Sunday, February 1, 2015

Shia/Sunni conflict in Pakistan

Shia/Sunni conflict in Pakistan

About how the Shia Sunni conflict in Pakistan intensified (excerpts)

At ground level a lot of this was not due to any single organized conspiracy but involved the confluence of several factors: Islamization put the question of “whose Islam” on the table; Zia’s personal leanings led to support for anti-Shia factions; Saudi Arabia inserted Wahabi-Salafi propaganda into the mix; The Shia response to the Zakat law and open (even if mostly symbolic) support from Iran helped opponents to label them Iranian agents; and modernization and modern education themselves led to a preference for modern (and fascist) versions of Islam in preference to Indian folk Islam with its “superstitious”, it's heavy Indian coloring of  rituals and folk beliefs and it's striking multicultural colorfulness.

Newly rich Saudi and Gulf individuals wished to promote “true Islam” in Pakistan. Many individuals in Pakistan wished to be paid by Gulf and Saudi millionaires to do the same. While the actual madrassa cannon-fodder came mostly from poor families, the policy the promoted the same came from middle class military officers and their civilian collaborators. Modern education and economics had prepared the minds of many middle class Pakistanis (including many whose families were traditionally Barelvi Sunni) to accept Maudoodi-type “back-to-basics” modern Islamism. Just like traditional folk Hinduism was rejected by Arya Samajis and other Hindu reformers, educated middle class Muslims in Pakistan were ready to reject folk Islam and strive for modernized purity. Thus,in predominantly Barelvi Pakistan, the majority of the new madrassas set up all over the country and paid for by Gulf money turned out to be hardline Deobandi, Ahle hadith and Wahhabi in sectarian orientation.

It is worth repeating that the Anti-Shia polemic was not paramount in the minds of many of the geniuses who promoted these policies. In fact, many in the Pakistani middle class still have no clear idea of where the anti-Shia polemic is coming from. It was not part of our education. While Shias were a minority sect, their version of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husain was widely accepted and reverence for Ali and the house of Ali was part of most Sufi orders. Shia symbolism had spread well beyond the Shias and become part of the cultural heritage of educated Sunnis in South Asia (or maybe, as Jaun Elya points out here, a lot of what is now typically "Shia" had it's origin within Sunnis, things not necessarily always being divided in exactly the same boxes in which they are divided today). Certainly there were Ahle hadith and Wahhabi mullahs in Pakistan who were frankly anti-Shia, but even they tended to stay away from any direct criticism of Imam Hussein and his family. That this kind of reverence is not a universal feature of the Muslim word is not something that is even vaguely known to most Pakistani or Indian middle class Sunnis. That in Indonesia and Malaysia there is practically no sense of Moharram as a month of universal mourning is a surprise; that the Saudi Wahhabis have a well-developed anti-Shia polemic that brands the Shias as heretics, Jewvish agents and frank enemies of Islam was poorly understood.

But the fact is the Saudi Wahhabis and their fellow travelers DO have such a story. When I first heard the Saudi version (from a Pakistani doctor who had converted to Saudi Islam and ran a “study circle” in our residential camp in Saudi Arabia) it was a bit of a shock. It took a while for me to realize that his version of history was completely mainstream in Saudi Arabia. In this version, Islam (basically a military conquest enterprise from day one) was spreading rapidly on its way to conquer the world, until a Jew named Ibne Saba helped to create a fitna (the first civil war) that sabotaged this first attempt at world conquest. This fitna is now known as the Shia sect and they have been sabotaging Islam ever since. I paraphrase of course, but this is not too far from what any pious Saudi or Gulf millionaire believes. It is therefore no surprise that they spend good money to teach Pakistanis these “truths” and some of them go on to support killers who take the next step and start physically eliminating Shias.

A second and only locally important economic factor was the fact that there were some prominent Shia landlords and power-brokers in Southern Punjab. Anti-Shia polemics combined in those parts with what the Marxists gleefully call “class issues” to give it something of the color of a hardline Sunni revolt against the local Shia elite in these areas.

But the third and most critical component of this perfect storm was the state policy of Jihad or “strategic depth”. The Afghan Jihad that effectively destroyed Afghanistan may have been a CIA project, but from day one it was supported and then hijacked by local actors who had priorities of their own. Cynical Saudis saw it as a way to send away religious zealots to “jihad camp”; Pious Saudis saw it as a way to spread true Islam to the benighted heathens; and GHQ saw it as a golden opportunity to get “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, to be translated later into conquest of Kashmir and projection of power (perhaps even an empire!) in Central Asia.

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