Drain the swamp of sectarian hatred

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The past week has been one of the deadliest in Afghanistan’s eventful history. It was one of the deadliest even by the tragic standards set in the country over the years. More than 200 people were killed in a series of attacks attributed to Taliban and Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) terrorists.

What makes these attacks even more shameful is the fact that they once again targeted innocent bystanders and, worse, people who had been in communion with their God.

At least 56 people died in a suicide attack claimed by Daesh on the Imam Zaman mosque in Kabul while another attack on a Sunni mosque in the central province of Ghor last Friday killed 33 worshippers.

According to reports, the coward fired at worshippers at the Kabul mosque when they had been in “sajdah” - the final act of prostrating - before blowing himself up.

It still beats me how anyone can, let alone a believer, bring himself to target people inside the house of God. But mosques and other places of worship have long been fair game in this cynical, zero-sum war of attrition in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban’s reputation for intolerance of religious minorities is well deserved, and its purpose of existence has been the hatred and open hostility for religious minorities, including Shia Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.

There are groups in Pakistan that act like this as well. This despite the fact that Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, dreamed of a modern and moderate country where citizens - Muslims, Hindus and Christians - were free to worship whoever they liked, as he went to great lengths to emphasize in his address to the Constituent Assembly, three days before Pakistan’s creation.

However, this dream of the Quaid-e-Azam has arguably turned into a recurring nightmare for minorities. The scourge of sectarian violence has been eating into the vitals of Pakistani society, once known for its progressive and prosperous Muslims. This notwithstanding the leading role the Shia community has historically played in the creation of Pakistan and in its subsequent progress.

Growing up in Hyderabad, the last bastion of Muslim culture in India, one was seldom conscious of the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shias. The state, ruled by the Qutub Shahi rulers and the Nizams not long ago, has been home to a large and influential Shia community.

Over the years, the Sunnis and Shias have so heavily mingled with each other in this part of the world that they seldom view one another through sectarian blinkers. Some of the biggest names in Urdu literature, poetry and Indian cinema come from the same sect, not that it ever mattered or was worth mentioning.

Although, until the 1990s, we used to have frequent bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence and tensions in Hyderabad, there had never been any unpleasantness in Sunni-Shia relations. Unlike Lucknow, Hyderabad never witnessed such conflict.

In fact, one had never been made conscious of one’s sectarian identity until one arrived in the Middle East. Or to be more precise, until the invasion of Iraq. One still finds it difficult to comprehend the fact that Sunnis and Shias can detest each other so much that they could slaughter each other, as has been the case in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

I have been a trenchant critic of the Iraq war and all that happened over the past decade in the name of democracy and freedom. But both sides of the divide must share the blame with the occupation powers for perpetuating the misery of the Iraqi people by unleashing this monster of sectarianism on the country. They ended up legitimizing the occupation and crimes against humanity by joining the free-for-all sectarian bloodletting.

More alarmingly, the deadly conflict between Islam’s two sects has not just spilt over Iraq’s borders into neighboring countries like Syria and Lebanon, it now threatens the entire Islamic world. Sunnis and Shias live side by side all across the region and beyond.

It has already damaged Iraq and Syria, the oldest centers of civilizations, including the fabled cities of Baghdad and Aleppo. Those who survived the US invasion have been brought down by the sectarian monster.

The Syrian conflict has claimed nearly half a million lives and driven out more than half of the country’s population. Look at the endless tragedy of Yemen, again one of the oldest civilizations and again a victim of sectarian fratricide.

Do we even realize the possible consequences for the Islamic world — already saddled with myriad problems — if this conflict goes global?

How long will we continue to be used and exploited as pawns in the hands of the global forces of darkness? When will we wake up to the reality that over and above our sectarian identity, we are Muslims and human beings first?

How can we slaughter each other with impunity over a pointless academic debate that is as old as Islam and that too in the name of a faith that stands for peace, mercy and forgiveness? All of us love and revere the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his noble descendants. So what is the justification for this conflict?

And Islam does not accept or condone the killing of innocents, whatever their sect or faith. The blood that the assorted terrorists and militias have been shedding in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan daily is not Sunni blood or Shia blood. It is Muslim blood. It is the blood of innocents.

Remember what the Messenger of Islam (peace be upon him) said about the killing of innocents. Standing before the Kaaba in Makkah, he said: “O you sacred Kaaba, the blood of a human being is more sacred than you.”

It is high time governments, scholars and opinion leaders across the Islamic world recognized that religious bigotry and sectarianism have emerged as a serious challenge to Muslim societies everywhere.

For far too long, irresponsible and self-serving clerics, politicians and the media on both sides have fanned the flames of sectarian hatred and intolerance, with catastrophic consequences. For far too long, hate has been peddled from the pulpit and no one has paid any attention to the havoc it played with young and impressionable minds. It is time to act. It is time to drain the swamp of sectarian hatred.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer and former opinion editor of Khaleej Times. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com


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