Islamabad, Pakistan - Shortly after a bomb went off in Dera Ismael Khan, a city in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, on 23 November killing seven people, Hasan Zaidi desperately attempted to call home from Rawalpindi to check on his family’s safety. It was the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram, when Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, mourn the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein through public processions and assemblies.
With cell phone services suspended to thwart terror attacks, it was several hours before Zaidi learnt everybody was safe. This came as a big relief for a man who lost 22 members of his extended family in a 2008 sectarian suicide attack in his native town on the west bank of the Indus River in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
This event highlights the sectarian tensions that exist in Pakistan, with Muslims targeting Muslims. Shia and Sunni Muslim sects have different interpretations of Islam’s early political history and there have been periods of relative calm and harmony as well as times of mistrust and violence.
According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, 425 people have been killed in 149 incidents of sectarian violence this year alone in Pakistan.
Sectarian violence has turned Zaidi’s life upside down. His parents are not ready to leave their ancestral town in Dera Ismael Khan and live with him in Rawalpindi. And Zaidi has not returned to his hometown, a six-hour drive from Rawalpindi, since 2007 because of such violence.
However, Zaidi remembers a time when the first month of the Islamic calendar used to be peaceful and when everybody took part in holiday celebrations and commemorations. His father’s Sunni friends would visit his home to attend prayer ceremonies. “In those days it was normal to say prayers in each other’s mosques and commemoration halls”.
Zaidi is not the only one to recall the days of sectarian and social harmony. Noted Pakistani journalist, Wusatullah Khan, in a recent column on the BBC Urdu website remembers how his mother, father and grandmother observed the first ten days of Muharram with their Shia neighbours – planning together, cooking stew with meat and lentils and listening to sermons remembering the battle at Karbala where Hussain was killed. His satirical piece shows what was considered normal conduct by all sects, may be considered “appalling deviations” in today’s polarised atmosphere.
Zaidi says the sectarian violence over the last 20 years has taken its toll on social harmony and an imperceptible divide has become palpable. “We are reluctant to talk and find a way out of this madness.”
Admitting that the two decades of sectarian violence have succeeded in creating a social split, Mazhar Arif, executive director of Society for Alternative Media and Research (Samar), argues that not all has been lost. “The important thing to remember is that sectarian violence has not changed into sectarian riots because social bonds are still intact.” For example, in Multan, a city in southern Punjab, processions during Muharram are still attended by both Sunnis and Shias who believe the differences between them are not too acute to overcome.
Such examples show that despite extremist propaganda to the contrary, the majority of the people do aspire to live a peaceful life with each other as they have been doing throughout history, discounting short spells of violence.
Naeem Malik, an academic living in Rawalpindi, thinks sectarian differences have been exploited throughout history. At the same time, he says the two sects with all their differences have lived together peacefully. “We have to embrace diversity and plurality.”
Zaigham Khan, a development consultant with a background in journalism, agrees. Different sects may not have been as warm to each other as they have been in the past, but amid multiple Pakistani identities, Khan adds, sectarian identity has still not become the primary one – a scenario that should be avoided at all costs.
* Daud Malik is currently heading a parliamentary reforms project in Islamabad and has a background in journalism and development. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 11 December 2012, www.commongroundnews.org
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