The Plight of Pakistan's Shia
Is Sunni-majority Pakistan in the midst of a low-grade war against its minority Shia population? Scarcely a month goes by without word of a new atrocity: a car bomb outside a Shia mosque in Quetta during Ramadan, a suicide bombing of a Shia procession in Lahore, Shia doctors mysteriously shot in Karachi.
In July, after prosecutors failed to find evidence of his alleged involvement in the murders of scores of Shia, the Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, leader of the banned Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. He promptly received a hero's welcome from his followers. The Pakistani government has allowed Sunni-ruled Bahrain to openly recruit Pakistani mercenaries to put down a restive Shia majority demanding democratic rights in the oil-rich kingdom.
The country's Shia are worried. In July, hundreds took to the streets of Quetta to protest the ongoing killings. Others have begun an online petition to draw attention to their plight. In private, some Shia wonder whether over time they will meet the same fate as the heterodox Ahmadiyya community, stripped of their recognition as Muslims and hustled toward the margins of national life.
All this over what to many people is an obscure theological debate shrouded in history. Shia revere Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and Islam's fourth caliph. They regard the denial of Ali's alleged right to succeed the prophet on his death, his subsequent murder, and the martyrdom of his son Hussein at Karbala (in present-day Iraq) later as seminal events.
To be sure, compared to other religious minorities—Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus—the Shia are relatively fortunate. They have so far faced no battery of discriminatory laws, and their exposure to the country's toxic culture of permissible violence is both relatively recent and somewhat limited. But this position of comparative privilege is precisely why the Shia matter so much to Pakistan's future.
The 36-million-strong community is a bulwark against the violent Sunni fundamentalism of groups such as the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Punjab-based Sipah-e-Sahaba. Reverence for Islamic shrines and other practices considered impure by Sunni extremists make them among the fiercest opponents of the intolerant, triple-distilled Islam of the Taliban.
Judging by Pakistan's history, that Shia in this country face any degree of violence or discrimination is ironic. The country's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, belonged to a Shia sect, the Khoja, whose followers are famous in the subcontinent for their business acumen. Many of Jinnah's top lieutenants in the Pakistan movement were also Shia.
Unlike much of the Arab world, where Shia have traditionally constituted an underclass, the community in Pakistan began with a seat at the head table of power. In the early decades of independence, Pakistan had two Shia presidents and at least one Shia prime minister. The list of prominent generals, businessmen, ambassadors and newspaper editors from the community is too long to recount.
Only in the 1980s, under the fundamentalist Sunni dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, did the compact between Sunni and Shia begin to fray. Partly to protect their distinct identity, Shia protested the general's clumsy attempt in 1980 to impose a uniform alms tax on all Muslims.
Around the same time, Pakistan was sucked into a shadowy proxy war for influence between two rival strains of radical Islam: the messianic Shia variety propagated by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, and Wahhabism, an austere back-to-basics form of Sunni Islam championed by Saudi Arabia.
The explicitly anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions), born in southern Punjab in 1985, took up the cause of Sunni peasants in a region dominated by large Shia landowners. Over the years, a clutch of Shia rivals, including the banned Sipah-e-Muhammad (Soldiers of Muhammad), have attempted to fight back.
Over the past three decades, violence between Sunni and Shia has ebbed and flowed, but two things are clear. First, despite spawning banned violent sectarian outfits of their own, the Shia have largely been on the receiving end of violence. In a 2005 report, the International Crisis Group estimated that Shia accounted for 70% of sectarian deaths over the previous 20 years. In recent years, the violence has spread from southern Punjab and (sporadically) Karachi to Quetta in Balochistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on Pakistan's troubled border with Afghanistan.
Second, the space to be publicly Shia in Pakistan has shrunk dramatically. This is most obvious in the tale of the Bhutto family. Though not overtly pious, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who ruled from 1971 to 1977, is described by Vali Nasr of Tufts University as marking "the pinnacle of Shia power in Pakistan."
But by the late 1980s, Bhutto's daughter Benazir, who herself became prime minister, had begun to call herself a Sunni. Her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, maintains a studied silence on the subject, an apparent attempt to attract Shia support without tempting fundamentalist Sunni ire.
For Pakistan, founded as a homeland for all Indian Muslims, the Sunni-Shia divide is an awkward subject that many would rather ignore. But the rest of the world needs to pay more attention to this conflict in the shadows. If Pakistan can't even protect its numerous and well-connected Shia, then the odds of moderates prevailing over extremists in an ongoing battle for the country's future look exceedingly slim.
Sadanand Dhume: The Plight of Pakistan's Shia - WSJ.com