Who Is Attacking Shia Muslims In Iraq, Pakistan

Farooq Sulehria


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Muharram is the first month of Islamic calendar. Tenth of Muharram has special significance. Muslims observe this day as a day of mourning (Ashura). The Ashura was indeed turned to day of mourning this time when terrorists hit Ashura processions in Baghdad and Karbla in Iraq as well as in Quetta, provincial capital of Balochistan, province of Pakistan.

In Iraq, this was the bloodiest day since March 20, 2003 when George Bush invaded Iraq. The death toll was 182.Another 500 were injured. For Pakistan, Ashura proved the bloodiest Ashura of its history. It was not just Quetta incident that claimed 42 lives. In Phalia, a small town in north of Pakistan, a Shia priest was shot dead along with five others. Yet another unfortunate incident took place close to Afghanistan border in the NWFP province. In the Para Chinar town of NWFP, the breakdown of electricity supply at a Shia mosque created a panic. The worshippers at the mosque, mainly women and children, thought the mosque has been attacked by terrorists. It led to panic and chaos. The ensuing stampede led to 13 deaths.

Muharram 10

One of the most important events in early Muslim history was the battle of Karbala fought in 680 AD. Islam originated in Western Arabia in about the year 610 AD when Muhammad had his first visitation of the Voice. The death of Muhammad in 632 AD led to power struggle among his followers. One faction wanted Muhammad's first cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to succeed Muhammad as caliph. The other faction however managed to defeat Ali in this power struggle. The supporters of Ali, known as Shian-e-Ali, led to a permanent sectarian division in Islam. This in fact was the beginning of Shia sect that took many shapes in the days to come. Ali got his turn to rule the Muslim world after the death of third Caliph. His authority as caliph however was challenged by Moavia, a close relative of third caliph. Moavia led a mutiny. First time, the Muslim empire that now had extended to Egypt on one side and Iran on the other, was divided into two. Interestingly, Iraq was the central stage of this bloody power struggle involving wars between Ali and Moavia, with Muhammad's widow Ayesha siding with Moavia. Ali was assassinated. The Muslim empire was again under the control of one caliph, Moavia. Ali's sons Hassan and Hussain went for reconciliation with Moavia. Moavia, a shrewd politician, nominated his son Yazid as his successor. Following the death of Moavia, Yazid became the caliph. Hussain refused to accept him as caliph declaring Yazid as tyrant. Hussain challenged Yazid. He was slaughtered along with a small band of disciples in a bloody battle against Yazid. The battle was fought at Karbala on Muharram 10.Thus Muharram 10 is observed with great solemnity in many parts of the Muslim world, particularly by Shia Muslims.

Shia Muslims wear black clothes, take out processions. Lamenting (chest beating), walking on fire, hitting oneself with knives are some aspects of these processions.

Shia Sunni Divide

Master Serbian writer and Noble laureate Ivo Andric in his masterpiece ' The Bridge on River Drina', delineates the unspeakable rivalry, mistrust and bias that exists between Christian Serbs and Muslims 'neo-Turks'. Same kind of bias one finds between Shias and Sunnis. Sunnis accuse Shias of sexual impropriety or their lack of respect for Quran. One grave 'misunderstanding' or 'bias' one learns as Sunni Muslim is: Shias mix dirt in food when they send some food dish as gift to Sunni neighbours.

This mistrust has been generated by long historical process. From rituals to interpretation of Sharia, both Shia and Sunni differ from each other. This however had never led to kind of attack one witnessed last week in Baghdad and Pakistan. In Indian sub-continent, Ashura had a cultural aspect rather than religious. Not only Sunnis but Hindus even would participate in Ashura processions.


After Iran, Iraq is the largest Shia majority country. During the 30-year brutal Baath regime, Shias were not allowed to take out processions on Muharram 10. Saddam, himself having a Sunni background, specifically turned to Shia oppression as Iraq went to war against Iran. But it in no way meant that he did not oppress Sunnis. As a matter of fact, he was an oppressor who oppressed all sections of the society. Following the fall of Saddam regime, rumours and 'analysis' by media hawks predicting Iraq's divide along Shia-Sunni lines have been creating confusion across the globe. In Iraq, however the Iraqi masses have been united against the US occupation.

Also, Iraqis did not know the violence on Ashura day even during pre-Baath period. The mass basis of Iraqi communist party that organised both Shias and Sunnis has also left a mark on Iraqi society. Unlike Pakistan, Iraq has not gone through a phase of organised efforts to put Shias against Sunnis thus leading to sectarian violence. The Shia Sunni sectarian violence has not been any phenomenon in Iraq. 'Interestingly', by this far, only Shia mosques and Shia religious gatherings have been a victim of violence in Iraq. Even in Pakistan, it's mainly Shias' who have been target of sectarian violence.

The US occupational forces have been blaming Al-Qaida for these attacks. A Jordanian ,Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, with alleged Al-Qaida have been pointed out by US authorities for the deadly attacks on Baghdad and Karbala.
Al-Qaida in its turn has strongly denied its involvement in a letter faxed to a London-based Arabic newspaper. On the contrary, Al-Qaida has accused the USA of plotting these attacks in order to divide Iraqis along sectarian lines.
Both sides have not presented any proofs. The US authorities do not believe in presenting any proofs anyway weather it is Al-Qaida's involvement in S 11 events or Saddam weapons of Mass destruction.

Speculations Abound

The Al-Qaida accusation against US, despite some weightage, seems far fetched. It seems one of the greatest irony of this age that the powers which have been instrumental in destabilising these countries now wish to resort to some form of normalcy. Keeping in mind American phobia of terrorism, Bush would be least inclined to any violence, particularly in Iraq. Bush needs 'peace' in Iraq when this is an election year in the USA. Also, colonial powers historically tend to be more inclined towards status quo which in Iraq's case mean integrity of the country.


The March 2 massacre in Quetta was the second big attack on Shias in less than one year. At least 48 people were killed on July 4 in Quetta, last year in an attack on Imam Bargah (Shia mosque). This was the deadliest sectarian attack. One of the ugliest manifestations of religious extremism in Pakistan has been repeated attacks on the Shias. This July 4 attack was just another in the series. This sectarian killing is going on for the last almost 20 years.

Since 1989 until July 2003, 1468 persons had been killed, 3,370 injured in 1,813 such attacks. Most of the time, Shia mosques have been a target of attacks by an extremist Sunni group called companions of Prophet Muhammad (SSP).
The SSP, formed in 1985, is widely believed as a Saudi-funded outfit. It has a limited mass base in couple of districts where it wins elections. The SSP wants Pakistan to be declared as a Sunni state and Shias be declared as Kafir (apostate).

The creation of SSP in mid-80s was in fact a game played jointly by Saudi Arabia and the then Pakistani military dictator, General Ziaul Haq. General Ziaul Haq had a strategy to divide the society along as many lines as possible. He encouraged and patronised ethnic groups putting one nationality against the other. He helped creating sectarian religious groups thus putting one sect against the other. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia worried by the 'internationalist' approach of Iranian Ayotullahs, wanted to counter the influence of Iranian revolution in Pakistan.

Pakistan during 1980s, owing to Afghan war and Saudi involvement had become a fertile land for the spread of Wahabism. Saudi Arabia was pumping millions of dollars to open Wahabist schools in Pakistan. General Zia, son of a Muslim priest, himself was pro-Wahabism. The Shia population in Pakistan had traditionally been allied with democratic movement. Many communist intellectuals and leaders had Shia background in Pakistan. However, sectarian attacks creating a sense of insecurity isolated Shias in Pkaistan. More and more Shias were drawn into the fold of pro-Iran fundamentalist Shia party TNFJ. This served the purpose of General Ziaul Haq. He wanted to weaken the democracy movement in every possible way.

Attacks on Shias raged Iran. It really hurt Iran-Pakistan relations. Bad Iran-Pakistan relations suited both Saudi Arabia and USA as both were afraid that Pakistan may export nuclear technology to Iran. In Jnauary 2003, Musharraf under US pressure, put ban on some extremist groups. But the ban has served no purpose.



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