As elections loom in Pakistan, violent anti-Shia sectarianism continues unabated with candidates in Balochistan fearing for their lives as they campaign. Shia Muslims are being hunted from Karachi to Karbala. Scarcely a day passes when news of a bomb attack, suicide bombing, or targeted killing does not remind the world of this. Contrary to popular arguments that claim that anti-Shia violence is just the most recent example of the targeting of minorities in Pakistan, a much longer genealogy can be traced for this.
Although a theological divide, today popularly labelled as a Shia-Sunni divide, has existed virtually since the inception of Islam, the terms Shia and Sunni are not homogenous absolute categories. An analysis of texts would show that the Shia-Sunni polemics have not always been consistent and have changed every so often depending on the social and political context of the time. For instance, writing in the early 20th century Ahmad Amin, the Egyptian scholar, in his book Duha al-Islam uses the language of democracy and rights in order to critique the Shias. This vocabulary was, of course, drawn from European thought at the time. Today, anti-Shia rhetoric is only gaining more traction in some parts of Egyptian society.
In South Asia’s recent history, the institution, which has perhaps played a decisive role in contributing to the rise of anti-Shia rhetoric, has been the Darul Uloom Deoband in India. Originally an apolitical seminary, it was founded in 1865 with the intention of serving the everyday religious needs of Muslims. One of the first fatwas, or rulings, issued by the seminary was about the conditions under which the Shia are to be viewed as kafirs. Technically the word means someone whose faith is covered or concealed but it is normally translated as “infidel, someone who has no faith” and popularly used in this sense.
This original fatwa has been reissued a number of times and following questions by people from India, Pakistan, the UAE, Afghanistan and other countries, the Darul Ifta, which issues fatwas, has reaffirmed their stance. The fatwa lays out a number of conditions, which lead to a Shia becoming kafir and murtad (apostate). Some of these fatwas implicitly spread misinformation by implying that certain Shias hold beliefs in ideas such as the divinity of Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet. Realistically speaking, these caveats are useless because it is unlikely that an attacker is going to pause before detonating a bomb and have a brief theological discussion to establish his victim’s exact beliefs.
Although many of the Deoband fatwas pronounce judgment on Shias with a caveat, some also flatly deny that a Shia are Muslim and lump all non-Sunnis under one label. This contradictory stance shows that either the fatwa department in Deoband is not guided by a single policy or that some people there are being deliberately disingenuous. Interestingly, Deoband does not limit itself to passing judgment on Shias and other minority groups but also takes tough stands against fellow Sunnis.
Today, the Deoband has branches all over the world and people look to it for its opinions and religious guidance and therefore its stance vis-à-vis Shias is deeply problematic. Of course, although Deoband (India) does not openly advocate violence against those deemed kafirs, its rhetoric only serves to entrench hatred and gives an excuse to those who want religious sanction for their acts. Interestingly, the chaplain of Cambridge University, John Butt, is a graduate of Deoband but has condemned the sectarianism in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, offshoots of the Deoband seminary continued after Partition and although they diverged in some areas from their parent institution, they nonetheless continued the anti-Shia vitriol. Over time, particularly under the zealous Islamization of President Zia-ul Haq that was backed by the United States, a number of sectarian groups were founded in Pakistan and these subsequently continued to receive patronage from a number of Pakistani politicians.
The various countries of the Arabian Peninsula, South East Asia and beyond have often, officially and un-officially, had policies that discriminate against Shias often using the rhetoric of geo-politics to camouflage sectarianism. Indeed many popular clerics have freely preached hate against ‘the enemy within.’ Saudi clerics like Mohamed al-Arefe who has nearly 5 million followers on Twitter, and Syrian preachers like gulf-based Adnan Al-Arour openly call for violence against Shias and other groups.
This vitriol has not only been brought back to Pakistan by returning migrants but has contributed to bolstering the existing discourse against Shias that already existed in the sub-continent. Some analysts argue that Shia clerics also contribute to these polemics by making statements that are offensive for Sunnis. However, while this is true to a limited extent, the arbitrariness and the scale on which Shias are targeted cannot be ascribed to this, particularly when no prominent Shias have made provocative statements recently. In fact, the opposite is happening with people like Ahmad Ludhianvi, head of the Sipah-e Sahabah, which has now been renamed Ahl-e Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ), contesting in the forthcoming elections on an openly sectarian platform. Aurangzeb Farooqi, head of the ASWJ in Karachi and also a candidate in the forthcoming elections, has even gone so far as to say that Shias should be banned from running for public office and should be prevented from holding public religious ceremonies.
Despite the various maneuvering of political parties to attract the Shia vote, it seems that the root cause of the violence remains unaddressed. The fact remains that until institutional support for violent sectarianism, whether military, political or religious, is not tackled head on, the bloodshed in Pakistan and beyond will only increase.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab