A review of Khaled Ahmed’s “Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East” – by Khalid Hasan

Sectarian conflict looms over Pakistan, says study

By Khalid Hasan

Source: Daily Times, May 14, 2007

WASHINGTON: Sectarian violence marked by the Shia-Sunni conflict threatens to engulf Pakistan as the current century gets underway, predicts a new study released here last week.

The study, the first of its kind, was completed by Khaled Ahmed, contributing editor at Daily Times, who conducted his research during the last nine months as a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre here. Entitled “Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East”, Ahmed notes that tens of thousands of lives have been lost in Pakistan’s sectarian war in the last two decades of the 20th century. The mayhem continues into the 21st century. He recalls that a very tolerable level of Sunni-Shia tension was inherited by Pakistan from British Raj, and it was not until after 1980 that the two sects squared off violently. Like all internecine conflicts, the war of the sects has been characterised by extreme cruelty, he notes. It coincided with the onset of the Islamic Revolution of Imam Khomeini in Iran and the threat its “export” posed to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states across the Gulf.

Ahmed writes, “Pakistanis invariably blame Saudi Arabia and Iran for the violence since they funded and trained the partisans of this war. They are aware that Pakistan was subjected to someone else’s ‘relocated’ war. Much of the internal dynamic of this war remains hidden from public view. A kind of embarrassment over the phenomenon of Muslim-killing-Muslim has prevented Pakistanis from inquiring frankly into how the two hostile states were able to transplant their conflict in Pakistan. Sectarian violence has drawn its strength from the past too. The schismatic past was concealed behind two important layers of governance. First, the Raj was able to almost completely uproot the Sunni-Shia confrontation during its tenure from 1857 to 1947. A refusal to recognise the jurisprudence of takfir or apostatisation or and a competent encoding of the Muslim Family Law, separating the two sects, almost buried the conflict that had its seeds in the 7th century.”

According to Ahmed, the Pakistan Movement, which was spearheaded by the two sects together, carried the promise of a finally successful coexistence and possible Shia-Sunni integration. Early governance in Pakistan was in some ways an extension of the secular impartiality of the Raj. However, after independence, two developments took place that sowed the seeds of sectarianism which bear fruit later. Pakistan began to look for its identity in the stance its representative political party, the All-India Muslim League, had adopted during its competition with the secular and much larger All-India National Congress. Because of the early military conflict with India in 1947, Pakistan’s nationalism began to coalesce positively around Islam and negatively around India. Its textbooks sought their exemplary personalities in historical Muslim “utopias” and imagined “golden ages” that highlighted the particularism of Muslim identity instead of its “liminal” cross-fertilisation with Hinduism at the cultural level.

Pakistani textbooks went back to pre-Raj days and selected periods of Muslim rule where pluralism was at its lowest, and highlighted instead the separation of Hinduism from Islam.

Most of this selection turned out to be sectarian. While it set Muslims and Hindus apart, it also emphasised the conflict between Sunni and Shia communities. In the early period of Pakistan’s history, ignorance of the schism – or amnesia induced by the Raj interregnum – allowed this bias to go unnoticed.

Ahmed writes that during the Saudi-Iranian standoff in 1980, Pakistan was drawn to the Saudi side for a number of reasons. It had a large expatriate labour force stationed in the Arab Middle East, particularly in the Gulf where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed in 1980 to ward off the Iranian threat. Before 9/11, almost 80 percent of Pakistan’s “foreign remittances” were earned from this region. Saudi Arabia was also the most important ally – after the United States – in “frontline” Pakistan’s war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Kingdom funded the jihad, bought Pakistan its first instalment of the 40 F-16 warplanes from the United States, gave Pakistan the seed-money for its Zakat Fund which now stands at almost Rs 20 billion annually to be distributed among the poor. However, in the 1980s, this fund went predominantly to seminaries. Saudi Arabia also allowed Pakistan to buy Saudi oil on “deferred payment” which meant free oil. The Islamisation of Pakistan under Ziaul Haq proceeded under Saudi tutelage.

Ahmed argues that it is not possible to examine the Saudi-Iranian conflict exclusively in a non-sectarian perspective. The schism was reflected in the Afghan jihad, but after the jihad ended, it was reflected in the ouster, from the first government-in-exile, of mujahideen belonging to the Shia militias. The Afghan mujahideen government was set up in Peshawar in 1989, but, under Saudi pressure, the Shia militias were not given representation in it. The rise of the Taliban in 1996, quickly recognised by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, was in a way a reversal of Iran at Saudi hands in the final count. The Taliban were recruited from the Deobandi and Wahhabi outfits, which were historically anti-Shia. In 1986, the Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan and India had issued fatwas of apostatisation against the Shia population and thus upheld the manifesto of Sipah Sahaba, a party formed in 1985 in Pakistan on the basis of its demand that the Shia be declared non-Muslim by the state through an amendment to the constitution. The state had already set the precedence of apostatising Muslim communities and declaring them non-Muslims under the Second Amendment of 1974.

According to the author, “The anti-Shia fatwas were ‘managed’ through a Deobandi scholar from India, Manzur Numani, who had earlier written a book against Imam Khomeini and Iran. Funded by the Saudi charity Rabita Alam Islami, he wrote to the Deobandi seminaries of India and Pakistan, asking them to give their juristic opinion on the Shia faith. In 1986, all of them sent to him fatwas declaring the Shia to be kafir. No attention was paid to the character of the Shia faith in Pakistan, a grave mistake made at the political level. The Shia of Pakistan had developed as a community tied to the teachings of Najaf. Their religious leaders followed the school of Najaf, which meant non-acceptance of the Iranian brand of faith founded on the concept of Velayat Faqih by Imam Khomeini, giving the Shia clergy the right to rule under the divine charisma of the ruling jurist. There was a strong implication in this of the sharing by the ruling jurist of the divinity of the innocent Twelve Imams. The Shia community of Pakistan was not politically aligned to its clergy; it was even less connected with the clerical hierarchy of Iran. The Shia of certain regions of Pakistan began going to Qum instead of Najaf only after the state under General Zia decided to collaborate with Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed points out that the laws promulgated in Pakistan against the apostatisation of the Shia do not contain any provision banning the issuance of fatwas as “private” edicts that violate the sovereignty of the state. The state is reluctant to bring the controversy of the apostatising fatwas into the courts of law because the courts themselves function under the sharia and will find it hard to disagree with the fatwas as edicts. The state rightly refuses to recognise the Shia as a separate community and has not given them a separate status in the census, meaning that the state does not “officially” discriminate on the basis of sect. It is generally agreed that Shia are 15 to 20 percent of the total population, with significant concentrations in Quetta in Balochistan, Kurram Agency in the Tribal Areas, and Gilgit in the Northern Areas. If the Northern Areas is given the status of a separate province, it will be a Shia-majority province. Pakistan is second only to Iran in respect of the number Shias living in it.

Ahmed notes that out of all the big cities, Karachi has witnessed some Shia response at the street level to the sectarian activities of the Deobandi seminaries, but by and large even in Karachi the Shia community has stayed away from violence, relying on the MQM and other non-religious parties for their political expression. In Lahore and Rawalpindi, where the biggest Shia seminaries are located – and have been targeted – the Shia have stayed away from their clergy and have not indulged in street violence. Shia “retaliation” has come from secret Shia militias run by organisations that remain officially banned. One can speculate that once the “external” causes of sectarian strife are removed or minimised sectarian violence will subside in Pakistan. Since 2004 the violence has become one-sided and Shia retaliation to Deobandi acts of terrorism has only been in extremis.

He writes, “But sectarian peace may not return so quickly to certain regions where the Shia-Sunni populations are in a state of equipoise and the Shia have the capacity to assert themselves. The Hazara community in Quetta in Balochistan is ghettoised to an extent that it will continue to attract Sunni violence, but sectarian trouble can be contained if the government is able to offer the Hazara Shias protection against the Taliban predominance in the city. The question of Parachinar in the Kurram Tribal Agency is however more complicated for two reasons: one, the historical nature of the friction between the tribes and, two, the linkages the Turi Shia tribe of Parachinar have developed downwards into the settled areas of the NWFP. The neighbouring tribal agency of Aurakzai and the cities of Bannu and Kohat in the NWFP have been “Talibanised” by Sunni extremists, and the Shias living there are being forced to fight back. At the time of writing in 2007 Parachinar had seen 50 deaths in the sectarian battles between tribes still ongoing in the month of March.”

According to Ahmed, the federally administered Northern Areas of Pakistan may take time to control the sectarian violence that has gripped the region since 1988. The demographic balance in Gilgit is such that Shia and Sunni vote banks have polarised there like Iraq, but that is more owing to the government’s refusal to allow the region to become devolved as a political entity. The army retains control of the administration of the Northern Areas because of the region’s strategic location next to Kashmir. During the Kargil operation in 1999, which was carried out from base camps in the Northern Areas, ground was provided once again for the sectarian violence that followed into the new millennium. The militias Pakistan used at Kargil were all Shia-killers. The status of the region – a change which is bound to lead to the diffusion of sectarian tension – will be difficult to “normalise” as long as the conflict with India over Kashmir is not resolved.


OUP Book Description

Sectarian War is an account of how the Shia-Sunni conflict was relocated from the Middle East to Pakistan after the rise of Revolutionary Iran in 1979, through the mediating agency of the rulers in Pakistan and the proliferation of the religious seminaries funded by Saudi Arabia. It examines the death of General Zia in the context of the sectarian conflict, goes into the process of production of apostatizing fatwas in Pakistan followed by violent action by organizations formed from the non-state actors used by the state for its covert wars.

Sectarian War also delves into the state of the Shia communities in the Middle East and their historical connections with South Asia. It examines the rise of Shia culture in Lucknow and its formative influence on the rise of the Shia in Iraq, with a parallel scrutiny of the rise of Wahhabism and its infiltration of India in the eighteenth century, and records the origins and history of organizations doing sectarian terrorism in Pakistan and their linkages to Al Qaeda whose trajectory into a sectarian identity is also traced to the rise of Al Zarqawi as a parallel leader in Iraq. Sectarian Warfacilitates an understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism in Pakistan today.

Table of Contents
1. The Shia in Pakistan
2. The Sunni-Shia Schism
3. Soldiers of Sectarianism
4. Narrative of a Fearful Asymmetry
5. Shias in the Middle East
6. Transformation of Al Qaeda



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