‘Pluralism can counter sectarianism’

Published November 23, 2014
Dr Vali Reza Nasr.—White Star
Dr Vali Reza Nasr.—White Star

KARACHI: Sectarianism within the world of Islam has moved beyond religious arguments and is now about the balance and distribution of power. Whether in Pakistan or the Arab world, there can be no solution to sectarian problems unless a pluralist conception of society is promoted.

These views were expressed here on Saturday by acclaimed scholar and author Dr Vali Reza Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, United States. He was speaking at the Yohsin Distinguished Lecture on ‘The growing role of sectarianism in Muslim politics globally and in Pakistan’, organised by Habib University.

Dr Nasr said sectarianism was the single most important dynamic in the Muslim world and “the Middle East is the epicentre of the Muslim world”. He added that in many ways Islamisation had its roots in South Asia, citing the influence of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi.


Ayatollah Khomeini urged Shias to support ‘Arab’ and ‘Sunni’ causes, such as that of Palestine


He said sectarianism was a “political, historical, strategic and religious problem with a 1,400 history”. Discussing the linkages between political Islamism and sectarianism, he said that when there is talk of Islamism, questions emerge about “whose Sharia and whose Islamic law” is to be implemented by the state.

Islamism and sectarianism

Tracing the roots of the modern intersection of Islam and politics, he said there was “an explosion of fundamentalism in Egypt and India in the 1930s”. Questions emerged about who has the right to interpret religious laws. He cited 1979’s Shia movement against the state’s imposition of Zakat in Pakistan by the Ziaul Haq regime as an example of how different interpretations of Islamic law could lead to sectarian fissures. “There is no way Islamism can be prominent without triggering sectarianism. Islamism is responsible for bringing sectarianism to the fore”.

The scholar said that in Sunni Islamism there was always a strong urge for “purification and narrowing down who is a Muslim”. He mentioned the 1954 anti-Ahmadi violence in Pakistan as an example of this.

Coming to the demographics of the modern Islamic world, Dr Nasr said that “90 per cent of Shias today live between India and the Mediterranean. Pakistan has the second largest Shia population. By and large Shiaism today is a non-Arab Muslim sect. For a long time Shias in the Arab world did not think of themselves as Shias and were close to Arab nationalism”. However in the 1960s and ’70s when Arab nationalists saw themselves as successors to the Umayyad and Abbasid empires, that was a linkage Arab Shias could not identify with.

The academic said that Lebanese Shia cleric Imam Musa Sadr was among the first to forge a contemporary Arab Shia identity when he began to organise the Shias of his country, which resulted in the formation of the Amal movement. “Lebanon was the first place where Shias broke from Arab nationalism and claimed their own identity.” In contrast to that, the leader of 1979’s Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, urged Shias to support ‘Arab’ and ‘Sunni’ causes, such as that of Palestine. In Pakistan, after the 1977 military coup, the country moved to describe itself in a Sunni definition, whereas according to Dr Nasr there was more inclusivity at the national level up till that time.

He said 1979’s Islamic Revolution was “a jolt to the region which brought Islam into the political process. This was not achieved by any of the ‘champions of Islamism’. Shias outside Iran were emboldened. Iran became a model for Islamist parties. Shias went from being ‘the wrong kind of Muslim’ to the forefront.” He observed that there was “panic” in some circles in reaction to this and the events of 1979 were painted as ‘a Shia revolution’. Related to this, in Pakistan he said “a huge infrastructure was created to counter the Iranian revolution, which is now on autopilot”.

‘First Shia Arab state’

Dr Vali Nasr said the 2003 US invasion of Iraq helped create “the first Arab Shia country in the heart of the Middle East”. Referring to the holy city of Najaf, he said “Najaf with oil was [seen as] dangerous”. A Shia Iraq was also seen as a victory for Iran. Some Arab states also feared Iran was developing a “Shia [nuclear] bomb”.

The scholar said that when the Wahhabi forces swept across Arabia in the early 20th century, “they did exactly what ISIS [the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] is doing but the Shias survived in Qatif, in the east. [Elsewhere in Arabia] even Sunnis were decimated.”

In his view the Arab Spring helped “shatter” states such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. He said the “entire map of the Middle East as it was drawn in 1918 was being completely undone. More than terrorism, ISIS has managed to erase the borders of Iraq and Syria.”

He said there were no simple solutions to the sectarian issue as Shia-Sunni fissures were well-entrenched in the Middle East. “The shortest solution is for the conflicts to end.”

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2014

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