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Shia-Sunni Conflict in Pakistan: Virulent anti-Shia propaganda exploded out of Saudi-funded Wahhabi-Deobandi madrasas

 By Omar Ali

24 January 2013

This conflict has deep roots in Islamic history. That does not mean it is inevitable. If states become secular and secular discourse dominates politics, then the fights will be over other things

Shia killing in Pakistan started in earnest in the 1980s and proximate causes include the CIA’s Afghan project, the Pakistani state’s use of that project to prepare Jihadi cadres for other uses, the influence of Saudi Arabia and modern Takfiri-Salafist movements, the rivalry between Iran and its Arab neighbors and so on. Some aspects of this (especially in light of the history of Pakistan) are covered in an article I wrote for 3quarksdaily ( in December.

Here I want to discuss a little more about the historical background to this conflict. The aim is not to provide a detailed history of the Shia-Sunni clash in Islamic history, but to understand why secularism is really the only practical way out of this mess, contrary to the notions of some “post-colonial” Western university-based left wing intellectuals, who are valorizing religious fanatics and spinning delusions about the progressive potential of Islamist parties in the name of “anti-imperialism”.

The origins of the first Arab empire lie in the first Islamic state established in Medina (this historical narrative has itself been attacked for being too quick to accept the various histories generated a century or more later in that empire and its successors; skeptics claim that the early origins of the Ummayad empire and its dominant religion may be very different from what its own mythmakers later claimed. But this is a minority view and is not a concern of this article). The succession to the Prophet became a matter of some controversy and various tensions between prominent Muslims eventually spilled over into open warfare (the first civil war). This war had not yet been finally settled when Hazrat Ali was assassinated and the Ummayad ruler Muavia managed to consolidate his rule over most of the nascent Arab empire. Supporters of Ali and opponents of Muavia (what came first as a motivation naturally varied from person to person) continued to oppose Ummayad rule in various forms, including a series of revolts led by different members of the extended family of Hazrat Ali (and by extension, by Hashemites; since in tribal Arab terms, this was also a struggle between the Hashemite clan and the Ummayad clan).

Supporters of Ali and his family (Shia means partisan, as in partisan of Ali) were developing a theology and a version of history of their own over this time. They were co-opted by As-Saffa in the Abbassid revolt against Ummayad rule but quickly cast aside once Abbassid rule was established. The Abbassids, in spite of Hashemite origins and initial use of Shia resentment to mobilize support for their revolt, soon settled on a broadly Sunni identity and much of what we now recognize as classical Sunni Islam was created by scholars working in Abbassid times (sometimes with official sanction, at other times in spite of official persecution).

These early conflicts provided later rulers and revolutionaries with clashing identities that could be used/sincerely adopted to differentiate themselves from rivals or to revolt against them. They also created rival versions of crucial historical events that became deeply embedded in Islamicate historiography and popular culture. These differences were not necessarily fatal and in larger multicultural empires they could be subordinated to the interests of statecraft. A syncretic ruler like Akbar (the great Moghul) could appoint a Shia as his chief judge and get away with it, but the divisions existed and could be exploited by anyone who wished to conspire against such an appointment. Thus, this particular judge ended up as one of the five martyrs of Shiaism when his rivals got the upper hand in the time of Jahangir. In Iran, the Safavid dynasty imposed twelve Shiaism as its state religion, distinguishing itself from the Sunni Ottoman Empire in the process and making Iran the only completely Shia-dominated country in the Islamicate world. This also meant that Ottoman propaganda against Iran naturally included a dose of anti-Shia polemics, and vice-versa.

But Ottoman polemics were mild compared to what was brewing in Arabia. The 18th century Islamic reformer Mohammed Wahab was virulently anti-Shia. Driven not by the pragmatic needs of statecraft but by the logic of a true believer, he insisted that the theological deviations of Shiaism and their historical role as rebels against the authority of the early Islamic empires put them outside the pale of Islam (he had similar views about Sufis and most other Muslims, following the same logic of purity and “one truth, one religion, one law”). His followers mined the propaganda of past conflicts (propaganda that naturally included the creation of holy traditions and archetypal “historic battles”) to create a narrative of Shia-hatred that is unmatched by any other sect of Islam. In the Wahabist version of history, Islam was a united, theologically pure, crystal clear, divine project that was supposed to literally conquer the world. Its followers set out to do exactly that and were proceeding as planned until civil war erupted in reign of the 4th caliph (Hazrat Ali) thanks to the machinations of internal enemies (including the Yemeni Jew Ibn Saba… a story that is vigorously contested by Shias). In this version of history, Shias are not just another sect within Islam. They are the enemy within. At best, they are dupes who are unwittingly serving the interests of infidels, at worst, they are conscious enemies of true Islam who need to be eliminated if Islam is to successfully fight off the infidels and conquer the world. This narrative was relatively unknown to the somewhat Westernized Pakistani middle class until recently, but Saudi money and propaganda are rectifying that as we speak. But it is worth keeping in mind that it was not created denovo by Wahab. Wahab picked it out of earlier sources, though he did give it a special edge and his followers have since been instrumental in inserting it into the broader Salafist movement. Wahabi formed an alliance with the Al-Saud family in Arabia and this alliance created the first Saudi state in 1744. Fighters from this state captured Karbala in 1801, destroyed shrines and massacred local Shias in large numbers. Their state was practically destroyed by Mohammed Ali Pasha (Ottoman governor of Egypt) but rose again and then again to become the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Though the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (like most ruling families in history) prioritizes its own rule over any theological niceties, their alliance with Wahabi Ulema and their use of Wahabi zeal has led to the inculcation of Wahabi Shia-hatred very deep into the fabric of Saudi Arabia. The ancient conflict between Persians and Arabs has also taken a convenient Shia-Sunni element with the rise of Shia theocracy in Iran and the spread of Salafist ideas in mainstream Sunni Arab discourse.

The point of reciting this history (in briefest outline) is that this conflict has deep roots in Islamic history. That does not mean it is inevitable. If states become secular and secular discourse dominates politics, then the fights will be over other things (there will still be fights, that much is given, but religious civil war in orders of magnitude more horrific than the world of democratic elections and their associated politics, corruption and all…where the bare minimum basis of such electoral politics and associated administrative institutions already exists, as in Pakistan, that system is hugely preferable to fighting to the death to establish a theocratic state).

If the state withers away (as it has in Somalia, and may in Mali or other extremely underdeveloped areas) there will be no choice. Order will be established by armed militias and in Islamic countries that will mostly mean armed Islamist militias organized on sectarian lines. But if we are not there yet, let’s not try to get there. There is simply no way an Islamic state can be established that completely overcomes Shia-Sunni rivalries to create a new harmonious Islamic synthesis at this time.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Karl Marx). In the Islamicate world, this tradition of dead generations includes 1400 years of conflict refracted through a Shia versus Sunni prism. Any state in which BOTH Shias and Sunnis live in large numbers will face the task of subsuming this conflict in a fresh synthesis while millions of individuals avoid the temptation to use that very conflict to promote their own personal or partisan ends. That seems so unlikely that it is not worth trying. In a country like Iran or Egypt (almost wholly Shia or Sunni) the weight of this conflict will not be the main factor in domestic politics, but in a country like Pakistan or Iraq, it will be fatal. In these countries, its secularism, or bust!

The peculiar history of this process in Pakistan and its history is worth reiterating in some detail. In colonial India, the British, being neither Shia, nor Sunni, were able to deal with Muslims as generically Muslim most of the time. And Muslims were more focused on their position vis a vis Hindus or British rulers in a colonial state that was relatively secular in spirit, so Shia-Sunni rivalries did not take center stage in politics. A Shia led the movement for Pakistan with minimal notice being taken of his Shiaism and many other Shias enthusiastically participated in the ruling elite in the new state (including army chief Mohammed Musa, Presidents Yahya Khan and Asif Zardari and Prime ministers Zulfiqar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto). But problems lay buried deep in the foundations of the new state. Was Pakistan a “Muslim state” or a secular state for Indian Muslims? Both forms of the question raise serious problems and neither works well as a justification of partition as it actually happened (because partition as it actually happened was a confused event, with the Muslim demand for a separate state being driven by many contradictory pressures and internally inconsistent narratives, led by a leader not given to deep thought).

The early ruling class was an uneasy mix of North Indian Muslim Leaguers (superficially Westernized Muslim elite of North India, primarily UPite in the early days), Punjabi turncoat politicians, British colonial bureaucrats and mid-level military officers who suddenly found themselves in possession of an army and then a state (the “Salariat” that supposedly formed the core of the Pakistan movement was not necessarily in charge). The various short-sighted politicians were soon eclipsed by wilier bureaucrats, who in turn learned the truth of Chairman Mao’s dictum that power grows from the barrel of the gun and lost primacy to semi-literate military officers. All parties were clueless enough to imagine that the arrangements of the British Raj could be kept going forever, with vaguely defined Pakistani nationalism added on as unifying cement instead of “loyalty to King and country”. After Hindus and Sikhs had been mostly driven out, and East Pakistan had been “lost”, the new Pakistan even seemed manageable.

But the tiny shoots planted in the “Objectives resolution” in 1949 and the anti-Ahmadiya agitation in 1953 had been nurtured by Islamists in and out of government for many years and started to bear fruit in 1974. Bhutto was pushed into declaring the Ahmedis as non-Muslims, a decision most Shias no doubt regarded as perfectly legitimate. But it has not taken forever to find out that “first they came for the Ahmedis” now they are coming for the Shias. General Zia took over in 1977 and started Islamizing the state. Meanwhile, the CIA arrived bearing gifts in connection with their Afghan project. A project whose own foundations had been laid by the Pakistani state BEFORE the Russians landed at Kabul airport in 1979. The rest, as they say, is history.

Saudi money sponsored jihadist madrasas all over Pakistan. The “moderate faction” of the Pakistani army permitted Jihadist militias to operate outside the law because “higher objectives” were in view. The smaller, but more clear-sighted Islamist faction did the same for they wanted these militias to help transform Pakistani society itself. Virulent anti-Shia propaganda exploded out of these madrasas (some regularly visited by senior state functionaries and openly funded by beloved Saudi donors) alongside Kashmiri Jihad and strategic depth in Central Asia. For the first time, the cry of “kafir kafir Shia kafir” became a routine part of the madrasa-Jihadi landscape. Since this landscape is well away from the world of upper-middle class Pakistanis, this didn’t really register on Western trained Sunni intellectuals still grappling with imperialism and the fall of the Soviet Union. But it has registered in blood on the minds of the Shia community. And unless the state reverses course (no longer possible without significant violence), this poison will comprehensively tear the nation apart.

Omar Ali is a Pakistani-American with an interest in history and science.