Shia-Sunni:A rift engineered and institutionalised

The conflict between Shias and Sunnis, though ancient in its origins, has come to the fore with dramatic intensity on the international stage with the execution of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Sectarian strife rooted in centuries of hostility between these two sects of Islam has often taken the form of virulent public campaigns and violent clashes, too. Yet never before did it impinge on global consciousness, and consequently in the realm of public affairs, as is happening now after the US-led occupation forces in Iraq overturned the rule of the minority Sunnis – symbolised by Saddam Hussein – and foisted a puppet regime of Shias.

Initially, the US found the Shia-Sunni conflict useful to sustain and boost opposition to Hussein's vestigial forces and reinforce a government that could appeal to the majority Shias. However, as the conflict unravelled and violence between the Shia and Sunni militias spiralled out of control, Washington, DC has come to realise that deepening this divide would weaken its grip on Iraq, and that the militias of both the sects have to be reined-in in order to achieve a measure of order. More importantly, neighbouring Shia-dominated Iran could exploit the conflict to leverage the crossborder Shia axis against US hegemony in the region. This is fraught with dangerous consequences for the US – not only in keeping a lid on Iraq but taking on Iran, too, as it has chosen to do.

If the West, trying to play cop in the tinderbox of West Asia, is now caught in this conflict, Southasia is not unaffected by the Shia-Sunni divide. In the Subcontinent, too, the execution of Saddam Hussein provoked anger and grief among Sunnis, while sections of Shias went about celebrating. This regressive manifestation – jarringly more pronounced and visible now – that characterises Shia-Sunni relations today can be traced to the late 1970s, when Pakistan's General Zia-ul Haq came to power.

Until then, for all the acknowledged religious, political, juristic and other minor differences, the story of Islam in Southasia was largely one of harmony between the Shia and Sunni. When the sectarian rift did surface occasionally, it was a muted affair and did not involve the two communities as warring factions. Demographics are against the Shia in Southasia, whose spread varies between five and 20 percent of the total Muslim population in different parts, reflecting also more or less the global ratio. There was always the odd report of a fracas on occasions such as Muharram, but generally Muslims in Southasia did not witness overt or violent expressions of the Shia-Sunni divide.

In Pakistan, India
General Zia's drive to make Pakistan an Islamic state during his long rule from 1977 to 1988 triggered the emergence of the sectarian monster. The 1979 Islamic (Shi'ite) revolution in Iran, much like the execution of Saddam Hussein, also provided a fillip to the Shia-Sunni contest in the Subcontinent. Gen Zia infused a Sunni edge to the Islamisation of Pakistan, if only to gain legitimacy for his regime in the eyes and interpretations of a majority of the clergy. There gathered a violent campaign against the Shias, buttressed by demands for declaring them non-Muslims or kafir, and the rise of a number of militant Sunni outfits. Thus were the seeds of strife sown in Pakistan, which ripened into bitter fruits of violence, large-scale Shia-Sunni riots, waves of killings, and attacks on each other's congregations that occur with unsettling frequency. The Shia-Sunni rift was engineered, deepened and institutionalised.

In India, there has been negligible bloodshed, fewer killings and clashes – with these confined to the Lucknow region of Uttar Pradesh, besides stray outbreaks in Gujarat – but relations between Shias and Sunnis have been vitiated at the institutional level. In 2005, the Shia set up their own All India Muslim Personal Law Board after breaking away from the parent body. This bodes ill at a time when there is increasing emphasis on the differences that divide the two sects, even as well-meaning leadership of both Shias and Sunnis are working to keep up a dialogue. The rift is out in the open, but probably has not attained virulent and violent forms as in Pakistan because both sects are faced with the aggressive fascism of Hindutva. The danger represented by Hindutva intolerance requires that the Shia and Sunni not let their differences get out of hand.

The Shia-Sunni divide is cause for both reflection and vigorous revival of dialogue between leaders and organisations of the two sects. The argument that the divide is perpetuated by enemies of Islam is denigrating to Muslims – suggesting that they are not autonomous agents who can determine their own condition and intra-faith relationship. Islam, as with any other religion, has its enemies and, perhaps, the challenges and threats it faces are greater. All the more reason, then, that the dialogue between Shias and Sunnis be initiated and sustained at every level, regardless of whether it is for co-existence, reconciliation, convergence or agreeing to disagree.

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Himal Southasian