By Saad Hafiz
The recent murder of Dr Mohammad Shakil Auj, the dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi, is yet another atrocity in Pakistan’s seemingly unending sectarian conflict. Apparently, Dr Auj, known for his liberal religious views, was targeted for speaking out against sectarian killings. Since the 1980s, the country has been wracked by violence, mostly perpetrated by Sunni extremist groups against the Shia minority. It is important to mention that the Shias are not the only sect facing violence at the hands of extremists and terrorists in Pakistan. The Ahmedi community, Hindus, Christians and even Barelvi Sunnis are all at the receiving end of this Sunni onslaught, evidence that over the years Pakistan has become a hotbed of extremist violence. Religion has been weaponised in the service of majoritarian political objectives and people are marked for extermination based on their sectarian affiliations or sympathies.
Early in the country’s history, Shia-Sunni rivalry was passive and largely limited to very conservative religious circles. This began to change due to a combination of factors including:
1) an authoritarian state that has encouraged the rise of religious groups in political life at the expense of mainstream progressive and centrist political forces;
2) the state coddled and used extremist Sunni groups for external operations that expanded the space and influence that these groups enjoyed in the country;
3) the competing traditions of the faith that were exacerbated by religious activism and bigotry;
4) the general rise of extremism and the breakdown of law and order in the country;
5) the state’s poor law enforcement capacity and failing criminal justice system allowed sectarian terrorists to evade justice;
6) the linkages of local sectarian extremist groups with regional and global terrorist groups rendering them more lethal as a result, and
7) the funding and support derived by local sectarian groups from the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry.
Some commentators are of the view that Pakistan’s Shia minority is also suffering from the generalised Sunni backlash against the Shia revival in the Middle East and from the fallout of Iraq’s sectarian war. Since 2004, Shia processions have regularly been the target of suicide attacks all across Pakistan but, recently, Shias have participated in these activities in greater numbers in an effort to demonstrate their readiness to die for their beliefs while strongly asserting their identity. There is little evidence, however, that the sectarian conflict in Pakistan is part of any “1,400 Year War” between Sunni and Shia Muslims rooted in events that transpired in the seventh century. This is a commonly held view in the west about the wider Sunni-Shia conflict. While there are distinct theological differences between Sunnis and Shia, the conflict in Pakistan is more political than religious. Most of the people in the country, regardless of sect, are politically impotent and poor in terms of both wealth and prospects.
What is clear, however, is that we are witnessing a prolonged, costly and deadly struggle; as bad as things are, they could well become worse. The Sunni-Shia sects will stay in a perpetual state of conflict and animosity unless urgent efforts are made to enshrine tolerance and pluralism in society at large. The displays of supremacy, latent demonisation and hate propaganda that whip up sectarian passions and disturb coexistence must be addressed. The reform of education from rote learning to critical thinking is required. Basic foundational disagreements from a very early period of the religion that may never be resolved amicably have to be managed. The other need is for the weak state to better police its territory, thereby reducing the influence and mobility of sectarian militias and terrorist groups operating in the country. The zones of non-governance in the country have to be eliminated. Ultimately, the best alternative is a secular government with a guarantee of equal rights for religious minorities.
It is appropriate to end with a quote from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore that aptly describes the dark sludge of religious sectarianism:
“The pious sectarian is proud because he is confident of his right of possession in God. The man of devotion is meek because he is conscious of God’s right of love over his life and soul. The object of our possession becomes smaller than ourselves, and without acknowledging it in so many words the bigoted sectarian has an implicit belief that God can be kept secured for certain individuals in a cage, which is of their own make. In a similar manner the primitive races of men believe that their ceremonials have a magic influence upon their deities. Sectarianism is a perverse form of worldliness; in the disguise of religion it breeds a narrowness of heart in a greater measure than the cult of the world based upon material interest can ever do. For undisguised pursuit of self has its safety in openness, like filth exposed to the sun and air. But the self-magnification with its consequent lessening of God that goes on unchecked under the cover of sectarianism loses its chance of salvation because it defiles the very source of purity.”