The Holy Infidels

In 1979, when people of Iran under the leadership of Khomeini revolted against the American-backed Shah, the entire Muslim world, not just Shias, looked up to them as a model to be followed in fight against American exploitation of resources of the Muslim world - particularly its oil resources. The Iranians had, without any outside support, deposed a Western backed, heavily funded, and armed regime of an "areligious" tyrant. It was inspiring for everyone — except for the monarchies that ruled over Gulf.

Soon after Islamic Revolution in Iran, the two regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia were at loggerheads — beginning with Saddam Hussain’s intervention of Iran. Soon Shiaism became synonymous with Iranism, and since Iran was something to despised, Shias became a hateworthy out-group. Today, decades of sectarian indoctrination has resulted in a situation where a recent Pew report found that 40% of Sunnis do not even consider Shias to be proper Muslims.

In Pakistan, as always, confusion reigns supreme. Last month, thousands of people joined an anti-Shia rally in Karachi. At the same time, it is not uncommon for people in Pakistan to hail Iranians for looking eye-to-eye with Americans and Israelis despite the fact that Iran has 93% Shia population. Likewise, they would condemn Sunni regimes of UAE and Bahrain for their "betrayal" of Muslims. These inconsistencies are perhaps product of widespread religious ignorance and a lack of culture of critical thinking. Otherwise, perhaps, Pakistan could’ve avoided the sectarian trap.

Take layman's definition of Jihad – fighting against non-Muslim occupiers, prime examples of which are Israel and USA - and you would soon reach a conclusion that if anyone is doing Jihad, it is the overwhelmingly Shia Iran: jihad for Palestinians and against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands; jihad against American interventions and occupations; jihad against Western backed governments in Middle East. If anyone ever fought Israel and made it retreat, it was Hezbollah in Lebanon - a Shia outfit. In short, Hezbollah and Iran's fight against Israel would have universal acceptance in Pakistan.

How then, one wonders, are Iranians, or Shias, holy warriors on one hand and kaafirs on the other for a large population of Pakistanis?

The incoherence of Shia-Sunni incompatibility thesis comes to the fore the moment it is put to the test of reason. The question that should be asked is: who benefits from sectarian divisions? Apparently, nobody more than the sectarian governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia and their security and foreign policy establishments. Both regimes have never shirked from promoting sectarianism since 1979 and are fully indulged in ruthless competition in Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad’s genocide in Syria and Saudi’s massacre of innocent civilians in Yemen are glaring examples.

It seems therefore that it is only for extra-religious, mostly political, ends that Shia-Sunni incompatibility doctrine is evoked to divide people in the name of sects. The line that divides the political ambitions of governments should be extended to divide the minds and hearts of people as well. It is important that a Shia should hate a Sunni and a Sunni should hate a Shia the same way that House of Saud hates Khomeini and Khomeini hates House of Saud.

As a Sunni, I feel no hesitation in saying that some of the most intellectual people I ever came across in my life were Shias. Among many strands of Islam, the tradition of inquiry, critical reasoning and debate is perhaps most prominent in Shia tradition. This is not to say that doctrinal ignorance is not as pervasive among Shias as it is among other sects. It is all encompassing when it comes to sects. Most people, especially laymen, often have little understanding of intellectual intricacies of doctrines. Most argue on the basis of what they have “heard”. It is their "clash of ignorance", using Edward Said's terminology, that leads to divisiveness and their descent towards extremism.

One of the reasons why it is so easy to divide Shias and Sunnis is lack of popular understanding and, despite years of coexistence, lack of familiarity with each other's real, as opposed to fabricated, views/doctrines. This lack of understanding makes it easy for agenda-driven hate mongers to mislead people. The familiarity deficit can be bridged if people of both sects are made to intermingle in more academic settings where facts, not emotions, are brought to the table. A forum for Sunni-Shia understanding in Pakistan can go a long way in this regard. The role of media can be most effective.




I study and write about international affairs, political philosophy, society, and history. Reach me at:

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Syed Abdul Ahad Wasim

Syed Abdul Ahad Wasim

I study and write about international affairs, political philosophy, society, and history. Reach me at:

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