Pakistan has been unfortunate that even after seventy-three years of independence, it struggles to become a cohesive nation-state. While the pluralist character of Pakistani society and the challenges this poses to national integration are somewhat fathomable, it is beyond comprehension why the only state that emerged on the world’s political map in the name of its religion (Islam) is witnessing a rift over it. The sectarian rift between Shia and Sunni communities is widening.
“How can there be unity of government between areas so widely separated? I can answer this question in one word. It is ‘faith’: faith in almighty God, in ourselves and our destiny,”- Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The recent anti-Shia protests that took place in the financial capital after Ashura 2020, and have now spread all over the country where thousands of protestors rally and chant that Shias are ‘infidels,’ makes one question our very Muslim identity as a nation.
Sectarianism not endemic to the region
Sectarianism was not a significant concern for Pakistan in its early days of existence. The people in this part of the world were generally followers of Sufi tradition, a form of Islam that preaches tolerance and pluralism.
This mystical spirit of Islam pushed both the Shia and Sunni populations of the subcontinent to fight side-by-side to achieve an Islamic homeland, i.e., Pakistan. Ironically, in less than thirty years after independence, the two sides had reached a point of spilling each other’s blood.
The current day Shia-Sunni split in the Muslim world has less to do with the historical dissent that emerged in the early seventh century on succession after Muhammad’s (PBUH) death.
Today, the Muslim world’s sectarian schism is more of a power tool that has been hijacked by the so-called figureheads of Islamic faith, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to fulfill their geostrategic aims. This purely political rivalry has instigated a circle of sectarian violence in the Muslim world by exposing it to proxy wars. Unfortunately, Pakistan became a victim of such power politics and fell into the vortex created by the hostility between these two Middle Eastern powers.
Although law enforcement agencies, with the help of political leadership, have managed to suppress such an emerging anarchist wave of extremism and sectarian rifts, significantly powered by the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan Jihad, the politics of hate and division that has infiltrated the Pakistani society remains far from being addressed.
Pakistan is geo-strategically troubled from its western borders, but its hostility from eastern revanchist India has been its most significant concern. The government’s apprehensions that the recent spell of sectarian violence in Pakistan involves a foreign hand are also not unfounded.
India has continuously acted to fuel instability in the country – the zenith being its role in the dismemberment of East Pakistan. Multiple sources have established Indian activities to instigate hybrid war against Pakistan – the latest embodiment of the RAW operative Kulbhushan Yadav who admitted to conspiring against the country by funding anti-state elements.
With people in Indian strategic circles like Major Gaurav Arya (Retd) openly advocating war against Pakistan by exploiting its sectarian rift lines and inciting sectarian violence by funding opportunistic mullahs, there is hardly any doubt that India has not moved on from the past.
Apart from the apparent funding of anti-state elements, media also acts as a critical enabler in this regard. The video clip aired by Channel 24 instigating sectarian tension’s current spell was subsequently taken up by internet propagandists (mostly based outside Pakistan) to spew hatred and anarchy further. This mishap shows how Pakistan’s enemies are always on the lookout for such incidents to exploit them.
Anti-Shia hashtags trended on Twitter
The top Twitter trends #ShiaEnemyOfIslam Pakistan and #ShiaGenocide were aimed to trigger violent confrontations between the Shias and Sunnis. Dr. Arslan Khalid, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘Focal Person on Digital Media,’ has confirmed that the current instigation wave appears to have been ‘orchestrated’ rather than organic.
Anti-Shia hashtag mapping has shown that most of the impressions fueling social media debate came from Indian accounts. Sectarianism has again become a battleground that is solely serving our adversary’s nefarious aim of disrupting Pakistan.
The issue calls for a national response, mainly to penalize any miscreants who try to flare up sectarian hatred. Although the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016 has enacted strict punishment for inciting religious and sectarian hatred, one rarely witnesses its proper implementation.
The government must enhance its efforts towards hate speech awareness, taking place on digital platforms and work towards its mitigation by effective law enforcement. Nevertheless, even if the government manages to crack down upon the entities spreading hate and violence, the problem would be far from over because hatred and intolerance have taken root in our psyche.
Sectarian rift a severe issue
The fact that the common man in Pakistan has fallen for this sectarian rift trap is a serious concern. The issue has become an ideological one that cannot be addressed unless we revert to our ideals of unity and faith. The only way out of this divisive storm is by standing up for our combined heritage and faith-based identity free from sectarian divides. We must grasp (despite the misinformation being propagated) that Islam categorically and explicitly condemns any division in the name of caste, color, creed, or sect.
“Indeed, those who have divided religion and become sects- you [O Muhammad], are not [associated] with them in anything. Their affair is only [left] to Allah; then He will inform them about what they used to do.” – Surah Al-An’am Verse 159
Aneeqa Safdar is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org