New Delhi: The rising Shia-Sunni discord in Pakistan could either be a message to Iran or an attempt to divert attention from retired Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa’s corruption scam, said The Print’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in episode 579 of ‘Cut the Clutter’.
Earlier this month, massive rallies were carried out by Sunni conservative groups and Deobandi followers in Karachi’s Shahrah-e-Faisal road. The participants chanted anti-Shia slogans and called the community kafirs (non-Muslims).
There were also calls to ban Ashura, the tenth day of the first month in the Islamic calendar, Muharram.
Shia-Sunni discord in Islamic world
“Sunnis constitute about 15 per cent of all Muslims in the world. Now, very few countries have a large number of Shias as a majority,” explained Gupta. Some of these countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
The reason Iran and Iraq fought in the 1980s was because Iraq was then ruled by Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party while the country’s population was a Shia majority.
This also explains why the Islamic State (ISIS) took root in Iraq after Hussein’s death. Shias were given power after elections which left Sunni generals and soldiers of Saddam’s army feeling disempowered and disenfranchised.
“So they went lock, stock and barrel with tanks and guns and everything to ISIS. That is part of the same Shia-Sunni complexity,” added Gupta.
However, Pakistan, which has about 21 per cent Shia population, was not formed along Shia-Sunni lines. In fact, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, was a Shia and Pakistanis have never held that against him. Similarly, the Pakistani Army has not made a Shia-Sunni distinction among its officers and troops, said Gupta.
But this changed in the 1980s when the so-called “jihad” emerged where the Americans, Saudis and the Chinese with the Mujahideen on their side conspired to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War era.
As a crucial partner of this effort, Pakistan became steeped in religiosity under President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq — a devout and committed Sunni Muslim.
Groups like Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba — the first big Sunni sectarian outfit — now known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, rose to prominence around this time.
Today, Sipah-e-Sahaba is the primary group behind the demand to ban Muharram.
Battle of Karbala
The Muharram problem between Shias and Sunnis arises from the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
After Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, Sunnis believed Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s father-in-law, was the rightful successor while Shias believed Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, was the rightful heir.
A power tussle and a lot of infighting followed but in the end, Ali became the caliph. He was assassinated shortly after and his family left for Medina.
However, in 680 AD, one of Ali’s surviving sons, Al-Ḥusayn ibn Ali and his half-brother Abbas went to save the people of Kufah from the alleged tyrant Yazid but they were all killed.
Both al-Ḥusayn ibn and his half-brother were buried in Karbala and Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, became an annual holy day of public mourning among Shias.
However, Sunnis in Pakistan are raising their voice against this event because “they think it demeans some colleagues or some followers of the Holy Prophet because people who fought on both sides of the Battle of Karbala were either the Prophet’s clan or from his inner circle”, according to Gupta.
Diversion tactics or message to Iran
The rise of sectarianism and conservative Islam in Pakistan has been fuelled by Punjab’s Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020, passed in July this year, which seeks to censor blasphemous books on the pretext of protecting religion.
According to a column by Pakistani writer Ayesha Siddiqa, the bill is “problematic” because it lacks consensus on key religious concepts between Sunnis and Shias.
There are also theories that these rallies are being used to divert attention from retired Lt General Asim Bajwa’s scam of his large personal business empire of a pizza chain in the US.
“As his [Bajwa’s] rank has gone up, his income has gone up…and how his income has increased during this period, depends on when he worked closely with the dictators,” Gupta said.
However, this could also be linked to Pakistan finding itself in a sticky position when many Islamic countries like the UAE are entering peace deals with Israel.
“Now CPEC [China–Pakistan Economic Corridor] is very crucial for Pakistan and China has strong vested interests in Pakistan. But it also has strong vested interests in Iran. So maybe this is a message to Iran, particularly at a time when all of the Islamic world is in some kind of an upheaval,” said Gupta.