[Edit: March 4, 2012] The below piece is based on a few interviews and personal observations. It lacks the political context in which sectarian violence escalated in the 1980s, namely, the state's sectarian agenda and foreign involvement. It also gives the impression that the landscape of Sunni-Shia relations radically changed in the 1980s. To some extent it did, particularly, if one focuses on the expansion of Jihadist madrassas by the Zia regime. But in other ways, this landscape remained unchanged. Consider the Ashura blast of December 2009. While it indicated the confluence of local, national, and international forces behind sectarian violence, it also showed continued coexistence (and shared practices) among the Sunnis, Bohras, Twelver Shias, and Christians. I quote an excerpt from my post on the Ashura blast below:
"For one, consider the background of people killed in the Ashura blast: according to one report 15 of the 50 killed were Sunnis, two Bohra Shias, and one Christian [the rest were Twelver Shias]. Anyone familiar with the ground reality in Pakistan knows that Muharram processions are widely attended by Muslims from diverse sectarian background, and at some places, even non-Muslims also participate. Thus the processions are not an exclusive tradition of Shias, contrary to how it is framed in the international news media. They are for all those who want to commemorate the noble sacrifice of the grandson of the Holy Prophet, Imam Hussain. However, the reductive representation in the international news media further distorts the image of Sunni-Shia differences in the mind of general viewers: An attack on Muharram procession is automatically seen as an attack on "Shias by Sunnis" in news and analysis."
Contrast also the perspective on MQM's politics shared below to these posts: 2009 Ashura Blast, The Specter of Talibanization, Debilitating Conditions in Karachi.
Mourning After Muharram
Source: The Friday Times, March 19-25, 2004 - Vol. XVI, No. 04
Ever since Dr Ali’s name appeared on a Shia hit list printed by the eveninger Riyasat six to seven months ago, a police mobile unit has accompanied him when he goes to read marsiyas. “I never reveal my full name at the hospital where I work and I’ve asked the people who organise the marsiyas not to mention it either,” he says. “But I never allow the mobile unit to follow me to my doorstep. I don’t want this fear to completely take over my life.” His wife stays by his side when he reads in public, petrified that a member of Sipah-e-Sahaba or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, two anti-Shia outfits banned in 2001 by President Musharraf, will attack her husband. She has never been able to shake the memory of her father’s murder in 1994; he too was famous for reading marsiyas in Muharram.
In addition to target killings, Shias have to contend with organised mass violence against them in the month of Muharram and this year was no exception. Forty-five mourners from the Hazara community were killed and 150 were injured in Quetta’s Liaquat Bazaar on Ashura Day (March 2). This was the third violent attack against the city’s Shias since the brutal attack of last June which left 50 dead. The violence was not restricted to Pakistan; in Iraq more than 170 Shias have been killed this Muharram.
In Pakistan it is estimated that the Shias are the largest minority group comprising 20 percent of the population. Among those there are many who have contributed to the prosperity of the country, such as Syed Amir Ali, Agha Hasan Abidi, Professor Qarar Hussain, Fatima Jinnah, and Shaista Zaidi. And we of course should not forget that the country’s founding father was a Shia. “Mr Jinnah himself requested that the Habibs open up a bank in Bombay in 1942,” says Dr Javed Ameeri, an assistant professor of philosophy at Karachi University. MAH Ispahani was the first ambassador to the US and was put in charge of the industrialisation of Pakistan, and “Raja Sahib of Mehmudabad who had large estates in Awadh funded the Muslim movement.”
Many remember the first major bloodshed in 1963 when extremists killed 118 Shias on Ashura Day in Theri, Khairpur. The Theri massacre was followed by the burning of the Ali Masjid in Ali Basti in Golimar, Karachi in 1978. Sawad-e-Azam Ahle Sunnat, a Sunni outfit, was blamed for the incident.
Fear has visibly filtered through the ranks. Children holding out their hands for tabarukh (benediction) after a small majlis at Thateer Baji’s house in Martin Colony flinch when they hear the distant sound of cracks in the air. Someone asks if it was firing.
“I remember 1983, when a curfew was imposed and our house was attacked,” says Samana, a 29 year-old who has been reading marsiyas since she was a young teenager. She lives in Martin Colony, Karachi, with her parents who came from Lucknow and Khurso Patkapur in Kanpur in 1954. Her father, Manzoor Hussain, now 70, shakes his head. “We never saw such violence in India. No Deobandis, no Wahhabis. When there was a jaloos the Hindus and Sunnis would join us and walk shoulder to shoulder with us,” he says.
Even Dr Ali acknowledges that Muharram was relatively more peaceful in pre-Partition times. “Muslims were a single unit then,” he says. “They were pitted against the Hindus so there wasn’t as pronounced a Shia-Sunni divide as we see today. But even the Hindus used to take part in the jaloos because they found it spiritually inspiring.”
I find myself drawn to Nishtar Park on Muharram 9. I get lost in the crowd at Khurasan after ziarat in the women’s section. There is a swish swish from the left where they are washing down the white marble floor with large brooms and a stream of water and blood courses past my feet. About a thousand men have just performed maatam there. I sidestep the stream and back up against a tight plug of men. There is a delicate, silvery ‘chik chik’ sound in the air. I can’t see the shirtless men in the centre but suddenly the knives swoop over their heads, go down and then come flying up again. Some men, not participants in the maatam, have crawled up on a ledge to gawk.
The crowds are gathering in Nishtar Park where up to 40,000 come to listen to zakirs the likes of Talib Jauhari. There is a booth for lost children, charity stalls, ambulances and medical camps for the mourners who perform maatam. I expected an atmosphere full of fear and doom but the crowds are harmless, with everyone minding their own business. I feel the mood creeping up on me; one of calmness and community. As a Sunni I’ve been told far too many stories against the Shias and I feel slightly ashamed. It is a beautiful night at Khurasan, one steeped in tradition and spirituality.
At Ancholi the entire neighbourhood is bathed in the light of a thousand bulbs. Rangers and police are stationed at each street corner. An 11 year-old scout ushers me through the ladies’ passage. “Zakir-e-Hussain, or the men who lead majlises, don’t just talk about religion,” Reza says as we approach the inside of the imambargah. And I realise that the Zakir is talking about the recent controversy surrounding a television programme which caused offence to members of the Shia community.
We hear much the same at Rizvia where another majlis is in session. All the gates to the neighbourhood houses have been thrown open where anyone can enter and light a candle for Shaam-e-Ghariban. Little children admire the tall velvet alam, or replica of the flag of Imam Hussain, and old men tend to huge degchis of tea, which will be offered to the mourners later.
“I find that Muharram reaffirms my sense of community and identity,” says Amna, a 29 year-old marketing executive, who lives in Defence. “During Muharram you see people who you don’t meet the rest of the year. And while it is true that many mothers keep an eye out for eligible young girls, no one acts on it in Muharram as that would be disrespectful.”
Women and children pour into the Abul Fazlul Abbas North Nazimabad Imambargah where amidst tight security loudspeakers blare nouhas, or elegies for those slain at Karbala. Ali bunds or silver bracelets are being sold outside alongside incense and candles and mourners touch the alam.
This year 303 big and small processions emanated from various parts of Karachi on Muharram 9, 114 of which were Shia and 189 Sunni. On Muharram 10, the authorities granted permission for 324 processions. This is a vast improvement from the early eighties when jaloos were prevented from leaving their neighbourhoods.
“I remember 1983 when the Sawad-e-Azam Ahle Sunnat formed an Eid Milad un Nabi procession that passed the Khurasan Imambargah,” says Reza. “Sunni boys started throwing stones, crying out anti-Shia slogans and insults and broke water tankers which were there for protection.” The Shias protested the attack and staged what Reza calls the most prominent sit-in to date at Numaish which lasted six days. “The second important sit-in just took place this Muharram at Bolton Market near Tower and lasted four and a half hours,” he says.
The agitation in 1983 grew and people’s homes were burnt in Lalukhet and New Karachi where a large number of Shias lived. This forced many to migrate to areas like Ancholi. “It took a year for that to calm down, but Muharram has never been the same in Lalukhet ever since,” Reza says.
Between 1983 and 1987 there was much tension surrounding processions that started in Lalukhet. When a jaloos tried to leave Lalukhet on the Imam’s chehlum in 1985, Shias at Numaish and Nishtar Park vehemently protested. “They said they would take their jaloos to Lalukhet,” he says. “I remember they actually reached Teen Hatti and it became really dangerous because there were 60,000 to 70,000 Shias on one side of the bridge and armed Sunnis on the other side.”
This was the time when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement started to consolidate its position. “I think we began to freely observe Muharram after 1987 or 1988 because the MQM, which wouldn’t tolerate any sectarian divisions in its ranks, ordered its office bearers to walk in front of the processions,” Reza says. “So the very same boys who were ready to kill us in 1983 at Teen Hatti, would be walking with us in the jaloos.”
Unfortunately it was in the mid-eighties that extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba (Millat-e-Islamia), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Muhammed and Tehreek-e-Jafria, gathered force. “After 1994 we saw many Sipah-e-Sahaba killings take place,” Reza says. “This was the time when the authorities were engaged in an operation against the MQM. Many of the killings started in Jhang, in Southern Punjab.” In 1985, the founder of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was killed.
“Sectarianism is considered the best solution by many groups,” says Dr Ameeri. “And I predict a massacre of the Shias in the coming months.” He contends that once there is a positive outcome of the India and Pakistan peace process the jihadis who went to Kashmir will have nowhere to go. “All these trained jihadis have tasted blood,” Dr Ameeri says. “And the easiest thing would be to turn on their own.”
More than 17,000 police officials were deployed in Karachi to protect the processions. “I don’t think there will be more Shia killings in Karachi,” one official says. “Many of the leaders of the banned anti-Shia outfits are in jail and it is important to remember there was no Muharram violence in Karachi this year.”
And so while it will be difficult to come to terms with the recent killings in Quetta and Iraq, Shias and Sunnis hope that sectarian violence will not rear its ugly head again.
Source: The Friday Times, March 19-25, 2004 - Vol. XVI, No. 04