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Smokers' Corner: Hydra unity

January 22, 2012

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Pakistan, we are told, is a deeply polarised nation. But sometimes I feel what especially the 'establishment' means by polarisation is the presence of the rich ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity the country has.

These different people on most occasions have simply refused to come under the all-encompassing umbrella of ideological unity the country's establishment, its religious allies and the urban bourgeoisie have been shoving down our throats for the last six decades.

But no doubt there is also polarisation of a more genuine kind in society. On occasions it's been like a black comedy that can generate sheer bafflement. Every Friday at my office during the second half of the morning session, I notice guys who regularly go for prayers at the mosque break up into little groups. One day I decided to figure out why that happens, or why they are all not going to the same mosque.

It is easy for me to understand that the Shia among them would visit the Shia mosques, but one Friday I was rather amused when I overheard a group of Sunni guys discussing why they would not go to a particular (Sunni) mosque because the mullah's sermons there offended them. It turned out that the lads were Deobandi Sunnis, who, due to lack of time, had had to visit a nearby mosque whose mullah belonged to another Sunni sub-sect, the Barelvis, who are the majority Sunnis in Pakistan. So the discussion was to locate a Deobandi mosque nearest to the office.

A senior colleague who'd seen me talking to these guys, approached me in the evening, smiling: “Did you see how they were whining?”

I smiled back, “I'm not very good at understanding these things.”

He shook his head and then said something that took me by surprise. He said, “I was the one who introduced them to the mosque they are now whining about. Do you know in their hearts they now believe I am a heretic.”

This senior colleague is a very religious man, with a beard and all, so his claim did baffle me but not for long. I soon realised what he was suggesting: He belonged to the Barelvi sect. It was a strange experience because on so many occasions I've seen him agreeing with his Deobandi counterparts on so many issues, especially on things like the Blasphemy Law, the need to enforce the Shariah, etc. But here they were, refusing to go to one another's preferred mosques.

This actually shouldn't come as a surprise in a country where the state has for long been active in defining what or who a ‘Muslim’ is, and that too in a society brimming with various sects and sub-sects. This has left the sects judging one another, sometimes overtly and sometimes discreetly.

The state did not learn anything from the findings of the famous Justice Munir Report in which — after the 1954 anti-Ahmadi riots, instigated by the Jamat-i-Islami and Nizam-i-Islami Party — Justice Munir noted that according to his interviews with a number of ulema on the matter, he found that no two ulema agreed on a uniformed definition of a good Muslim.

Later on history recorded another rather amusing episode. During the movement against the Z A Bhutto government in 1977, led by an alliance of various religious parties (the PNA), the alliance leaders met at the Karachi Press Club to brief the press about their plan of action. Demanding the imposition of Shariah laws and the ouster of the ‘secular, socialist’ Bhutto regime, the alliance's top three parties were representing the country's main Sunni sub-sects.

The Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) followed the Deobandi school, whereas the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) the Barelvi. PNA's third main party, Jamat-i-Islami, had a following among middle-class urban Sunni conservatives and pro-Saudi elements.

Newspapers reported that after outlining their plan of action and professing their unity of purpose (the downfall of Bhutto and the imposition of Shariah), the PNA leaders broke for the evening prayers.

In those days there were no prayer rooms or mosques in places of work, and certainly none at the Karachi Press Club (though there is one now). So some journalists cleared a room for the PNA leaders to say their prayers in. Urdu dailies, Imroze, Jang and Musawat, then went on to report how a restrained but firm commotion broke out amongst the leaders when they couldn't agree on who would lead the prayers as all three followed their own respective schools of thought.

The issue was not political but sectarian. Some newspapers reported that JUI's Maulana Mufti Mehmood refused to offer prayers behind JUP 's Shah Ahmed Noorani. Syed A. Peerzada in his book Politics of JUI quotes a JUI leader who alleged that the reporting of this discord was the doing of the PPP's Kausar Niazi whose job it was to exploit the sectarian differences between the PNA's religious parties.

This might be true, but then this was perhaps the easiest thing to do, i.e. disturb the make-up of what Bhutto might have (correctly) thought was, at best, a cosmetic face of unity among the political-religious figures of Pakistan. The fact still holds true, and like it or not, perhaps, it always will.