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A barbaric history of sectarianism in Pakistan: Red in tooth and claw

A barbaric history of sectarianism in Pakistan: Red in tooth and claw

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Authored by Talha Jameel (follow the author here). The views and opinions represented in this article belong to the author alone and do not represent the views and opinions of ProperGaanda. To submit your articles, email at info@propergaanda.com

(AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

“You can persuade the masses to believe that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action, regardless of considerations of discipline, loyalty, decency, morality, or civic sense.”

That was Justice Munir writing after the fact in the Munir Report about the anti-Ahmedi riots.

In 1953, the Islamic clergy across the country demanded, in unison, that Ahmedis be declared Non-Muslims, and fired from key government positions that they held. The violent protests that ensued were put down by the Nazimuddin regime, however, ZAB eventually capitulated to religious orthodoxy declaring the Ahmedis a Non-Muslim minority in 1973. 

That was when the die was cast for persecution of the Ahmedi community. Soon came Zia and with him came sectarianism, red in tooth and claw.

Liberal values were scapegoated for all the ills the polity was facing at the time.

Violence against minorities, curbs on basic freedoms, stifling the legal freedoms of women, and bludgeoning the rights of minorities were the leitmotif of the General’s tenure. Pakistan became a ghettoised pariah-dom for Ahmedis. Murderous sectarian organisations soon emerged seeking the blood of everyone who was from a sect other than their own. Tehrik e Nifaz Fiqh e Jaffaria, Tehrik e Jaffaria Pakistan, Sipah e Muhammadi Pakistan, Imamia Student Organization were Shiite led radical groups; while Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar e Jhangvi, Harkat Ul Ansar were Sunni led extremist groups. Madrassas mushroomed in the country. These Madrassas also trained their Talibs (students) for Jihad in Afghanistan with donations that were pouring in through wealthy gulf countries.

The first extremist Shiite organisation, TNFJ, was formed in 1979 due to Zia’s ignominious onslaught on all and sundry except the Sunnis. This group ultimately splintered into TJP and TNFJ. TJP was a moderate entity, but its breakaways, that were ISO and SMP, were as rabid as their Sunni counterparts. The basic prototype of violence between Sunnis and Shiites was reprisal attacks. For instance, in 1983, two Imambargahs were attacked by Sunnis in Karachi. Sectarian tensions that came afterwards spilled to almost the entirety of the country. Sunni sectarian groups included SSP, a JUI(F) offshoot, which was formed in 1984.

SSP demanded that Muharram be proscribed, Shiites be declared a Non-Muslim minority, and Sunni Islam be proclaimed the state religion. The SSP deployed all the uncouth means to these ends. Feeding the fire was Riaz Basar who formed LeJ in 1996, a namesake of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi who had previously formed SSP. LeJ was the most violent of all, a morbidly sepulchral band of zealots. Ever since its formation, LeJ has been hounding the minorities in the country far and wide. The state, on the other hand, has always been reluctant to prosecute the LeJ leadership.

People like Tariq Azam, Zia Ur Rehman, and Malik Ishaq would be at large and get elected to the provincial and central assemblies while dozens of cases of terrorism against them would rot in the files. Unlike the rest of the world, in Pakistan, it is the cases that rot not the criminals. The state has also been unabashedly involved in spilling the blood of its minorities.

In 1986, Zia ul Haq sent an influx of Afghan refugees to Parachinar siring sectarian divisions.

What followed was a gory rampage claiming the lives of 200. Again, in 1988, the massacre local Gilgiti Shiites took place. Our collective amnesia has almost made this state-sponsored pogrom a déjà vu.

Many of the LeJ militants were trained in a camp run by HUA for Kashmiri Jihad, however, these Jihadis-turned-frankenstiens soon ran berserk and started killing minorities in their own country. Secretary Clinton ominously warned us in 2011, saying, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them to only bite your neighbour.”

The impunity with which these Sunni terrorists come for Pakistani minorities, and are out of prisons just a few days after being incarcerated holding rallies every now and then implicates their clandestine relationship with the power-wielders. The banned-but-not-really organisations recently took to the streets in Islamabad, and Karachi, echoing the demands of their forerunners and spouting off hate-speech against Shiites.

Ahmedis were ostracised in a more or less similar fashion. The cycle of ostracising continues, but who will be the next? After Shiites, these divisive mobs can very well turn towards the sects in Sunni Islam. Shiite militant groups went almost obsolete as soon as Zia died, but violence against them has continued unabated. The new millennium brought a cascade of violence against the Hazarajats, again instigated by LeJ.

Majoritarianism has been part and parcel of our polity. It is about time we quit demonising, bastardising, and belittling our minorities. When all are killed and only Sunnis left, will then the Barelvis come for Deobandis or vice versa?

History is rife with examples of unwholesome results of stoking the fires of sectarianism. The Hundred Years of War, and the European Religious Wars were engendered by the Great Schism in Christianity. Sect is not a bad thing per se, instilling violence against people based on their sect is indeed bad, even downright evil.

Europe became the gold standard of coexistence and pluralism after it recognised these wrongs at Westphalia in 1648.

Sectarianism when left unbridled can even lead to genocide: the Rwandan Genocide  – a sectarian conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Genocide – a sectarian conflict between Serbs and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were just two sectarian conflicts in the last decade of 20th century that left between 500,000 and a million and 8372 dead respectively.

Barbarism was not just people from Steppes obliterating the civilised world it is also the people who would want you dead for having a religion or sect different from than them, because while the former lack cities of their own, the latter lack tolerance, the bedrock of any plural civilisation.

To move forward we need to unlearn, unscramble, and unsaddle what we have been taught about our minorities and fix the fault-lines in our collective memories. A truly diverse culture opens realms of innovation. A truly diverse polity recognises the beauty in coexistence and eschews the tentacles of a retrograde system.

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