Ayesha Siddiqa’s succint history of anti-Shia Deobandis

By theselongwars 22 Comments

(Article originally posted at the These Long Wars blog)

Ayesha Siddiqa covered the sudden rise of anti-Shia extremism in Pakistan, in a recent article. In it she gave a short history on the provenance of anti-Shia, Sunni extremism in the country that’s worth reading:

Though the first instance of Sunni-Shia tension erupted around 1951 in Sindh, it built up more decisively during the 1980s. General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime looked away while the Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASS) took birth in Jhang, South Punjab in 1986. It later turned into the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) that became the mothership of all Deobandi militancy. It gave birth to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) during the early 1990s, and also the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Ansar, and later Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

During counter-terrorism operations by Pakistan, segments from the SSP, LeJ and JeM went into making the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Some members of this even went on to join Daesh. The SSP was also one of the first organisations to fight in Afghanistan. Besides militancy, the organisation also engaged in politics. Its leader, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, initially contested elections in 1988 from a Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam–Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) ticket, and later formed his own party. Around the time Haq was killed in 1990 outside Islamabad, Pakistan saw a lot of bloodshed, including sectarian violence, through the decade of the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s. Like the evolution of its militant wings, the SSP’s political face also evolved. One of its current forms is the group Ahle Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), which is visible in electoral politics. The SSP and other militant groups are part of the Deobandi network that comprises militant outfits, political groups, and welfare institutions.

The network is so well spread out in the largest province of Punjab that there are over 20,000 staunch Deobandi voters in every constituency, which makes the group important for all political parties and builds their influence. The JUI-F, headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is one of the most prominent faces of the network. It is instrumental in partnering with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and spreading the influence of Rehman’s network in Sindh and Baluchistan.

I think that’s a good enough bite-size history by Dr Siddiqa on the rise of sectarian extremism in Pakistan.

Below is an election poster of anti-Shia candidates, with my opinion on them.

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22 Replies to “Ayesha Siddiqa’s succint history of anti-Shia Deobandis”

    1. @gaurav
      Tweet:
      gilgit baltistan entexabaat meiN raah-e haq party bhi sargaram

      Poster:
      mujhey aata nahiN fan sar jhuka key baat karney ka
      meiN haq ki baat pey gardan kaTa deney ka qa’el huN

      [beardy chaps]

      naamzad omidvar pakistan raah-e haq party

      [beardy chap]

      (“raah-e haq” seems like the name of some local Islamist(?) outfit…)

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  1. I tried to look into the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam at some point.

    They are very small / superficial, or at least seem that way to me as an outsider.

    Why so much hostility when Sunnis and Shias share the same core principles?

    Is there something I am missing ?

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    1. @Sumit

      I believe that if Iran were not Shiite, then a lot of the Sunni-Shia conflict would be damped (at least east of the Suez). This is a Arab-non Arab ethnic foodfight camouflaged as a sectarian one.

      The Persians have never been able to come to terms with the Sasanian defeat at the hands of the Rashidun. They were once the greatest, defeating the Greeks in their own country (never mind the crude propaganda of the movie 300). And then to go down to a desert cult and lose your religion, language, script and customs slowly and painfully.

      The inability to cathartically digest those turn of events at a national level causes a lot of conflict under the Sunni-Shia mask. This has been the subject of many social commentary and research in the past.

      https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14608944.2014.930426?scroll=top&needAccess=true

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  2. The Persians have never been able to come to terms with the Sasanian defeat at the hands of the Rashidun. They were once the greatest, defeating the Greeks in their own country (never mind the crude propaganda of the movie 300). And then to go down to a desert cult and lose your religion, language, script and customs slowly and painfully.

    midwit strikes again! to be fair, edward said made a similar mistake, because he didn’t really know history.

    here’s the truth to those who do things like read books: the shia centers within iran proper were traditionally areas settled by arab colonies. iran was traditionally mostly sunni up until the 16th century. there were exceptions like the buwyids early on, but don’t be misled. iran was “sunni.” i put that in quotes because these sectarian divisions were very fluid and unclear in the early centuries, with ‘orthodox sunni islam’ really not become recognizable until around al ghazali and after. the early abassids were pro-shia, al-mamun explicitly so, before being the progenitors of non-mythical sunni islam.

    going back to iran, it became shia, in particular twelver shia, because the safavids forced the religion on the populace. in 1500 shah ismail was very ghulat, and seemed to want to make a new religion around his cult, but after ottomans defeated him the charisma faded. twelver shia islam was a good compromise, and distinguished the safavid state from the arch-sunni ottomans (there were also lots of shia in eastern anatolia, where the safavids were originally from). here’s the kicker with the safavids: they were turkic speaking, and their followers were what we’d call azeri turks. they imposed shia islam on a sunni iranian population. this took centuries, and sunni ulema fled iran during this period. many went to the mughal domains.

    to propogate twelver shia islam the safavids sponsored the migration of arab clerics from lebanon. so the connection is very deep. the fact is that sectarian diversity is maximized in the islamic core. the % of shia drops off to nothing in the maghreb and in southeast asia.

    iranian sunni islam exists and flourishes in afghanistan and in central asia among the “tajiks.” this was due to the fact that the long arm of the safavids did not reach that far.

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    1. Kissinger, Vali Nasr and Ervand Abrahamian have all described the Shia-Sunni conflict through the prism of Arab-non Arab politics. Saddam Hussein sold the Iran War to the Americans as an anti-Persian conflict while telling the Saudis that it was anti-Shiite, thus enabling a convergence of interests.

      You state something diametrically opposite to the views of Iranians and their neighbours. The paper I posted also talks about the inability of Khomeini’s worldview to accomodate Persian nationalism internally and therefore takes recourse to creating a “Shia crescent” across the Middle East. I did not know that Said had similar views!

      The constructivist view states that inter-state relations are dependent upon the way identity is constructed. In this case, clearly the historical antipathy of Persians vs Arabs is primary. Shia – Sunni is just the mask. The actors themselves prove this with their utterances and maneuvering. If being Sunni is pan-Arabism, then the Persians are clearly engaged in the construction of its nemesis.

      I really do not understand your interjection in light of Sumit’s question – “Why so much hostility when Sunnis and Shias share the same core principles?”

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      1. You state something diametrically opposite to the views of Iranians and their neighbours. The paper I posted also talks about the inability of Khomeini’s worldview to accomodate Persian nationalism internally and therefore takes recourse to creating a “Shia crescent” across the Middle East. I did not know that Said had similar views!

        you’re stupid. iraq (now) and syria (since 70s) have had an alliance with iran based on their shared *religion* NOT ethnicity. syria is majority sunni, but the alawites have been accepted as twelver shia by decree since 70s (this is fake, alawites are ghulat). you basically know so little about this topic you can’t even check your own dumb assertions.

        that’s why i say you are a midwit. smart enough to know a few facts, but not smart enough even understand what you’re saying. the genuine stupid keep silent.

        nasr’s excellent *shia revival* points out the transnational element. additionally, you are so stupid as to not realize that strong azeri turkic role in shia islam in iran. ali khameini himself has a father who is an ethnic azeri turk. i pointed in the previous post the role of shia turks in driving religious change in majority persian iran, but you keep prattling on about the sassanians.

        If being Sunni is pan-Arabism, then the Persians are clearly engaged in the construction of its nemesis.

        again, you’re a moron. shia islam has the deepest roots in the arabs of the core middle east. amongst the peoples of the fertile crescent. shia alawites and sunni egyptians were drawn to pan-arabism, which was explicitly secular (founded by an orthodox christian michael afflag).

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        1. @Razib

          The recent Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain normalization accords validate my statements. One of them is Shiite majority and the other is Sunni majority. The text of one of the accords explicitly states that this is an agreement between Semitic peoples – lending it an civilizational meaning. This is not happening in isolation. This is driven by Persian nationalism across the Gulf. So far the theocracy in Iran has been walking a really fine line – almost all of its actions have pacified the rising nationalist forces who might next turn their sights on the theocracy itself. And the Shia-Sunni divide is crumbling giving way to the historical forces accumulating beneath.

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          1. The recent Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain normalization accords validate my statements. One of them is Shiite majority and the other is Sunni majority. The text of one of the accords explicitly states that this is an agreement between Semitic peoples – lending it an civilizational meaning.

            Bahrain is ruled by a sunni herrenvolk elite. the shia majority, which is often seen as a stalking horse for Iran, is irrelevant.

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      2. What is @Razib saying? I think what I understood: Shia Sunni divide — both historically and currently — has caused conflicts, riots, wars, etc. Persian angle that @Ugra says may be just the icing on the cake, but it does plays a role. If not, then why Iran opposes renaming of Persian gulf to Arabian gulf? A % of Iranians are sympathetic to Persian idea. Shia/Sunni divide can exist independently too.

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        1. If not, then why Iran opposes renaming of Persian gulf to Arabian gulf? A % of Iranians are sympathetic to Persian idea

          what does that have to do with the shia sunni divide midwit? are you ignorant of the fact that most of the shoreline of the Persian gulf is inhabited by shia, whether persian or arabic speaking?

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        2. @Razib
          I do support you point, but only partially: I will write in a simpler language; maybe you will understand. Shia/Sunni divide exists independent to Persian identity, just as you said. Iranians, however, have 2 identities — Shia and Persian. Shia is the primary, and Persian is the secondary. Persian identity is immaterial to Shia/Sunni rivalry just you said. But Iranians sometime also act based on Persian identity: This is also seen as a Shia action because Iranians are majorly Shia. The example of Persian Gulf was to buttress that Iranians care about their Persian self.

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  3. We cannot look at Shia-Sunni split along ethnic lines. Lots of Shias in Saudi arabia, Gulf and Peninsula, Iraq and other places. No amount of Sunni oppression could cast out Shia-ism from core Arab lands. Rise of wahhabism took place with much violence against Shias and their holy places like Karbala. ISIS tried it’s best to eliminate shia centres. Sectarian violence has been as bad as violence against mere kafirs. Usually Sunnis have also repaid the violence in kind. I believe there is not a single Sunni mosque in Teheran.

    Ironically , biggest split in islam basically started as a violent family quarrel very soon after Islam was born

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  4. Shiaism has an anti-establishment/ anti-authority streak, which is inoculated and reinforced into its adherents regularly, especially in the daily Muharram Majaalis and Sham e Ghariban ceremonies annually, where the sacrifice of Karbala is commemorated with fervor. People underestimate just how deeply ingrained the events of Karbala are in the Shia psyche, and it reflects in its adherents who maybe more likely to be rebel against authority.

    As Razib mentioned above, this Shia Sunni rivarly has little to do with Persian/Arab rivalry because Iran wasnt even Shia until recently, Egypt was the Shia stronghold before Iran became so during the Safavids. Furthermore, some of the most revered scholars of Sunni Islam were Iranian/Turanian.

    In my opinion, the current animosity is partly fueled by Salafi/Wahabi ideology which deems Shias as ‘kafirs’ and in some ways, worse than Christians and Jews. Another reason could be the rivalry between the House of Saud and the Ayatollahs, the Ayatollahs seizing power in a revolution against the Shah, and the House of Saud being afraid of any such revolutions in its oil rich regions in the East that are Shia majority.

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  5. Ironically , biggest split in islam basically started as a violent family quarrel very soon after Islam was born

    the genealogical roots are ancient, but in the first few centuries the distinction between the alid/shia party and the sunni party was pretty vague and fluid. the boundaries hardened by 1000 AD, and really got harsh with the conflicts btwn ottomans and safavids which were predicated on confessional distinctions. the mughal emperor humayan accepted shia islam (temporarily) to obtain safavid help.

    a lot of ‘heretical’ movements that were widespread eventually got bracketed into shia islam. e.g., mutazilite philosophy. also, there is more variation within shia islam than sunni islam. the difference between yemeni zaydi shia and sunnis is very small, to the point where zaydis may feel more comfortable with sunnis in relation to prayer. the twelver occupy the majority middle ground, but groups like alawites and ismailis are really marginal to sunnis, though ismailis argue that their form of shia islam is closer to the original practice and belief before sunni norms spread to the twelvers

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  6. i hate psychologizing, but perhaps antishia stuff in pakistan is because they need a big group to ‘otherize.’ there are no hindus. and now no bengalis. ahmaddiya are crushed. ok, so shia?

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  7. In Pakistan, Shias and Sunnis are markedly distinct communities in most of urban Punjab, KP, and amongst Muhajirs in Karachi. Shias and Sunnis are not very distinct amongst Sindhis and perhaps lower Seraiki belt and there is a lot of syncretism there. In some places the conflict may have an ethnic flavor, such as Sunni Pasthuns vs Shia Hazara.

    After the 80’s Afghan Jihad and foreign funds in Pakistani Madrassas, it gave birth to these seminaries that follow a very hardline Talibaneque version of Islam even in traditional non-Deobandi regions of Punjab and Sindh.. Religious parties and groups can always muster street power better than some of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan, which is why they are useful for all sides. Current secular PPP and anti-establishment PMLN are currently trying to form an anti government movement under the leadership of Maulana Fazlul Rehman who runs a hardline Deobandi party. He consistently fails to amount much electorally but his Madrassah followers can bring the street power that neither PPP nor PMLN could muster. This is why the religious parties are very useful in Pakistani politics, they don’t win elections, but certainly can be used as pawns.. which is why the establishment also keeps these hardliners as ‘assets’. Anti-Shiasm is just a side effect in my opinion.

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    1. The ISI and pakistani Army have encouraged, funded and protected these hardline Sunni militant groups, whose targets Shias as well as any other minority. Ostensibly as a “strategic asset” against India and Afghanistan. It is tearing the Pakistani society apart and blowing in their face. But Miltary and ISI don’t care.

      The “tolerance” of violence against themselves and others is very high in Pakistani statecraft.

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  8. How is the inter marriage between Shias and Sunnis and on broader level Shias Sunnis and Ahmadis ?
    I have no idea how Casteist (or not casteist) or tribal factors might be behind Shia Sunni conflict in Pakistan – if there is ethnic difference

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    1. Shia Sunni marriages maybe common in some areas like Sindh while unheard of in areas like KP. In middle class households, it happens, but usually after a lot of shit show from the families (usually more on the Shia side in my experience) since they are a minority. The only caste angle here would be Syeds who are very endogamous and do not like to marry non-Syed Shias even, but outside that, it’s not about caste but more about tradition. The biggest argument given by families usually goes like: “but what about the kids, which tradition are they going to follow?” In places like Sindh, Sunni/Shia divide is not as stark so thise question does not pose a problem, but in places where the two communities are markedly distinct, this poses a big problem.

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