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Political Anatomy of a Religious Protest


By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

September 19, 2012

Last Saturday, when the title ‘Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen Pakistan’ (MWM) meant precious little to many of us undiscerning followers of news, an advertisement appeared in certain sections of the press.

 The “open letter,” as the advert was labelled, was addressed to President Zardari, Chief Justice Chaudhry and Chief of Army Staff Gen Kayani. It listed in some detail what it called “the systematic ‘religious cleansing’” since the 1980s of Shia doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers, bureaucrats and businessmen, and lamented that particularly during the last two years, Shias had become “victims of target killings across Pakistan.”

 The flyer then went on to caution against “civil war” and “forced migration” if these developments were not stemmed, and warned that they were “eroding the very fabric of Pakistani society” and constituted “an existential threat to the country.”

 The advert ended with this most elemental plea to the three addressees: “We request your offices to do something seriously and concretely, unless IT BECOMES TOO LATE [emphasis not added].”

 Too late, perhaps, came just the next day on September 16 when protestors demonstrating against a video mocking the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were led by the very same Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen and tried to scale the wall of the US Consulate in Karachi. The ensuing cloud of tear gas in front of the US Consulate left behind a lingering question: how did the peaceful protests of Friday and Saturday turn violent, and fatal, on Sunday?

 A part of the answer may lie in another quiet announcement by the MWM on April 26 this year. Allama Amin Shaheedi, the organisation’s deputy secretary general, had then disclosed that the organisation was planning to register itself with the Election Commission of Pakistan very soon. “We will turn into a political force,” he told a delegation of religious scholars.

 But where did the MWM come from in the first place? Let’s rewind.

 Remember the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan (TJP)? The Shia political party formed in 1979 in response to Zia’s Islamisation, or as some would say, ‘Sunnification,’ programme?

 After the TJP was banned by President Musharraf’s government because of a confluence of factors – the 9/11 terror attacks, a surge of Taliban activity in the tribal areas, the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and a hike in sectarian killings in Pakistan – like other proscribed outfits, it too adopted the commonly accepted first line of defence: resumed its activities under a new name.

 Becoming the Islami Tehreek, TJP was even part of the right-wing coalition of Islamist political parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal that formed the government in then NWFP, now KP, in 2002. Despite clear evidence that the Tehreek was merely a front for TJP, even Jamaat-e-Islami leader Qazi Hussein Ahmed came to the group’s defence on countless occasions and insisted it was a “political organisation, not a militant one.”

 In November 2011, TJP was banned yet again. By this point, as happens with most umbrella organisations, the group was riven by disagreements, corruption and quarrels that had rendered it near defunct and outmoded. A large number of Shia clerics and groups had long ago parted ways with its chief Allama Sajid Ali Naqvi over a range of political and religious issues.

 Enter the Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen with a mandate to recollect the speckled and strewn members of the Shia community – scattered organisations as well as warring clerics – under a single platform. First established only in Punjab as early as 2008, the MWM decided to enhance its organisational structure and held its first organisational convention in Islamabad on April 10-11, 2011. Over 300 representatives of the group’s central executive council elected its first secretary general.

 The organisation announced its twin-objective: one, the obvious, to provide a platform to the Shia community in the face of the failure of the TJP to represent and protect it; and two, “to bring the country out from the influence of the United States.”

 Now, let’s fast forward to the present.

 The month that led up to the September 16 protest by the MWM in Karachi was a particularly bloody one for Shias. Gunmen had killed a Shia judge and shot dead five Hazara vegetable sellers at one bus stop and three ordinary Hazaras at another in Quetta.

 On August 16, attackers summarily executed 22 passengers in four buses passing through the Babusar Top area of Mansehra district after checking the national identity cards of each passenger. The year itself, 2012, has seen at least 320 members of the Shia community killed in targeted attacks, 100 of them in Balochistan alone.

 So as Shia killings intensity in Pakistan, the groups representing them have been left with no choice but to assert themselves also – and sometimes violently. Groups like the Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen Pakistan have fit right into this vortex of hate and counter-hate.

 But what does all this have to do with the MWM’s September 16 attempt to storm the US Consulate in Karachi?

 For a group that has announced its intention to register with the Election Commission, that wants to catapult itself onto the national and political stage and emerge as the definitive representative of Shias in Pakistan, the anti-Islam film provided just the right moment for the MWM to raise its public profile.

 This is of course not to say at all that the group and its representatives do not feel genuine and legitimate rage over the contents of the film but only to point to the obvious: that outbursts of rage in Pakistan, as elsewhere, often bring with them mighty political dividends for political and radical groups.

 Even more interestingly, the battle between Iran and the United States, playing out on the world stage, is being vocalised in local politics by Shia groups whose cries against persecution by a Sunni state are increasingly and inextricably getting wrapped up in an anti-US narrative. After Shia killings in Quetta, for instance, statements by some Hazara groups often have anti-US protestations that are jarringly at odds with the larger grammar of the condemnation of killings.

 The reason for this is that many Shia groups, including the MWM, increasingly believe that rabidly anti-Shia terror outfits like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are aided by the shadowy Jundullah, which they believe gets arms-length support, money and weapons from the CIA to conduct raids into Iran from bases in Pakistan. As the theory goes, Jundullah is also rumoured to be the main proxy group used by the US and other countries to destabilise Balochistan.

 All this to say, the outrage that we saw in Karachi on September 16 runs much deeper than a singular event or furore over one amateurish film. It is the offshoot of the larger rise of militant Islam in this country and growing sectarian fault lines into which the state’s, especially the security establishment’s, ill-advised anti-Americanism has become inextricably entangled.

 There was no doubt, then, that Pakistan, on the run from demons within, was primed from the very beginning to fall into a mischievous moviemaker’s demonic trap.

Mehreen Zahra-Malik is an assistant editor at The News.