Shias and their future in Pakistan

by Omar Ali

Shias (mostly Twelver Shias, but also including smaller groups of Ismailis and Dawoodi Bohras, etc.) make up between 5 and 25% of Pakistan’s population. The exact number is not known because the census does not count them separately and pro and anti-Shia groups routinely exaggerate or downgrade the number of Shias in Pakistan (thus the most militant Sunni group, the Sipah e Sahaba, routinely uses the figure of 2% Shia, which is too low, while Shias sometimes claim they are 30% of the Muslim population, which is clearly too high).

Shias were not historically a “minority group” in the sense in which modern identity politics talks about “minorities” (a definition that, sometimes unconsciously, includes some sense of being oppressed/marginalized by the majority). Shias were part and parcel of the Pakistan movement and the “great leader” himself was at least nominally Shia. He was not a conventionally observant Muslim (e.g. he regularly drank alcohol and may have eaten pork) and was for the most part a fairly typical upper-class “Brown sahib”, English in dress and manners, but Indian in origin. Jinnah with wadia He was born Ismaili Khoja but switched to the more mainstream Twelver sect; a conversion that he attested to in a written affidavit in some court. His conversion was said to be due to the Khoja Ismaili sect excommunicating his sisters for marrying non-Khojas.

In short, his position as a Shia was not a significant problem for him as he led the Muslim League’s movement for a separate Muslim state. Twelver Shias were well integrated into the Muslim elite, and in opposition to Hindus they were all fellow Muslims. The question of whether Jinnah was Shia or Sunni was occasionally asked but Jinnah always parried it with the fatuous stock reply “was the holy prophet Shia or Sunni?” This irrelevant (and in some ways, irreverent) reply generally worked because theologial fine print was not a priority for the superficially Anglicized North Indian Muslim elite. Their Muslim identity distinguished them from Hindus (and especially in North India, it was mixed with a certain anti-Indian racism, the assumption being that they themselves were “superior” Afghans, Turks, Persians, etc.). But foreshadowing the problems that would come later as the ideology of Pakistan matured, a Shia-Sunni distinction did arise when Jinnah died; his sister arranged a hurried Shia funeral inside the house, while the state arranged a larger Sunni funeral (led by an anti-shia cleric) in public. Funeral of jinnah This event and his own studied avoidance of any specifically Shia observance in his life, has led to claims by anti-Shia activists that Jinnah was in fact Sunni. But years later, a court did get to rule on this issue and they ruled that he was Shia (property was involved). By the time his sister died in 1967, matters had become uglier and even an orderly Sunni funeral was not easily arranged.
Since then, things have become much worse. The leaders of the Muslim league in general and the great leader in particular seem to have thought that once a Muslim state had been founded, it would function as a kind of Muslimized version of British India. The same commissioners and deputy commissioners, selected by the same civil service examinations, would rule over the “common people” while a thin (and thinly educated) crust of Muslim landlords and other “Ashraaf” lorded it over them.

Having used Islam to separate themselves from their Hindu and Sikh neighbors, they might occasionally use it to strengthen the spirit of Jihad in Kashmir or carry out other nation-building projects but it was not seen as a potential problem. Some of them probably thought there would be something called Islamic law in Islamic Pakistan, but most of the push for sharia law came from mullahs who had strongly opposed Jinnah’s project on the logical grounds that no one as ignorant of Islam as Jinnah could possibly create an Islamic state…but they soon realized that this pork-eating, whisky drinking Shia had indeed done so, and they were then quick to move in and try to take ownership).

PakistanJinnah and some of the other Westernized Muslims in the Muslim League (like their later descendant Imran Khan) do seem to have had the vague notion that a true Islamic state was a sort of social-democratic welfare state that was first introduced into the world by the Caliph Omar and then taken by the Swedes to Europe (see here for details regarding this belief). Some others thought Pakistan would be a secular Westminster- style democracy, but one dominated by Muslims rather than Hindus (to which they added the common belief that Muslims are “inherently democratic” while Hindus are “caste-ridden”).

But the mullahs knew better. An Islamic state must have Islamic laws. And these laws are not going to be created de novo by some Westernized Muslims impressed by Scandinavian Social Democracy; a lot of them already exist. They were developed over hundreds of years in medieval times. And they are serious business. Very deep questions of legitimacy and authority were debated by the people who created those laws. Part of the Shia-Sunni dispute had to do with exactly these questions of authority and legitimacy. As long as the state is British or Indian or ethno-nationalist, these debates are mostly history; if and when there is an Islamic renaissance they will no doubt be dredged up by the kind of people who insist the ten commandments are the basis of all Western laws, but that level of development has yet to occur in any Islamic country. Outside of Saudi Arabia, what we have right now is Western/colonial legal codes and state institutions with a smattering of “sharia punishments” thrown in for effect. But if you have created a state with no real basis except Islamic solidarity it doesn’t take long to start wondering how and when the state will actually become Islamic. And once you start down that path, you have to specify which Islamic law? Or you have to do the hard work of inventing a whole new set. The “new set” option is a step too far for the limited intellectual resources available to the Pakistani elite (and involves fighting past the apostasy and blasphemy roadblocks), so we are back to arguing about which school to follow.

General Zia, who understood these matters better than the average Pakistani liberal, took his theology seriously. He favored hardcore Sunni schools of thought, though his exact allegiances are by no means clear. He also understood the importance of Saudi Arabia as a source of cash, and that may have played a role in his decisions (e.g.a senior official in his govt later claimed that he introduced the Islamic law of cutting off the hands of thieves purely in order to get short-term Saudi favor). In any case, he introduced a series of “Islamic laws” one of which made it compulsory for all Muslims to pay Zakat (poor tax) to the state. Shia jurisprudence regarded this as a personal matter rather than a state matter and a very large number of Shias organized to demand that they be excluded from this law. This Shia movement was given some support by Iran (a message from Khomeini was read out to the largest gathering in Islamabad), a fact that has allowed some apologists to claim that all later problems are part of some sort of proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (a claim that is thoroughly debunked here). While the Shias won that round and were exempted from Zakat, a line had been drawn that has continued to become darker and bloodier with time.

At ground level a lot of this was not due to any single organized conspiracy but involved the confluence of several factors: Islamization put the question of “whose Islam” on the table; Zia’s personal leanings led to support for anti-Shia factions;
Saudi Arabia inserted Wahabi-Salafi propaganda into the mix; The Shia response to the Zakat law and open (even if mostly symbolic) support from Iran helped opponents to label them Iranian agents; and modernization and modern education themselves led to a preference for modern (and fascist) versions of Islam in preference to folk Islam with its “superstitious” rituals and rather obvious multicultural colorfulness.

Newly rich Saudi and Gulf individuals wished to promote “true Islam” in Pakistan. Many individuals in Pakistan wished to be paid by Gulf and Saudi millionaires to do the same. While the actual madrassa cannon-fodder came mostly from poor families, the policy the promoted the same came from middle class military officers and their civilian collaborators. Modern education and economics had prepared the minds of many middle class Pakistanis (including many whose families were traditionally Barelvi Sunni) to accept Maudoodi-type “back-to-basics” modern Islamism. Just like traditional folk Hinduism was rejected by Arya Samajis and other Hindu reformers, educated middle class Muslims in Pakistan were ready to reject folk Islam and strive for modernized purity. Thus,in predominantly Barelvi Pakistan, the majority of the new madrassas set up all over the country and paid for by Gulf money turned out to be hardline Deobandi, Ahle hadith and Wahhabi in sectarian orientation.

It is worth repeating that the Anti-Shia polemic was not paramount in the minds of many of the geniuses who promoted these policies. In fact, many in the Pakistani middle class still have no clear idea of where the anti-Shia polemic is coming from. It was not part of our education. While Shias were a minority sect, their version of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husain was widely accepted and reverence for Ali and the house of Ali was part of most Sufi orders. Shia symbolism had spread well beyond the Shias and become part of the cultural heritage of educated Sunnis in South Asia. Certainly there were Ahle hadith and Wahhabi mullahs who were frankly anti-Shia, but even they tended to stay away from any direct criticism of Imam Hussein and his family. That this kind of reverence is not a universal feature of the Muslim word is not something that was even vaguely known to most Pakistani or Indian middle class Sunnis. That in Indonesia and Malaysia there is practically no sense of Moharram as a month of universal mourning is a surprise; that the Saudi Wahhabis have a well-developed anti-Shia polemic that brands the Shias as heretics, Jewvish agents and frank enemies of Islam was poorly understood.

But the fact is the Saudi Wahhabis and their fellow travelers DO have such a story. When I first heard the Saudi version (from a Pakistani doctor who had converted to Saudi Islam and ran a “study circle” in our residential camp in Saudi Arabia) it was a bit of a shock. It took a while for me to realize that his version of history was completely mainstream in Saudi Arabia. In this version, Islam (basically a military enterprise from day one) was spreading rapidly on its way to conquer the world, until a Jew named Ibne Saba helped to create a fitna (the first civil war) that sabotaged this first attempt at world conquest. This fitna is now known as the Shia sect and they have been sabotaging Islam ever since. I paraphrase of course, but this is not too far from what any pious Saudi or Gulf millionaire believes. It is therefore no surprise that they spend good money to teach Pakistanis these “truths” and some of them go on to support killers who take the next step and start physically eliminating Shias.

A second and only locally important economic factor was the fact that there were some prominent Shia landlords and power-brokers in Southern Punjab. Anti-Shia polemics combined in those parts with what the Marxists gleefully call “class issues” to fuel a hardline Sunni revolt against the local Shia elite in these areas.

But the third and most critical component of this perfect storm was the state policy of Jihad or “strategic depth”. The Afghan Jihad that effectively destroyed Afghanistan may have been a CIA project, but from day one it was supported and then hijacked by local actors who had priorities of their own. Cynical Saudis saw it as a way to send away religious zealots to “jihad camp”; Pious Saudis saw it as a way to spread true Islam to the benighted heathens; and GHQ saw it as a golden opportunity to get “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, to be translated later into conquest of Kashmir and projection of power (perhaps even an empire!) in Central Asia. Zia cartoon sabirAs a result, the ISI got oodles of cash from the CIA and the Saudis (every American dollar was matched dollar for dollar by the Saudis) and had complete autonomy in who they handed it out to. They handed it out to the most hardline Islamist groups they could find. And the Saudis paid for the madrassas where hardline Islam was to be taught to future suicide bombers. That it included a healthy dose of anti-Shia propaganda was part of the package. Even today, many Pakistanis who have not been directly involved in jihad and anti-jihad have no idea of the kind of ideological poison that was being injected into Pakistan’s Madrassa and Jihad underworld starting in the 1980s and accelerating through the 1990s under state patronage; and continuing even as the state itself became at least partially ambivalent about the cause. One visit to this site and others like it should help to put things in perspective.

Very early on, some of the anti-Shia groups started targeting Shias within Pakistan. Jhang in central Punjab was an early battleground, as were Gilgit, Kohistan and Parachinar. Zia’s regime is said to have actively helped set up the Anjuman e Sipah Sahaba (ASS), the primary anti-Shia militant group, probably as a way of getting political leverage against uppity Shias. Like many other inventions of general Zia (MQM being the most famous) the puppets soon escaped from state control (while continuing to receive help and protection from factions within the state). Ultra-militant offshoots of the ASS (offshoot or deniable-militant-arm, take your pick) like the Lashkar e Jhangvi (LEJ) had launched open war on all Pakistani Shiites by the 1990s. The state made some efforts to rein them in , but since the same militants were linked by common donors and patrons to other militants that were considered “good” by the state (as in Kashmir Jihadists, Taliban, etc.) this crackdown was always ineffectual and remains so to this day.

The level of violence has steadily accelerated over time. To get an overview of the violence, see here. This has now reached the point where I personally know well-established Shia doctors who abandoned their life in Karachi and escaped to the US because someone across the hall was shot dead in broad daylight because of his sect. This year, over 300 Shias were killed or injured in attacks during the holy month of Moharram. Since 2001, 700 plus Shia Hazaras have been murdered in Quetta city and its environs and over 3000 injured. In events that evoke the horrors of partition and 1971, Shias were taken down from buses in Kohistan and identified either using their names (there are some typically Shia names, though overlap occurs)

or the scars of self-flagellation many Shias have on their backs. They were then shot in cold blood. The term “Shia genocide” has been used and several op-eds have appeared in which prominent writers are asking where this will end.

So where will this end? Prediction is where the pundit rubber meets the road, so here goes:

  1. The state will make a genuine effort to stop this madness. Shias are still not seen as outsiders by most educated Pakistani Sunnis. When middle class Pakistanis say “this cannot be the work of a Muslim” they are being sincere, even if they are not being accurate.
  2. But as the state makes a greater effort to rein in the most hardcore Sunni militants, it will be forced to confront the “good jihadis” who are frequently linked to the same networks. This confrontation will eventually happen, but between now and “eventually” lies much confusion and bloodshed.
  3. The Jihadist community will feel the pressure and the division between those who are willing to suspend domestic operations and those who no longer feel ISI has the cause of Jihadist Islam at heart will sharpen. The second group will be targeted by the state and will respond with more indiscriminate anti-Shia attacks. Just as in Iraq, jihadist gangs will blow up random innocent Shias whenever they want to make a point of any kind. Things (purely in terms of numbers killed) will get much worse before they get better. As the state opts out of Jihad (a difficult process in itself, but one that is almost inevitable, the alternatives being extremely unpleasant) the killings will greatly accelerate and will continue for many years before order is re-established. The worst is definitely yet to come. This will naturally mean an accelerating Shia brain drain, but given the numbers that are there, total emigration is not an option. Many will remain and some will undoubtedly become very prominent in the anti-terrorist effort (and some will, unfortunately, become special targets for that reason).
  4. IF the state is unable to opt out of Jihadist policies (no more “good jihadis” in Kashmir and Afghanistan and “bad jihadis” within Pakistan) then what? I don’t think even the strategists who want this outcome have thought it through. The economic and political consequences will be horrendous and as conditions deteriorate the weak, corrupt, semi-democratic state will have to give way to a Sunni “purity coup”. Though this may briefly stabilize matters it will eventually end with terrible regional war and the likely breakup of Pakistan. . Since that is a choice that almost no one wants (not India, not the US, not China, though perhaps Afghanistan wouldn’t mind) there will surely be a great deal of multinational effort to prevent such an eventuality.
  5. Sadly, the Tariq Ali type overseas/Westernized-elite Left will play no discernible role in any of this. If we do (God forbid) get to the nationalist-Sunni-coup phase, Pankaj Mishra may find something positive in it (“strength” and the willingness to stand up against imperialism being a high priority for him) but events will not fit into that framework for too long.

Shia ostrich

btw, the cartoons and the painting are the work of the highly talented Pakistani cartoonist and artist sabir nazar.

Finally, do NOT watch the following video if you cannot stand graphic content. But its real and everyone is always telling us how important it is to face reality. I am not sure, and have not watched it all myself. But here it is