Pakistan’s Shia Muslims and other persecuted groups must fight the minority self-image

Editor’s note: The following is an unusual post because it is based on a facebook conversation between three persons. However, the topic under discussion and the debate itself may not only provide some useful food for thought on an important topic but may also help start further debate. Happy reading! (Shaheryar Ali)

Shaheryar Ali (SA): What do you think about the issue of changing Shia self idenity in Pakistan, the “minority” image that at least some Shia Muslims are interiorizing in reaction to their incessant genocide by Pakistan army-backed Jihadi-sectarian militants.

For example, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s point in his recent article in Express Tribune is very important. Hoodbhoy thus describes the minority self image of Shia Muslims:

[Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians, and Parsis] were never enthused about India’s partition (even though some individual members pretended to be). Indeed, they were soon slapped with the Objectives Resolution of 1949 which termed them “minorities”, hence freaks and outcasts dispatched to the margins. Some accepted their fate, keeping a low profile. Others altered their names to more Muslim sounding ones. The better off or more able ones emigrated, taking valuable skills along with them.

But with Shias and Ahmadis it was different. Whatever they might feel now, they were enthusiastic about Pakistan. Mr Jinnah, born a Gujrati Shia Muslim, believed that Muslims and Hindus could never live together peacefully but that Muslims, of course, could. Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi leader, was commended by Jinnah for having eloquently argued the Two-Nation theory, and then appointed by him in 1947 as Pakistan’s first foreign minister. Mr Jinnah died early, but Zafarullah Khan lived long enough to see disillusionment. The inevitable had happened: once the partition was complete, the question of which version of Islam was correct became bitterly contentious.

Until recently, Pakistan’s Shias did not have the self-image of a religious minority. [A few Shia mullahs] had joined Sunnis in supporting Mr Bhutto’s 1974 decision to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslim. But now they are worried. The Tribal Areas are convulsed in sectarian warfare: Kurram, Parachinar and Hangu (in the settled districts)… with most casualties being Shia. City life has also become increasingly insecure and segregated; Karachi’s Shia neighborhoods are visibly barricaded and fortified. Pakistan’s state apparatus, for all its tanks and guns, offers no protection to those deemed as religious minorities. Is it just weakness? Or, perhaps, complicity? While swarms of intelligence agents can be seen in many places, they fail spectacularly to intercept religious terrorists. More ominously, recent months have seen state-sanctioned Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) rallies across the country, drawing many tens of thousands. Prominent self-proclaimed Shia and Ahmadi killers, prance on stage while holding hands in a show of unity.
At the Multan DPC rally on February 17, Khatm-e-Nabuwat leaders bayed for Ahmadi blood while sharing the stage with the famed Malik Ishaq, a self-acclaimed Shia-killer. Newspaper reports say Ishaq was freed last year after frightened judges treated him like a guest in the courtroom, offering him tea and biscuits. One judge attempted to hide his face with his hands. But after Ishaq read out the names of his children, the judge abandoned the trial.

What does the Pakistan Army think it will gain tolerating — or perhaps encouraging — such violent forces once again? Its jawans pay an enormous price in fighting them, and their offshoots, elsewhere in the country. But perhaps the notion that extremists are Pakistan’s ‘strategic assets’ for use in Kashmir and Afghanistan has captured the military’s mind. Or, post-OBL, perhaps a miffed leadership seeks to show anger at the US through such rallies. Whatever the explanation, Pakistan’s minorities face catastrophe.

This self-image of themselves as a minority is not an advisable route, Shia Muslims need to fight that. Shias of Pakistan must never be reduced to status of minority. They are not a minority, the decision of isolation make communities totally defenceless, let’s not hide in barracks and separate areas. It is protective instinct I know but protective instinct is not always right. Its our country, we must stop this segregation.

Abdul Nishapuri (AN): In statistical terms, Shias are a numerical minority (15-20 per cent of Pakistan’s population) and an oppressed, second class citizen group since Islam (i.e., Sunni Islam) was given precedence through the Objectives Resolution in 1949. This ascendancy of Sunni Islam was further narrowed down and formalized when Deobandi and Salafi-Wahhabi versions of Islam were expediently adopted by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-188) in exchange of Saudi petro-dollars for the CIA-designed Afghan Jihad. Thus, in post 1977 Pakistan, it was not only Shia Muslims but also Sunni Barelvi Muslims who despite their numerical majority started experiencing ideological and physical oppression. Perhaps instead of the minority self image or the minority-majority discourse, “the defence of the oppressed” (Difa-e-Mazloomeen) or “the unity of the oppressed” (Ittehad-e-Mazloomeen) may be a better a discourse.

Also, we cannot ignore the fact that the more Shias are killed and persecuted due to their faith, the more they will become attached to their faith identity, it is but natural. Important thing at this stage is to moderate this attachment to faith (or mullahs) so that Shias don’t get entrapped into sectarian extremism. This moderation may be acehieved through a broad based alliance with other oppressed groups, e.g., Sunni Barelvis, Ahmadis, Christians, moderate Deobandis and Salafis, Balochs, Pashtusn etc (Difa-e-Mazloomeen).

AN: It is not only some Shia Muslims who are using the minority self-image to advocate their ideological identity and human rights, the discourse of at least some Baloch and Pashtun activists too betrays the same thinking when they seek to free themselves from an oppressive majority. We can use Lacan’s theory of drives and circuit to understand the desire on some Shia Muslims’ (and other groups’) part to be identified and protected as a distinct, disadvantaged group, a minority. Lacan’s approach is informed by Freud’s distinction between drive and instinct. Drives differ from biological needs because they can never be satisfied and do not aim at an object but rather circle perpetually around it. Lacan posits the drives as both cultural and symbolic constructs. He incorporates the four elements of the drives as defined by Freud (the pressure, the end, the object and the source) to his theory of the drive’s circuit: the drive originates in the erogenous zone, circles round the object, and returns to the erogenous zone. The three grammatical voices structure this circuit: (a) the active voice (to see); (b) the reflexive voice (to see oneself); and (c) the passive voice (to be seen). The active and reflexive voices are auto-erotic — they lack a subject. It is only when the drive completes its circuit with the passive voice that a new subject appears. Despite being the “passive” voice, the drive is essentially active: “to make oneself be seen” rather than “to be seen.” In Pakistan’s context what we are currently witnessing at least in some sections of the persecuted groups (e.g., some sections of Shias, Balochs, Pashtuns etc) is their desire to make themselves to be seen, to be recognized as a community with distinct traits and characteristics, a community which is being maltreated by the other majority segment of the society which is either silent or is taking part in their persecution.

(However, such self-image must be distinguished from the ill-intended attempt on the part of the ASWJ-Taliban apologists and sectarian minded urban elites who dishonestly present Shia Muslims as a minority, knowing it too well that in Pakistan’s constitution, political history and social discourse, the word ‘minority’ is used for non-Muslims!)

SA: Let me explain, what you say is right, the more they are killed more they adopt faith based identity. Its our job as self proclaimed intellectual vangaurd to cut this viscious cycle. Let me counterpose it in a context you must be more familiar! The context of partition, how Muslim identity was created. Romila Thapar has traced its historical origins. In India there was no Muslim “national” identity as such, there was Arab identity, there was Turk identity, there was Persian identity but they were not seen as a collective “Muslim” identity counter poised against a Hindu other! It was British “compartmentalization” of Indian history as “Hindu” and “Muslim” eras that led to development of this identity, later the “rights based” narrative of British empire strengthened it. Let’s not forget the purpose of British was to “protect” the opperssed minority in India and Palestine that resulted in creaion of these fundamentally evil states of Israel and Pakistan.

The narrative of minority and majority is essentially an alien concept, it appears very good, seems to prove basis for protection and rights but it isn’t. That’s why progressive tradition opposes this narrative ensuring the rights are not compromised. This is the reason we oppose “separate electorate” etc. Shias are not a  minority, calling them minority is essentially accepting the Suuni claim to “orthodoxy” of Islam which we don’t accept. I don’t accept that Sunni Islam is the orthodox Islam, and numbers have never been a criteria in determining the orthodoxy.

SA: What could be a more acceptable approach is to understand Islam as heterodox as opposed to othodox entity. There is no central orthodoxy and there is no orthodoxy conferring or enforcing agency, i.e. Church in Islam. State in Pakistan and also in Iran is trying to emerge as one but thankfully without popular support. Since our stance is that atrocities being comitted against Shia Muslims are acts of state, as rightfully pointed out linked to political Islam via Objectives Resolution, our focus should be “secularization”. A secular republic in theory will free us from the textual dilema we are trapped in. Social change will follow, it will be slow but it will follow. What we should be doing is to encourage secularization within “persecuted communities” as opposed to “minorities”. We should encourage “secularization, integration and pluralization” as opposed to “segregation and Islamization”. Than we should encourage a leadership in these communities which is progressive and secular and ready to make bridges to the dominant community as opposed to “majority” in this case the Sunnis, though perhaps it’s still academically not possible to call Pakistan a “Sunni state”, thankfully it’s still not!

AN: It’s getting clearer. Instead of the Shia vs Sunni binary, isn’t it preferable to highlight the internal heterogeneity of Sunnis, and the fact that the State and its killing machinery/proxies do not represent Sunnis?

SA: To understand Islam as heterodox as opposed to orthodox entity. You are not getting it. Shias are numerically less than Sunnis in Pakistan but they are not a minority. Pakistan is not a Sunni state to make Shia a minority, Shias are Muslims living in a Muslim homeland created by an Ismaeli turned Isna Ashari Shia, ruled by a Shia President and a semi Shia Prime Minister!

We need to support secularization within the dominant community and oppose the trends which are not secular, essentially the PMLs, PTI, JI, JUIs, MMA, right wing elements in the PPP and nationalists. We need to identify the issues where persecuted and dominant communities’ ordinary people or working class converge. The issues of Roti, Kapra aur Makan, of employment, of self respect! The greatest defense always comes from the dominant community, the majority of Sunni peopple who always voted for progressive and socialist leadership (including Shia leaders) of progressive parties against all odds, against fatwas by Imam-e-Kaba and every reactionary, against Maulana Maududi holding the Quran in his hand, is your greatest defence. Just look at the literary history of Urdu, every single poet, Sunni or atheist/communist felt obliged to write a Marsia, that was the achievement of progressive, secular leadership, both within Shias and Sunnis. Let’s return to that.

AN: Idealism is all good but in order to have some impact we need to identify pragmatic ways to engage with the oppressed (and silent) communities. We need to speak in their language and also realize that while no secular or political party stepped forward to protect them, it is their religious organizations and scholars who are assuring to protect their identity, rights, traditions and lives (case in point: Shias, Ahmadis). Secularism, unfortunately, has become a dirty word, even PPP does not use it and has to declare allegiance to religion and religious ideals. We need to think about concrete, pragmatic pathway to reforms.

SA: The same Shia religious scholars sat in MMA with murderers of Shia! It’s not right to trust these people. The religious organizations are not protecting Shias, they are isolating them and segregating them, making them an easy prey to be killed. Since the day a Shia person gets votes on PPP’s ticket and wins an election, I would say what I am saying is more pragmatic than one!

Why you want to become a minority? Ahmadis are fighting to get out of this minority staus, so are Christian who demand joint electorate, now we want Shia to be declared minority? That’s what Sipahe Sahaba agenda is to declare Shia a minority. No, we are not a minority in our own country, we are not!

AN: I understand. Perhaps we are confusing constitutional minority with numerical minority. Numerical minority is a statistical description and a statement of fact. I, however, understand your concerns about the ‘minority’ word.

It is, however, a fact that Pakistan was created by a Shia who never professed his Shia identity. Pakistan is ruled by a Shia President who tries very hard to hide his Shia identity, even in funeral prayers of his Shia mother-in-law. Numerical minority or not, Shia is a second class identity in Pakistan, and this dates back to much before the so called Afghan Jihad.

SA: It’s very problematic theoretically to say what you are saying though I understand perfectly well what you are saying but always remember road to hell is paved by bricks of good intention. Pakistan was made in good intention, we have whole 20th century as testament to havvoc of identity politics. We have to learn from history, we can’t repeat the mistakes. This is not an option for us. The road forward is not by this number game. These British robbed us well with this “choti ginti” and “bari ginti” Please dont repeat that. Hit the nail. It’s the state, not numbers!

The fact remains Jinnah had a Shia funeral too; he was a Shia, he gave an affidavit in hight court when he was marrying Ruti, and Zardari and Benazir Bhutto’s nikah was proclaimed by a Shia molvi.

Think about political solution to persecution and oppression. Power is there with PPP and ANP, question is how to push these parties towards their radical popular programme which mobilises masses on economic divide, joining these communities and isolating the reactionaries. That’s why I keep insisting on criticism on these parties from within. Just remember the day of Benazir Bhutto’s murder (shahadat), the mass power a glimpse of it showed us where real power lies, how when masses come, no Army, no Al Qaeda, no MQM can stop it. We can’t let this urban elite discourse confuse us. Power is still within PPP and ANP. Bilwal and Asfandyar hold the key to our destiny, but not with compromises. They have to open a radical narrative, they have to play on their own pitch.

AN: I agree with what you propose via PPP, ANP. Let’s keep the pressure on both and other secular parties and keep reminding them of their duties to the people of Pakistan. Let’s keep the pressure on the State (the oppressor) as well as on the centre-left parties (the prospective rescuer).

SA: Rescuer are the people. They will take their destiny in there hands! It’s how every time everywhere change happened, it’s how it will happen in pakistan. Just keep thinking and keep reading and keep focusing. We will win. Defeat is no more an option for us it not. This tyranny will end, people will be liberated sooner or later they will be.

Reviewer: It is very difficult to deal with the points both of you have raised. On Facebook, replies are short, but your points ask for very deep analysis. When we talk about minorities in Pakistan, we do so in religious terms. Which means that religion is only paradigm of every discussion even when religion itself is criticized. There are many enlightened, liberal Muslims including lots of Shias who claim that Islam is a secular religion: humans rights, respect for women, go to China to seek knowledge, blah, blah.

From the point of view of the Shias (again religion!), secularism is a Trojan horse of Islamofascism. We need an alternative discourse.

Perhaps we can promote Sufic-agnostic discourse which says: (i) You will go to your grave and I will go to my grave, so I have no right to question your belief: two angels are sitting on your shoulders and mine, and (ii) “truth” is the deep structure and the express of it are: truth, truths, truths, and truths. Now it may seem to be either a very abstract way of offering solutions or very low brow one. Both are correct. Pakistanis are made up of both. What I am trying to say that we need a discourse of plurality in which even secularism, even agnosticism, are not monolithic. Allah can have His manifestations in different forms and ways. Islam’s intense monoism has turned it into Islamo-fascism. We need to read its textuality in terms of death of the author, and if we can kill this author, we will have peace. Freud once said to the effect: If I cannot have what I desire, I must desire what I have. AN is right that constitutional minorities do exist and it is statistically possible to quantify populations. But the very minority-majority discourse will have to be abandoned. Marx is still right and relevant. We need to promote the roti, kapra, aur makan discourse. But the Peoples Party has killed it off. SA is right when he says that Sunni Islam is not orthodox; it is merely a statistical dominance. After the death of the Prophet, there were only two sects: Shias and anti-Shias. Sunni Islam is a foster child of Shia Islam: All the four fountainheads of Sunni Islam were Imam Jafar Sadiq’s students. Before Imam Jafar Sadiq, there was no Sunni Islam.

I consider Jinnah a criminal as far as the Shias are concerned. So was Bhutto. So is Zardari. When you do not own your identity in public, you make it suspect. After the creation of Pakistan, a mullah asked Jinnah if he was a Shia. Jinnah’s barrister-like riposte: Was Prophet Muhammad a Shia or Sunni? I think it was the ultimate disgrace on his part. If he had said at that very time: Yes, I am a Shia Muslim and you are a Sunni Muslim, matters would be different today. We blame General Zia a lot (I do so more than anyone else), but it was Bhutto who fathered Zia, and he did so deliberately. I think Bhutto was the real Devil and Zia his Mephistopheles.

SA: You put it right! Let’s not get confused by the secular confusion which exist in Pakistan, but any system we adopt it has to be secular, that’s clear. State has to be neutral in terms of religion. Even in as less idealistc circumstances as in India, it’s an advantage.

About this Sufi thing which you said, it’s nice but again the point bout religious discourse which your yourself raised makes it problematic. We must understand that material conditions for Sufism which we allude to don’t exist any more. It exist in form of ideas, one is a “modern innovation” nostalgia of left progressive intelligentia of high modern times in India and second is Baraleviat. The second one is a poision waiting for its turn! It’s a mullah based anti-thesis to original Sufism. If we promote sufi discourse, chances are in longer run it may be hijacked by Barelvis. Let’s not delude ourselves, they are not behind Deobandis in their venom. Just read from Aala Hazrat Ahmed Raza to Kazmi sahib, you will find fatwas doing takfeer of Shias and others. We need to abondon the religion based discourse, and take things in rational perspective.



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