Coexistence 101

Indiscriminate Shia killings and the ever-decreasing space for non-Wahabi identities can only end with society's agreement on the right to offend, writes Kunwar Khuldune Shahid

Coexistence 101
Every time the Shias are targeted owing to what has become a barefaced genocide against the community, the torchbearers of political correctness identify a non-existent ‘sectarian conflict’ behind the Shia killings. The term would imply that both Shia and Sunni militant organisations are involved in indiscriminate attacks on the other community, something that has never been true, even during the days of the long extinct Saudi-Iran proxy war.

Sipah-e-Muhammad, the last Shia militant organisation on record, which was banned in 2001 along with other terrorist groups by Pervez Musharraf, used to target anti-Shia groups like Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. There has never been an anti-Sunni movement in Pakistan designed to excommunicate the entire Sunni population. Even so, the ‘sectarian conflict’, involving a group vying to militarily exterminate a community, and members of the religious community taking up arms to defend itself, has been redundant since 2001.

Following the Shikarpur attack, the fringe minority that seems to be bothered about the genocide against the Shia has brought up the aforementioned ‘sectarian conflict’ once again. The solution provided for this ‘sectarian conflict’, by ‘religious scholars’ and the handful of human rights activists, is ‘coexistence’. The idea of coexistence being peddled is to ‘let go of religious differences’.

It is not surprising that a nation that has had trouble grasping rather simple concepts like human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, gender equality, etc. seems to be having trouble understanding religious coexistence as well.

Coexistence does not mean abandoning differences. It means the exact opposite: respecting the differences, or at the very least, tolerating them.

It is those very differences that define who a Shia and a Sunni is. Asking either of the two to abandon aspects of their ideology that define their identity, just so they don’t get killed, is bigotry and apologia for murder. Instead of asking a targeted community to stop ‘being different’, we need to identify the murderers and instigate an indiscriminate clampdown. And of course, the murderers make the identification rather easy with the ubiquitous ‘Namoos-e-Sahaba’ conferences and the perfectly audible echoes of ‘Shia kafir, Shia kafir’ all over Pakistan.

The Shia-Sunni differences range from ideological to political disagreements that encompass jurisprudence and view on Islamic history. Asking the communities to shelve differences would mean a countrywide ban on discussions pertaining to Islamic jurisprudence and history.

Discussions on history have always been, and will always be, crucial in shaping opinions. Why should difference in viewpoints vis-à-vis political leadership be discouraged, or banned, just because the leaders under discussion defined Islamic politics and history?

Holding any historical figures above critique, unfortunately instigates similar movements for other personalities, and contradicts not only freedom of conscience – a basic human right – but is antagonistic to the very idea of coexistence.

By declaring the Ahmaddiya view on Islam as blasphemous in 1974, we defined ‘coexistence’ as excommunication of any opinions on Islam that differ from the mainstream Sunni (read Deobandi/Wahabi) interpretations. By asking the Shia to shush up about their variations from the mainstream Sunni Islam we are apostatising Shia Islam, if not through a Constitutional Amendment then just through a skewed narrative of coexistence that inadvertently asks the Shias to abandon integral parts of their faith.

Even so, with renowned Shiaphobes like SSP’s Azam Tariq, and following his death ASWJ’s Ahmed Ludhianvi, already tabling Namoos-e-Sahaba bill in the National Assembly, the ‘legal’ and ‘official’ excommunication of the Shia – the bigoted corollary of apostatising Ahmadis – is very much on the cards. While the bill was not taken up for voting by the Parliament when Azam Tariq tabled it, should it ever be voted on, who is going to have the moral courage, honesty or dedication for human rights, to vote ‘No’?

The answer becomes even more obvious when leaders of ‘secular’ parties like ANP, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour announce a $200,000 bounty for the owner of Charlie Hebdo, after seeing fellow party members being murdered owing to the same ideology that was responsible for the Paris attack last month. Not to mention the blasphemy mudslinging between ‘secular’ parties PPP and MQM in October last year, involving Khurshid Shah.

Policemen stand guard near the site of a bomb attack in Rawalpindi January 9, 2015
Policemen stand guard near the site of a bomb attack in Rawalpindi January 9, 2015

This simply means that our idea of religious coexistence is to divide the nation into two major groups – Muslims and non-Muslims – with the former sharing an absolutely identical version of Islam and the latter living as inferiors, maybe paying jizya as well, according to strict Islamic tradition. The two-tier religious superstructure would see the two groups ‘coexist’ as ideological ‘haves and have nots’ – those who have the freedom to practice their religious beliefs and those who do not.

Banning, or discouraging, the freedom to possess and manifest ideas that offend you, can never lead to veritable coexistence, regardless of how offensive an idea might be. Actual coexistence entails giving the other person the right to hold beliefs that you find offensive, and giving yourself the right to be offended, without either of the two groups forcing their beliefs on the other, be it through violence, jurisprudence or simply through the proliferation of a narrative that asks for abandonment of ideological differences.
As long as there are legal, societal, or even material benefits associated with being a Muslim, the struggle within Muslims will continue to simmer, to reduce the number of people sharing the perks

Sectarian harmony within Islam is not possible without ending the discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims. For as long as there are legal, societal, or even material benefits associated with being a Muslim, the struggle within Muslims will continue to simmer, to reduce the number of people sharing the perks.

Actual coexistence in the Muslim world can only be possible where an ideological disagreement is treated as precisely that: a disagreement. When there are people willing to die over sanctity of certain ideologies, they will be more than willing to kill as well. This vicious circle of ideologically motivated terrorism will continue till the day we are prepared to give others the freedom to offend us. And that’s when we can lay a claim to religious coexistence.