Beleaguered but assertive

Ammar Ali Qureshi reviews some of the latest research into the political history of Pakistan's Shias

Beleaguered but assertive
Andreas T Rieck, a German researcher who has spent years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has written a very comprehensive and impressive book on the Shias of Pakistan, who form around fifteen percent of the population but are the second largest Shia community in the world after that of Iran. Well-researched and meticulously detailed, the book The Shias of Pakistan - An Assertive and Beleaguered community extensively relies upon multiple Urdu sources, most notably Razakar, a prominent Shia weekly journal which has been published since 1938.

A veritable treasure trove of information about Pakistan’s Shias, Rieck’s book traces the political history of Pakistan’s Shias, including their communal organisations and the growth of the ulema class and religious schools. It describes the lobbying of successive Pakistani governments by various Shia organisations to defend their community’s rights. Finally, it focuses in detail on the Sunni-Shia conflict, which has increasingly become violent due to the state’s failure to confront and combat religious extremism.

Shia Islam in the Indian Subcontinent has more than 700 years of history, including some powerful kingdoms and principalities, such as Awadh and Deccan, ruled for a long duration by Shias. Bengal and Sindh had Shia dynasties for a considerable time while Shia preachers have had a significant impact in Kashmir too. A strong influence from Persian culture and Sufi preachers from Iran and Central Asia are the two most important reasons which contributed to the spread of Shia Islam in the subcontinent.

The role of Shia politicians in the creation of Pakistan can be considered not only undeniable but, in fact, decisive. Sir Aga Khan, an Ismaili Shia, became the first President of the Muslim League. The first provisional committee of the Muslim League consisted of four Shia members. Shia politicians played an important role in the Muslim League in its initial decades and some - such as Syed Ameer Ali, Syed Wazir Hasan, Raja Sahib of Mahmudabad, Sir Ali Imam etc. – reached the highest levels of its leadership. Raja Sahib stepped down in 1930 and helped Allama Iqbal to become President ahead of his famed Allahbad address.

Like Jinnah, most Shia politicians (with the exception of Iskander Mirza who even as President would regularly participate in the Ashoura procession) have usually downplayed their Shia faith and identity to emphasise common ground with their Sunni compatriots.

Rieck makes the point that Shias have often fully integrated into all sections of political, professional and social life in Pakistan without any discrimination, even enjoying a privileged position in many professions due to their social and educational background. In political terms, their situation cannot be compared to the Shias of Lebanon, Iraq or Iran where their demographic strength has resulted in political power. Mainstream political parties in Pakistan have never made any distinction between Sunnis and Shias; Shia communal and political parties have not played more than a marginal role in Pakistan’s politics.

His main argument is that the Sunni-Shia divide generally, apart from the terrorist violence against Shias, has never been a significant political issue in Pakistan. Despite increased sectarian violence directed against Shias since the 1980s, they are not an oppressed minority. In fact throughout history, they have been integrated at all levels of Pakistan’s society and have assertively pressed for their rights whenever that was deemed necessary.

Shias were satisfied with both 1956 and 1962 Constitutions which had sufficient constitutional safeguards regarding the rights of minorities. Minor incidents targeting Azadari processions occurred sometimes in the 1950s, but the situation was not different from pre-Partition India where anti-Shia propaganda, at times resulting in sectarian clashes, had started gaining traction with the rise of Deobandi and Ahle Hadith movements - both ideologically close to Wahhabism as opposed to the majority Sunni Barelvis - in India in the nineteenth century. The first serious sectarian clash in Pakistan took place more than a decade before the Afghan Jihad or Iranian revolution, on Ashoura (10th of Moharram) in 1963, costing 120 lives across the country, with Lahore and Khairpur in Sind being the two worst affected areas.

Following the 1963 riots, Shia communal organisations focused on three specific demands: separate dinayat (religious studies classes in school) for Shias, exclusive Shia control over their religious endowments (auqaf), and freedom and protection of azadari.  Rieck believes that the best period for Shias were the Bhutto years when in 1974 their long-standing demand of separate dinayat (religious syllabus) was officially approved.

Zia-ul-Haq’s coup led to the onset of serious trouble for the Shias and was undeniably the worst turning point in their history. Even before the advent of the Afghan Jihad or Iranian revolution, Zia had allied himself with Sunni Islamic parties as junior partners in his government. The first concrete step taken against Shias was abolishing of separate dinayat syllabi, in 1978, on the grounds of being “harmful to national unity”.  Coinciding with the Iran’s Islamic revolution in February 1979, Zia ul Haq promulgated the first batch of Islamic laws (Hadud Ordinance) in the country based on single Hanafi fiqah. This move angered the Shias who swung into action and launched Tehrik-e-Nifaz-Fiqah-e-Jafariya (TNFJ) - a movement for enforcement of Shia jurisprudence - in April 1979.

In 1980 Zia, despite reservations expressed by Shia ulema, promulgated a new ordinance regarding automatic annual deduction of the religious tax (Zakat) from back accounts. In July 1980 the TNFJ organised the largest Shia demonstrations in Pakistan’s history in Islamabad. It was a watershed moment as the sit-in forced Zia to backtrack and he agreed to exempt Shias from Zakat deduction. It became known as the Islamabad accord and Zia viewed it as a personal humiliation since it sent a strong message across the country that his so-called Islamisation is not acceptable to all Pakistanis.

After the Islamabad accord, Zia viewed Shias as a threat to be controlled and therefore instigated a split in TNFJ in 1984. More importantly, he approved the appearance on the scene of anti-Shia sectarian organisation Sipaha-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and turned a blind eye to its virulent propaganda and violent actions. For some analysts, as Rieck points out, more than the Saudi-Iran proxy war or Afghan Jihad or the Iranian revolution, it was the Islamabad accord which signalled the start of sectarian war in Pakistan.

Rieck surveys in detail the post-2003 scenario when violence against Shias and terrorism in general in Pakistan has spiked to unprecedented levels, resulting in thousands of deaths. Shias, more than any other community or ethnicity, have been subjected to random acts of terrorism and targeted killing just because of their faith. It has happened in all the major cities of Pakistan but, as Rieck argues, the systematic and brutal killing of Hazaras in Quetta has led many, not just Shias, to use the term ‘genocide’.

Some of the facts stated in the book make for very depressing reading, showing a breakdown of the state’s power to enforce rule of law or collusion of state organs with extremist elements.

In 2008, two top convicted sectarian terrorists belonging to LEJ escaped from the well-guarded headquarters of the Anti-Terrorism Force in Quetta; most sectarian killings in the Quetta region targeting Hazaras in subsequent years have been attributed to them. The general weakness of Pakistan’s judicial system has been on full display when dealing with sectarian terrorists, a number of whom have been released due to lack of evidence.

The most shameful episode narrated in the book is about the trial of murderers of top Shia leader Allama Arif Al-Hussaini, assassinated in 1988. The trial ended in 1993, acquitting all accused - including even the self-confessed killer. Among those accused included Chief Minister NWFP General (retd) Fazl e Haq, his brother-in-law Senator Hashim Khan, a provincial minister, and a member of ex-President Zia’s security staff. The appeal against the verdict dragged on for eighteen years before being rejected by Peshawar High Court in 2011, by which time only three of the former ten accused were still alive.

There are a few minor mistakes in the book for example Section 144 - related to assembly of people - is repeatedly mentioned as part of the Pakistan Penal Code whereas it is part of the Criminal Procedure Code. Syed Ali Zahir, a pre-partition Shia leader from Lucknow, became law minister as Congress nominee in 1946 in Nehru’s interim government cabinet but the book wrongly mentions that his name was used by Congress as a bargaining chip with Muslim League and later withdrawn.

However, these minor mistakes can be easily ignored. The final verdict is that it is a very insightful, pioneering work on the subject, which will remain a must-read for a long time.

The reviewer tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be reached at