The Changing Landscape of Anti-Shia Politics in Pakistan

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The Changing Landscape of Anti-Shia Politics in Pakistan

A new anti-Shia campaign has been building in Pakistan, propelled by a radicalization of the mainstream like never before.

The Changing Landscape of Anti-Shia Politics in Pakistan

Supporters of a religious group ‘Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan’ participate in a rally to condemn the French weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for republishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in Karachi, Pakistan, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

“If anyone speaks against the Companions of [the] Prophet, the next step won’t be filing an FIR [complaint], but to behead him.” This was the warning to Shias given by one of the demonstrators in the third consecutive anti-Shia rally organized by Sunni hardliners on September 13. Karachi, the financial hub of Pakistan, has witnessed at least four big anti-Shia rallies since September 11, held by different Sunni groups. Many have observed that outrage against Shia Muslims, who constitute 20 percent of Pakistan’s population of 212 million, is unprecedented and alarming. This is the first time that three prominent groups within Sunni Islam — Deobandi, Sufi Barelvis and Salafists — have concurrently held public rallies in a single week, openly calling the Shia sect “heretical,” its followers “infidels” and demanding violent action.

The recent anti-Shia campaign started on August 24 when a Shia orator, Asif Raza Alvi, in a private gathering in Islamabad referred to a controversial historical incident in which the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, was denied her father’s inheritance by the first caliph, Abu Bakr. 

For starters, Shias do not accept the first three caliphs — Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan — as “rightful” caliphs. Instead, they believe Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin, was the rightful successor of Muhammad and was deprived of the caliphate. This was the beginning of a movement called Sh’iat-e-Ali (Party of Ali) who were loyal to Ali and believed in Ali’s leadership as the only way to revive Muhammad’s mission. 

Alvi’s speech was picked up by members of Ahle Sunnah Wald Jamat (ASWJ) aka Sipha-e-Sahaba (SSP), a banned Deobandi-led anti-Shia militant organization. A First Information Report (FIR) was filed against Alvi under part 295-A of the Pakistani penal code, which pertains to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

The Alvi episode worked as a catalyst for ASWJ activists, providing them opportunities to harass Shias with blasphemy charges. Subsequently, on August 30 in Karachi during the main Muharram procession — part of a series of rituals performed largely by the Shia marking the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala and the death of Hussein ibn Ali — an elderly Shia man, Taqi Jaffer, was arrested. Jaffer’s arrest, under pressure from ASWJ, was apparently related to his reciting Ziarat-e-Ashura, an important salutatory prayer in the Shia doctrine in which, for centuries, they have denounced the killers of Hussein.

Since August 30, at least five Shias have been killed in different parts of Pakistan on a sectarian basis, more than 30 blasphemy cases have been registered against Shias, at least one religious congregation was attacked and several videos appeared in which Shias were forced to accept the Sunni historical account on the caliphs. On social media, anti-Shia hashtags periodically trended; two in particularly had significant reach: #گستاخِ_صحابہ_آزادکیوں (why is the blasphemer of companion free?) and #کافر_کافر_شیعہ_کافر (infidel, infidel, Shias are infidel).

The persecution of Shias is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Scholars agree that Pakistan is “data-scarce.” Therefore, what we have are unofficial statistics shared by different Shia activists, which calculate that there have been roughly more than 22,000 Shias killed since 1968 in the country.

It’s worth exploring two underlying questions: What does the recent wave of anti-Shia sentiment offer to our understanding of the Shia-Sunni relationship in Pakistan? And how is it different from previous waves of anti-Shia sentiments?

The Anti-Shia Landscape: What Do These Groups Want? 

Among different jurisprudential and historical differences, Sunni hardliners use the Shia practice of tabarra — the act of political and religious disassociation from the first three caliphs which is unacceptable and blasphemous for hardliners — as the major pretext for violence against Shias.       

Most of the literature traces anti-Shia politics in Pakistan to 1979 after the Iranian revolution. Simon W. Fuchs, lecturer in Islam and Middle East Studies, University of Freiburg, provides in his book a detailed account on Ihsan Ilahi Zahir, an Ahle-Hadith or Salafist, who was known for producing anti-Shia literature in the 1970s. Similarly, Deobandis have a long history of takfir, declaring someone an apostate, against Shias which goes back to the early 20th century.    

Nevertheless, the landscape of anti-Shia groups has mainly been Deobandi since the 1979 revolution. With the help Saudi Arabia’s funding and under Pakistani military patronage, SSP, formed in the 1980s, was tasked with containing Iranian influence by terrorizing Shias through use of violence and coercion. Importantly, SSP did not only view Shias as Iran’s fifth column but also an obstacle in making Pakistan truly the “land of the pure” as Shias are in the Sunni mindset the greatest “infidels” and, therefore, must be neutralized. In the 1990s, a splinter group, Laskar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), emerged from SSP who believed that the latter had deviated from its goal of exterminating the Shias. Parallel with SSP, LeJ was involved in the killing of thousands of Shias across Pakistan. To counter these two militant groups, a private Shia militia, Sipah-e-Muhammad, was formed in 1994 and its mandate, while keeping a very low profile, was to eliminate SSP and LeJ officeholders.

Historically, the anti-Shia violence was predominantly occupied by Deobandi and Ahl-i Hadith groups until the emergence of Barelvis, who constitute the majority in Pakistan. Barelvis are often called “Sufi” and elements of Sufism are core characteristics of the movement. Barelvis and Shias enjoy an amicable relationship as both share some common attributes such as mysticism, veneration of imams and saints, and intercession — all of which Deobandi, Wahhabis and Ahl-i Hadith do not approve of. Both have been victims of Deobandi and Salafist violence. Therefore, this makes them natural allies to an extent. But recently, Barelvis, with the help of the Pakistani military, particularly under the platform of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which is known for violence against Christian and the Ahmadiyya community, on the basis of blasphemy, is now turning its ire against Shias too. 

Ostensibly, the biggest anti-Shia rally in Karachi was organised by Barelvis on September 12, which signals that the silent majority is now claiming space from the Deobandis and Salafists. Speaking to The Diplomat, Fuchs argued that anti-Shia politics was “located on the fringes of the discourse” within Barelvis and they were “probably not immune to the shifting discourse field and had to adapt as well.”

Over the years, religious militant groups have used violence against the religious “Other,” particularly minorities, not only as a way to get recognition but also as an attempt to reduce the space of competitors. For Barelvis, who were limited to anti-Ahmadiyya and anti-Christian politics, the anti-Shia stance is an opportunity not only to stay relevant for their followers but to negotiate with the state over power-sharing by replacing Deobandi and Salafist competitors. As Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on civil-military relations and extremism in South Asia and the Middle East, argued, the recent Barelvi activism is to “get accepted amongst a bigger population base that is now attuned to anti-Shiaism and also appeasement of segment of security establishment that is suspicious towards Iran and indirectly Shias.”

However, the current trio is employing unconventional anti-Shia tactics which a few see as a subtle way of asphyxiating Shias by curtailing their fundamental religious freedoms.  

Institutionalizing Anti-Shia Sanctions

One form of the extermination of Shias envisaged by SSP is the ultimate goal of constitutionally declaring them “non-Muslims” just like the Ahmadiyya community. But Shias, being a significant and well-integrated community, possess greater influence and power than Ahmadis. Therefore, Shias being declared non-Muslim is highly unlikely in near future. However, the new tactic being used by SSP/ASWJ is officially sanctioning Sunni beliefs on Shias. 

On July 23, the Punjab government passed controversial Tahafuz-e-Bunyad-Islam (protecting the foundation of Islam) Bill — a member of the provincial assembly, Moavia Azam Tariq, son of former SSP head Azam Tariq,  played a key role in proposing the bill — which basically imposes the Sunni view of the first three caliphs on Shias.

After Taqi Jaffer’s arrest, SSP/ASWJ demand a ban on Ziarat-e-Ashura which Shias have been reciting since the 9th century. Historian Sajjad Rizvi, associate professor of Islamic intellectual history at the University of Exeter, explained Ziarat as “a central act of affirming Shia religiosity and identity.” The tragedy of Karbala is central to the existence of Shia Islam and denouncing killers of Hussein through Ziarat is “an act of covenant-renewal, of reaffirming one’s pledge of allegiance (bayʿa) to the Ahl al-Bayt,” Rizvi added.

Therefore, censoring or banning ziarat would be akin to curbing Shia’s fundamental speech. Hussain Makke, a Canada-based Shia scholar, asserted that “to deny Shia from reciting their most important and traditional Ziyarat of the last thousand years is to step on their rights as human beings.”

Another distinct feature of Shias is the Muharram processions in which they mourn and narrate the tragedy of Karbala and have done so for centuries. SSP has always opposed these processions. But more recently, some senior Deobandi scholars, such as Mufti Taqi Usmani, have begun echoing SSP demands such as banning Shia processions in Pakistan. No matter what reasons moderate Sunnis give in favor of banning processions — such as the obstruction of roads — the fact is that by holding these public processions, Shias, a numerical minority, contest and claim public space which is usually dominated by the Sunni majority. Therefore, the demand to ban a procession is an attempt to further attenuate Shias by diminishing their public presence and access to the public sphere.

Since August 30, there have been a number of cases of Sunni hardliners harassing Shias on the street, forcing them to accept the Sunni version of history and in some cases, pelting stones at Shia congregation centers. Violence in Muharram is not new, but many Shia activists see the ongoing wave as different from the past. And it’s more alarming this time as the threat emanates from the majority.

“Shias have never felt this isolated before”

The young Shia generation has grown up seeing violence over the last two decades and survived the deadliest phase (2004-2016) of Shia persecution to date. But they find something unsettling in the current wave which they think is more frightening. 

Gul Zehra Rizvi, an Islamabad-based anti-takfir campaigner, opined that “the current situation is more dangerous compared to the past considering the methods of persecution which is now more systematic. This time, Shia ideologies and basic beliefs are questioned and opposed.” Syeda Sana Batool, a Karachi-based journalist and activist, added that “it’s a mindset that they are developing at the moment where they want to malign Shia practices and propagate how they are not in line with Islamic teachings.”

Asad Zaidi, a Karachi-based activist, explained that the current wave is entirely different. “There used to be specific extremist groups who used to target and persecute Shias. Overall, we had an acceptance from the majority [Barelvis]. Now it seems the opposition is coming from the majority. Shias have never felt this isolated before”.

For Shias in Karachi, the three big anti-Shia rallies are once again a confirmation that the Pakistani state will be a party to the persecution of Shias. Asad Gokal, a young Shia activist, was disappointed by the indifferent attitude of the authorities over the blatantly malicious and violent campaign against Shias across Pakistan. “We have seen officials doing nothing to stop them. Seeing all this makes the Shias of Pakistan feel betrayed, feel hopeless,” Gokal shared in an interview.

The Shia community sees the ongoing campaign as the beginning of a collective effort to ostracize Shias politically, religiously, and culturally. Some predict an increase in violence and hate speech against the community in the coming days as the big processions for Arbaeen, the 40th day of Hussein’s martyrdom, are scheduled for October 8. 

Breaking the Buffer: The Future of Religious Harmony  

The most dangerous trend that seems to emerge from the ongoing wave is a radicalized mainstream — with TLP an exception — which has previously stayed away from anti-Shia politics publicly. Sufis, historically, and Barelvis, in the current context, have been a buffer between Shias and Sunni hardliners. There were instances when Sufi Muslims, in the subcontinent, had provided refuge to Shias when they were persecuted by Sunni hardliners. 

Not merely a buffer, some Barelvis also participate in Shia processions and, in some cases such as in south Punjab, they hold the licenses of Shia processions. They, by virtue of being the majority, managed to outvoice SSP by either making an alliance with Shias or simply not advancing SSP’s propaganda.

Pakistani society is divided on class, ethnic, and religious lines. Religious minorities live in ghettos in order to freely practice their religion and avoid persecution from the majority. However, where there are mixed communes, particularly in Sindh and Punjab, they are mostly shared by Shias and Barelvis. The contention here is that, with some exceptions, it is Shias and Barelvis who mostly interact with each other on a daily basis, not Shias and Deobandis. This means that the recent arrival of Barelvis in the anti-Shia bandwagon signals disruption in the harmonious relationship that did not only contain groups like SSP/ASWJ but accommodated religious co-existence between Shias and Sunnis.

By radicalizing Barelvis, the Pakistani establishment in its quest for political engineering has damaged the buffer which kept away Sunni hardliners from the Shias. The rupture of that buffer will put Shias at risk of multi-layered violence from at least three big Sunni groups in the coming years. And that tension and likely violence may leave the social fabric of Pakistani society irreparable.               

Jaffer A. Mirza is a researcher and columnist. He tweets at @jafferamirza.