Dangerous signs

September 20, 2020

In the last few weeks, Shia persecution, and anti-Shia rallies have taken centre stage. This can spell disaster for communal peace

From the anti-Shia protest in Karachi

On September 12, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims gathered in Karachi to protest a public demonstration earlier by some Shia Muslims denouncing certain figures in Islamic history. Some of the participants of the huge protest rally chanted anti-Shia slogans and called Shias “kaafir” and “cursed”. A group threw stones at Shia mosques and worship places on their way and abused the sect. This rally was followed by more rallies in various cities including Islamabad.

“Shias are insulting people holy to us and the companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) which we cannot accept or tolerate. We demand that their majalis and processions be restricted or banned,” says Muhammad Talha, a Sunni youth adding, “If this blasphemous activity by Shias continues, it will disrupt peace. It will force us to take law into our own hands.”

A week ago, some activists of the banned anti-Shia outfit, Sipah-i-Sahaba, had thrown stones on a Shia procession in Islamabad. However, the Islamabad administration managed to control the situation in a couple of hours.

The situation, law-and-order watchers say, appears to be drifting towards a serious sectarian conflict. The state, they say, appears to be a silent spectator, unless it has a soft spot for the extremists among the majority sect as is being alleged. Online, too, anti-Shia social media campaigns are increasingly aggressive.

A video clip that recently went viral on social media shows a terrified Shia youth being coerced by a gang of anti-Shia men into a ‘conversion’ in the presence of a senior police officer in a Punjab government office. “Do you fully and firmly believe in our kalima now?” he is asked in the clip. He is also forced to say he considers Muawiyah (with whom Allah was pleased) a rightly guided caliph and that those who do not believe this are cursed infidels.

Another video shows an anti-Shia group similarly coercing another Shia youth into disowning his belief.

The recent wave of anti-Shia rallies and Shia persecution started during Muharram processions when a Shia cleric publicly made certain remarks against a historical person revered by Sunnis. A prayer ceremony telecast live on a channel during Muharram included strong remarks against those who killed Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased). The live broadcast of the ritual prayer, standard practice for many Shia Muslims, led to a strong reaction by some Sunni factions and clerics. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority then suspended the television channel involved and lodged a police case against the Karachi-based Shia cleric who had led the prayer. Since then, a number of cases have been lodged against Shia youths and clerics accusing them of “blasphemy”. There have been media reports of Shia killings in Kohat and Mandi Bahauddin.

“If serious action is not taken, the situation, it is feared, may return to one like the 1990s when sectarian violence was at its peak,” says Zahid Husain.

“We know that some Shia Muslims do not revere certain persons in Islamic history and call them controversial. We know they don’t have high regard in their hearts for those persons but we request them to keep such things private rather than demonstrating in public as this causes unrest,” Mufti Muneebur Rehman, a leading Sunni cleric, told a media briefing. He added that such public demonstrations would be “opposed.” He also urged the government to “take notice of the situation”.

Several Shia clerics also held media briefings condemning the Shia cleric in Karachi for using “objectionable” language with regard to a person respected by Sunni Muslims. However, they also said that some of the controversy was part of historical record and a certain view of it was part of their belief. “However, we believe in peace and harmony and urge the government to stop Shia persecution using such acts by certain individuals as a justification,” said Nasir Abbas, a prominent Shia cleric.

The recent wave of hate speech and violence has provided an opportunity to extremist elements to try and claim more public space. The country seen been witness to serious sectarian (Shia-Sunni) conflict from 1980s to around 2010. It has sometimes been explained in terms of a proxy war involving international players including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“This is a dangerous situation. In terms of sectarian conflict, in Pakistan, we’ve already crossed limits. The way forward is for the state and political parties to play their key role in controlling the situation, and ensuring that the rights of every citizen are respected. The majority has no right to persecute the minority groups. One cannot force another person to change one’s beliefs,” says Dr Khalid Masood, an Islamic scholar.

Zahid Husain, a security analyst, a sectarian flare up is a dangerous sign.

“This is happening against a backdrop of geo-politics and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he says.

“The state is completely absent from the scene. It appears that the state is allowing the flare up,” he adds. He says the situation is also worrying as political parties and the government are not above using the religion card.

“If serious action is not taken, the situation, it is feared, may return to one like the 1990s when sectarian violence was at its peak,” he says.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Dangerous signs