Only a few could see it coming; the anticipation of blood and blasts was so certain that many from all walks of life heaved a sigh of relief as the Ashura processions approached the end peacefully. Anxious faces of the officials monitoring the law and order situation started normalising as the sun drew near to the West. Then, it happened. And no ordinary violence by any means; violence is never ordinary when ordinary people are involved in it in lieu of the groups who have monopoly over the violence. The phenomenon hints at the underlying grievances of the people.
What is more extraordinary and concerning is the nature of discourse that stemmed from the tragic Rawalpindi incident. The discourse reflects the actualisation of the policy of ‘Othering’. The waves of hatred that followed the incident were nothing but repercussions of the fact that the state itself has been meddling in sectarian issues. Unabated and unchecked violence has not only given rise to the desensitisation of a bulk of the populace but it has also caused deepening divisions in the society.
The unprecedented violence against Pakistani Shias in the last few decades at the hands of militant groups tolerated by the state, for one reason or another, has left devastating effects on the delicate social fabric of Pakistan. The most crucial aspect of the whole episode is growing concerns over the question of religious practices that are an inseparable part of the Shia identity. This, in no way, is an ordinary phenomenon. The question itself points to the hegemonic mind-set that aspires to enforce a particular version of religion on an otherwise diverse society. The tale as to how the question that, at first, echoed from the pulpits of a couple of seminaries has made its way to the mainstream is no less than narrating almost everything that has gone wrong with the country in the last few decades.
Dogmatic issues put aside, the concept of religious, as well as individual freedoms is in essence a secular phenomenon on which the foundations of modern world have been laid after WWII. In post-colonial context, the question of identity has become more significant with respect to the rights of persecuted communities.
There were times when group identities were deemed shackles and obstacles in getting along with the unexampled progress of human world, and rightly so. The European Jews, who had a long history of persecution and pogroms, saw their emancipation in the liberal / secular currents of the enlightenment. Cultural assimilation was their ultimate goal; even proselytization in some cases was considered a viable way. Among the Jews who converted was Benjamin Disraeli’s father. Had the father not converted, the son would not have become the British prime minister, since Jews were barred from Parliament until 1858. Karl Marx’s father converted in 1824. Heinrich Heine, one of the most eminent German poet / literary critic of the 19th century, converted to Lutheranism in 1825. To quote his own words, his conversion was,
the ticket of admission into European culture.
What, however, happened afterwards is well preserved in the red annals of history. Fuelled by anti-Semitic sentiments, riots broke out in Dusseldorf Germany, Heine’s birthplace, when a sculpture was commissioned to honour the centennial of Heine’s birth. The statue eventually found a home in New York. To quote the words of Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Heine, however, discovered that the Jews do not cease to be Jews at least for the outside world when they stop going to synagogue’. The butchery at Auschwitz and other extermination camps setup by the Nazis across Europe during WWII is testimony to that profound statement.
It is self-evident from the above cited case-in-point that to hold particular identities and practices responsible for violence would be tantamount to blaming the victim. The epicenter of the problem lies in a hegemonic and fascist mindset that thrives on sheer hatred for ‘others’ and calls for imposed homogeneity. Only after comprehending this subtle point, strong laws against Antisemitism have been devised in the West.
The predicament, in the case of Pakistan, traces its roots to the fact that the state has taken upon itself to define a Muslim. A state loses its neutrality at the very moment when it gets indulged in excommunication. That happened in 1974 when the Ahmadiyya community was declared non-Muslim by the then parliament. The historical baggage of a 1400-year-old religious schism is too inflammable to meddle with. Why Ashura processions are more peaceful in neighbouring India than they are in Pakistan is not at all an incomprehensible a thing.
On the other hand, cultural values as well as, religious beliefs of people belonging to the majority Barelvis and the Shias in particular, meet on so many different levels that it would be next to impossible to tear apart the coexistence until the society is pushed to a full-fledged civil war. These are deeply rooted syncretic values of the subcontinent which have barred the country from becoming another Beirut, Baghdad or Aleppo. But then, the history of the Balkans is before us too, where different communities that had been living together peacefully for centuries, at last, resorted to unprecedented bloodshed when pushed to the wall.
It is just a matter of time that the country will have to confront the existential question as to the place of religion in state affairs which, in order, necessitates a radical revisiting of the very raison d'etre of the country. The writing on the wall points to ominous happenings that cannot be averted unless the state takes the lead and distances itself completely from religious issues, instead of striving to impose a homogenous cultural identity.