from the Pashto speaking Pakhtoons – the two ethnic rival communities of Karachi.

However, the incident was not ethnic in nature it was sectarian. A few days ago, a group of armed men from the Sunni extremist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba had visited the small Shiamosque, and had threatened the Shia Imam of an attack on his mosque if he commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Shia tradition on the 10th of Moharram.

Hussain was the grandson of Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). Both Shias and Sunnis commemorate the Shahadat (martyrdom) of Imam Hussain on the 10th of Islamic holy month of Moharram.

However, Sunnis do it in a quiet fashion, reading Quran, fasting, and giving in charity. Shias, on the other hand, in addition to doing all that Sunnis do, hold elaborate meetings in their Imam Bargahs (Shia mosques), wear black, weep, read poetry and beat on their bodies – all the things that Sunnis consider as Bida’ats (Un-Islamic).

Reading the police report, I was at my wits end. Karachi, because of its sheer magnitude and economic significance, was always sitting on social land mines. Any violent incident had, and has, the potential to put the city into a state of turmoil, and by consequence the entire country.

Though, I had force from five police stations, I also had the headquarters of Sipah-e-Shaba (an extremist Sunni organization) in my jurisdiction, the biggest Shia mosque in the Karachi, and a high concentration of Pakhtoons living next door to Mohajirs in my sub-division.

It was a delicate social ecosystem composed of tightly knotted ethnic and sectarian intricacies.

My police force was not enough to take care of all these locations.

I could not be present at the small Shia mosque on the 10th of Moharram, 2000; I was needed at the biggest Shia mosque in my sub-division. I had learned from experience that the police force would run away for its safety, as soon as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate leaves.

I could not leave the biggest Shia congregation in such a precarious condition during their Moharram 10th events. Simultaneously, however small the other Shia mosque was, it was my responsibility to provide security to it on the same day, and at the same time, as the big Shiamosque.

If, God forbid, something had happened to the small Imam Bargah, the big Shia mosque wouldn’t have been safe from attacks and retaliation – and that would have meant that the entire city of Karachi and perhaps the country would have been thrown into flames (literally).

As aware as I was of the gravity of the situation, I could think of nothing, in terms of strategic deployment, that could have saved the day. I was tired from many sleepless nights, busy making security arrangements for the night of the 10th of Moharram, and couldn’t think clearly.

What do I do?

As I was busy thinking about the situation that had made its way to my doorstep, my secretary informed me that a community organizer wishes to see me. I let him in. He mentioned the threat to the small Shia mosque. He suggested that prior to deciding my strategy I should talk to the community members, both Shias and Sunnis. That was the first sane thought that had crossed my office that morning.

I thanked him and asked my secretary to arrange for the meeting of the elders of the community in my office later that day. I asked him to ensure that the Imam of the small Shia mosque also attended. He made the phone calls, and I was told that they will be at my office at 4 pm later that day. I had little hope, but there was nothing else that I could do.

They arrived promptly at 4 pm. The elders were all conservative Sunnis the only Shia present in the meeting was the Imam of the small Shia mosque. I informed them of the security situation and my limitations.

I asked them to advise me on how to proceed with it. The easiest option at that time seemed to be to cancel the permit for Shia commemoration for Moharram 10th of that mosque to avoid violence, but I was open to suggestions.

They all listened very patiently. Then, the oldest person in the group, who was a Sunni, spoke up on behalf of all. He said, “Ma’am, we and the Shia Imam are neighbors and friends. We have lived together for decades. We have attended each other’s weddings and funerals; we have been together in child births and in sickness. We have always taken care of each other. Although we are not Shias, the Shia Imam and his family are our family, his daughter is my daughter is his son is my son, and his congregation is my congregation.

We will not let anything happen to him, his family, or his mosque.” He paused to take a breath, and then continued, “He and his congregation have the right to practice their religion as they deem fit.

Although we do not agree with him and other Shias in how they commemorate Moharram, nevertheless, we will defend their right to practice their religion to our last breath.” You could have knocked me down with afeather at that moment!

I was elated; I had never imagined a poorly educated, low income Pakistani male, who belonged to a generation that existed eons ago, would give me a lecture on how to balance concerns of security with religious freedom!

That was one of the proudest moments of my life. However, I still did not have the solution to the problem. The elder continued in the same tone, “Ma’am, we have therefore, decided that all of us, the Sunni families, will attend the events of 10th Moharram, at the Shia mosque.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba militants have no political incentive to attack and kill us Sunnis, and hence if we are at the Shia mosque, they would not attack the Shia mosque either. This way, the plan to hold events in the Shia mosque will not be disturbed and the security will not be compromised. We will not need your force, but we invite you to come join us for the events at the Shia mosque on the 10th of Moharram.”

I was full of admiration for the simple and elegant solution, and I was speechless at the grassroots wisdom, tolerance, acceptance, empathy and strength of community. I had just witnessed a historic event – I was honored, thankful and graciously humbled.

That was our plan. We discussed the details, and carried it out to the “t”. It went well. Not a drop of blood was shed in North Nazimabad sub-division during the Moharram in year 2000.

Years passed by, some harshly, some softly, but I could never forget the simple compassion of that local Pakistani community.

Today, when people talk about weak democracy in Pakistan, when Pakistanis discuss the desirability of a military government, when people think that democracy is unsustainable in Pakistan, when the media reports of gross violence and inequalities in the Pakistani society, I take solace in my first hand knowledge of the real Pakistan.

I take solace in the inherent wisdom of the simple people, in their simple homes, eating their simple bread, talking to each other under the Neem trees in hot afternoons, and under the stars in cool evenings.

Their wisdom is gained from a culture that spans thousands of years, the wisdom that would make any post-modernist proud, the wisdom and humanity and voice and action and autonomy that are the hallmarks of Pakistani society.

I take solace in the knowledge, that democracy is inherently wise, humane, Islamic, universal, and tolerant and hence inherently Pakistani.