Freedoms Denied

Posted by sepoy on May 07, 2004 · 7 mins read

Today brings news of two deeply saddening events in Pakistan to the international media. First is the bomb blast in a Shi'a mosque in Karachi. Just yesterday, I was giving my class some data on sectarian conflicts in Pakistan and the role played by print culture and madrasa system in that conflict. This blast occured, as well, at a madrassa which had both Sunni and Shi'a mosques associated with it. The other news event is the rape of 2 young girls at the behest of a panchaiyat (jury of 5 village elders). This is a shameful example of rapine and killing carried out in the name of "honor" in rural Pakistan. Neither of these events is unique and one must look at their tortured historical past in Pakistan.

Shi'a-Sunni Conflict in Pakistan
Who will lead the Muslim community? That question of political authority and legitimacy split the nascent Muslim world right after the death of the Prophet. For the Shi'a, the Companions of the Prophet conspired to disposses 'Ali (his son-in-law) of his rightful claim as the First Caliph. The Sunni majority - that revered the Companions - feels that political succession of the Prophet went as God intended. The history of Islam bears witness to these two strains developing and solidifying ideologically and politically in various parts of the world.
In Pakistan, by a rough estimate, the Shi'a community is 20% of the population. Sectarian conflict did not become the issue it is today until the Islamization processes of Gen. Zia ul Haq (1977-1988) the Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan.
In 1980, as a response to his Islamization policy (and the fear that the Hanafi fiqh will pre-dominate), the Shi'a community began political mobilization. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a great ideological boon to the community. The organization at the forefront of this mobilization was Tahrik-i Nifaaz Fiqaah Ja'fariyya or Tahrik-i Ja'fariyya (Movement for the Implementation of Ja'faria Law - TJP). Created largely to protect Shi'a community from unfair Islamization laws, the TJP quickly expanded into a full-fledged movement for the Shi'a in Pakistan. Its confrontational style sowed seeds of dismay in the Sunni majority. It's second leader Allama 'Arif Husain al-Husaini was assassinated in 1988. One of their manifesto items was the creation of an army of followers ready to defend the community. In 1991, that army (or youth group) splintered into the Sipah-i Muhammad (Muhammad's Soldiers). Based out of Thokar Niaz Baig, it participated heavily in the Afghanistan conflict raging against the Soviets as well as Kashmir. The recruitment and training of young men happened mostly in madrasas associated with the organization. Since its inception, this organization has been involved in much of the anti-Sunni violence in Karachi and Punjab.
The Sunni counterpart is the Sipah-i Sahaba (Soldiers of the Companions) established in 1985 in Punjab. It was constructed explicitly to combat Shi'a power in Pakistan and to make Sunni Islam the official religion of the state. For example, to counter the Muharram processions, it tried to celebrate the death anniversaries of the first four caliphs. This organization was militarized as well in the Afghanistani and Kashmiri conflicts.
Beginning in the rural centers, these organization spread to the urban populations in the mid-90s and brought with them their militant sectarianism. There were over 1800 events of sectarian violence between 1984-2003 with deaths and injuries of considerable population. There are further splinter groups of these organizations as well (most have been tagged 'terrorist' by Gen. Musharraf).
The flare-ups happen largely around Muharram with one or the other organization attacking mosques or neighborhoods with drive-by shootings. The suicide bomb that caused this latest incident seems to be a new development. A particularly shameful chapter in this bloody history was the assassinations of Shi'a medical professionals in Karachi in 2002. They had a hitlist of doctors with Shi'a sounding names who were stalked and shot. The retaliation by the Shi'a resulted in the assassination of Maulana Azim Tariq (a leader of the Sipah Sahaba) in 2003. Which caused further retaliation.
As long as Pakistan continues to yolk itself to any conception of an Islamic State, it will have no recourse against those willing to hijack the whole bus. Zia's Islamization (Nizam-i Mustafa as he called it) may have been the catalyst for militarization of such groups, but the subsequent "civilian" governments did nothing to stop the madness. In fact, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif continued to promote relationships with these organizations to get access to local legitimacy.
I am afraid that the only way out is to remove the shroud of Islam from the state mantle.

Honor Crimes:
Let's go from the evils of state and religion to the evils of class and culture. Honor crimes are not Pakistani or Islamic in nature (ever read Shakespeare?). They are crimes against women in every patriarchical, feudal society. They arise out of cultures and histories where women are possessions. In Pakistan, according to an editorial by Munnu Bhai in today's Jang Daily, there were 1261 incidents of honor crimes in 2003. The pre-dominant cases involve the landed elite of the village raping and killing the lower classes and imposing their terror upon that society. In this case, as well, the Zamindar (land owner) claimed an individual had illicit relations with his daughter and as compensation demanded the right to rape the two sisters of that individual. He was given the right to do so by a Panchiayat - a group of five elders who traditionally play the role of judge and jury in rural villages. In fact, the Panchiayats are nothing more than rubber stamps of the evil will of the landowners. The "wise elders" in this case are on the lam from the law as is the rapist. Will they be bought to justice? I think so. The best way to get things done right in Pakistan nowadays is to get international media involved.
Still, the root of the problem remains. Feudal landlords who rule over their dominion like mini-Stalins.
I have an even more prepostorous solution for that: Land Reform and a viable movement to better the role of women in Pakistani society ESPECIALLY in the rural areas.

sigh. i want happy news. someone?