Leaving Islam



The growing schism between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan fuels sectarian violence

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah  

Let us for once admit it openly that amongst South Asian nations Pakistan is an oddity as far as sectarian and religious violence is concerned.  Every once in a while we read in the Internet or in the print media news that describe in nauseating details the account of a carnage in which Muslim minorities, most likely Shiites, are killed in cold blood.    

Today (May 27, 2005) is no different.  These bloodlettings have become a routine affair in Pakistan .  With regular periodicities, the Wahhabi Jihad brigade undertakes suicide mission often targeting either minority Shiites or Ahmadiyas (also known as Kadiyanis).  The suicide bombers often carryout their jihadi attack on Muslim Sabbath day that falls on Friday.  As minority Muslims prostrates towards holy Ka’aba, bombs are hurled or the suicide bomber detonates the killing device with disastrous results.  

Hours after a serious suicide attack in the northern suburb of Islamabad , the capital of Pakistan , the Internet was abuzz with the news of sectarian killing in a Sufi Shrine.  The BBC also published a short account of the carnage in their website.  Reading all the reports one would surmise that sectarian violence is on the rise in Pakistan — a nation of nearly 165 million impoverished people.  The minorities are at the receiving end of these heinous attacks.  On May 27, 2005, an estimated 20 people were killed in the suicide blasts and about 200 people have received injuries from the bomb blast.  

Let us look into the incidences of extremists’ attack in the last 12 months to get a glimpse of the cancerous growth of jihadi brand of Islam.   

In May 2004, two separate attacks were brought forth in two different Shia Mosques; the total number of deaths was 35.  In October 2004, the scenes of two violent attacks were in Punjab, one in Multan and the other one in Sialkot, in which 70 people were killed.  In Sialkot blast, the target was a Shia mosque.  In March 2005, 43 Shias were killed in a bomb blast in Fatehpur, Baluchistan.   

It is quite clear that the minority Shiites in Pakistan are paying the price of Jihadism with their blood.  The Deobandi Doctrine, which emanates from strict Wahhabi teachings, is fueling the fire of a puritanical movement.  Therefore, some Sunni men are hell-bent on wiping the Shiites in Pakistan.  In one sense, it is a puritanical movement to wipe out Sufism (Folk Islam), Ahmadiyas, Shiites, and other minor offshoots of Islam from South Asian nations.  The Deobandi Mullahs have spawned a Wahhabi revivalism in South Asia, which dates back to 1940s.  The Tablig Al-Jamaat, which organizes marathon-preaching session in the dry winter season during December through February calling it Ijtema (congregation), is asking the faithfuls to revert to the teachings of Islam’s holy book.  It shuns the ‘Folk Islam,’ which had borrowed heavily from other religions and folklore of Persia, India, etc.  The most ordinary Muslims of South Asia were never perturbed by the presence of myriads of Sufi shrines those dot the rural landscape starting from Sind in the West where they are called Mazars of Kalandars to Eastern part of Bangladesh where they are called Dargah of Aolias.  The Deobandi teachings would like to annihilate the Dargah or Mazar cultures of South Asia.  This monolithic view of Deobandi (read Wahhabi Islam) is in clash with South Asia’s ‘Folk Islam.’  Thus, the killing of twenty Shiites who gathered in a Sufi shrine near Islamabad on May 27, 2005, is a chilling reminder that things could go out of hand if Wahhabi Doctrine is allowed to flourish in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India.  

According to news, hundreds of pilgrims were celebrating an annual festival (most likely an Urs) when the bomb exploded at the Bara Imam shrine, which is just north of Islamabad and near diplomatic and government buildings including the prime minister's residence.  The devotees saw pools of blood everywhere and the bomb scattered body parts inside and outside the shrine.  It was indeed a very gory, and sickening scene, according to eyewitnesses.  Strangely, both the Sunni and Shia Muslims venerate the 17th-century Sufi holy man.  The Sunni devotees gathered on May 26, 2005, to celebrate when the day’s events were not marked by any violence.  However, when Shiites gathered on May 27, 2005, all hell broke loose.  A suicide bomber had detonated a powerful bomb killing 20 Shiite devotees in a matter of seconds.  This week, some conservatives, and a number of religious scholars criticized the Bara Imam celebrations.  They frown on traditional practices by Sufi Muslims, who follow a mystical branch of the religion.  

Does this view surprise anyone that Pakistan has become an extremely violent nation where throwing hand grenades, bombs, suicide bombing, etc., a routine affair?  According to some reports, about 160 people have been killed in 2004.  The government does not perform a thorough investigation to figure out who are behind the sectarian violence.  The president of Pakistan, General Musharraf, is used to the news of these kinds of jihadi activities in Pakistan.  The Islamists also tried to kill Musharraf during 2003-2004.  After hearing the news of the blast, Musharraf expressed “shock and profound grief” and ordered an inquiry to track down the killers.  However, if past is any clue, the investigation will not unearth who are behind the sectarian violence.  The planners of the suicide bombing will again receive impunity as before.  It seems as if Pakistan is paying heavily for Islamization brought on by Gen. Zia ul-Haq in late 1970s and early 1990s.     

Getting back to the story of today’s attack in Sufi shrine, the timing of the attack came right after the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, who met with Pakistani high officials in Islamabad.  To protest Ms. Rocca’s visit Islamic hardliners staged mass protests hours before the suicide bomb went off in the Sufi shrine.  The hardliners were protesting against alleged abuse of the Koran at the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay.  Emotions are running high at this time, anything could have happened.   

In the meanwhile, suicide bombing has become a controversial subject in Pakistan.  The archconservative Mullahs who are devotees of Wahhabi Islam condone killing of deviant minority sects all in the name of jihad against impure Islam.  The same bunch won’t mind blasting of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Murtads (apostates), etc.  However, a group of senior Pakistani Muslim clerics this month declared suicide bombings and attacks on ordinary citizens and places of worship as un-Islamic.  Perhaps the government to make such characterization of suicide bombings goaded these clerics to offer their fatwa or religious edicts.  The practice of suicide bombing became very popular in certain places in Islamic world.  The late president of Palestine, Yasser Arafat, condoned suicide bombing as he launched Intifada II Movement in early 2000s.  

Now a paragraph on Pakistan’s growing schism.  The Sunnis in Pakistan abhor the Shiites.  While the Sunnis accept wholeheartedly prophet Muhammad as the last Hazrat.  The Shiites do not accept this doctrine.  They revere Ali who was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.  Just a week ago, I was listening to a news story from Iraq through America’s National Public Radio (NPR).  In the news piece that described the funeral of some Shiites men killed by Iraqi insurgency (mostly done by Sunnis), the bereaving men where reciting the Kalima repeatedly.  However, the thing that struck me the most was the following: The Shiite men were reciting only the first part of Kalmia Tayib while ignoring the second part, which says that Muhammad is God’s Rasul (the last prophet).  This had been a bone of contention amongst Shiites.  The Sunnis hate Shiites for their non-belief in Muhammad. Amidst the growing schism, the Sufi shrines in South Asia are open to anyone who wants to visit.  Therefore, the Bara Imam shrine serves as a symbol of harmony between the two communities (Sunnis and Shiites).  The same shrine was the scene of violence in February 2005 when assassins from rival faction gunned down its custodian.  

In summary, Pakistan, which has a long history of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias dating back to 1960s, is in the news again.  This time, a Sufi Shrine near Islamabad where hundreds of Shiite devotees came to celebrate the life of a mystic by the name Bra Imam was the scene of carnage where a suicide bomber had detonated bomb killing 20 people on the spot and injuring over 200 attendees.  According to a BBC report, more than 40 people were killed and many injured in a bomb blast at a Muslim shrine in the south of the country in March 2005.  The same report had stated that about 4,000 people have been killed in Pakistan over the past several years.  The Pakistani intellectuals should start a dialogue in various parts of the country to explain the inanities in religious war (jihad).  If sectarian violence goes out of hand, it may further destabilize the nation.  America should also help Pakistani government to efface the existing schism between Sunnis and Shiites.  These two factions are in collision course in Iraq with devastating result.  Let us all write articles to stop sectarian violence in Islamic world where things are in a state of flux, to put it in milder tone.


Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA


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