Last week in Lahore, someone parked a car by mistake on a neighbor’s freshly laid grass while visiting a house where a gathering was taking place. The owner of the grass threatened to lodge a complaint against “the kind of events” being held at the house. The event was a Majlis-e-Aza and the neighbour’s aggression was an expression of the “social boycott” of the Shia community that has been openly propagated by the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal-Jammat’s (ASWJ) leadership.
Most examinations into sectarian violence and hatred in Pakistan focus on the incendiary role played by certain establishment and political leaderships. But we must wrest attention from them to also think about how the public can exercise its power to neutralize or counter the hate. We have already seen organized entities such as the Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement and Aurat March vocalize grievances against ethnic and gender violence and marginalization and we have also seen the propagation of far-right Islamist extremism been propagated by the likes of Tehreek-e-Labaik and ASWJ. Of course, many Pakistanis do not associate with any of these mobilizers or movements, yet it is worth acknowledging how mobilization by these actors has spurred tremendous meaning making and has influenced the way we talk about such hatred and violence. So why not for sectarian divisions that are so fracturing our society as well?
Take the slogan “Mera jism, Meri marzi” that forced open heated debates on feminism from our television sets to our drawing rooms and especially our shared online spaces. Can we not reflect on the slogan “Shia kaafir”? As the far-right gains more political traction than progressive voices, what can moderate Muslims do? This question is more potent for the moderate Sunni given how the Shia community is under attack. How can they counter or neutralise rising anti-Shia hate?
Researchers of civil resistance and social justice movements often discuss the significance of those who consider themselves moderates during political or moral upheavals. The definition of “moderates” varies but we can define the Sunni moderate here as simply someone who belongs to or adheres to the Ahl-e-Sunnat sect and believes that the Shia community has the right to practice and express their faith openly, and safely.
There is a history of targeting the Ahle Tasheeh community and Shia professionals in Pakistan. This much is not new but neither is the dangerously lukewarm ways in which moderates explain away or enable such persecution by staying silent. When the state apparatus is unable to protect a minority against extremist outfits, the role of moderates becomes critical. It demands a fierce urgency to act.
Here is what Sunni moderates can do in response to the rising polarization in Pakistan.
Love today will beat hate tomorrow
First, recognize that those who are in the supposed center occupy a significant place in countering injustice and oppression. Action they take now will have a far-reaching impact on the peace and politics of the country years from now.
A scholar at Harvard University, Soumyajit Mazumder, worked with data from the US civil rights protest in the 1950s and compared it to current political opinions to argue that social movements do not only beget institutional change but also attitudinal change. Those who raised their voice for the black community constituencies showed progressive values fifty years later. In our context it would mean that the people who stand with the Shia community will not only save innocent lives right now, they will also make an investment of love into a better future.
Ask and engage if you aren’t sure
Second, if you have questions on the Shia faith that make you reluctant to express support for their safety, engage your Shia acquaintances to clarify those questions. Progressives often argue that support for equal rights should be unconditional but clearly that has not been the case. A lack of communication between sects at a communal level has only added to the animosity and misunderstandings. As you engage, remember to not accuse, target or blame.
Encourage people to speak up
Third, identify others who harbor indifference for Shia hate, those who deny the genocide. Persuade them to register their disapproval, loud and clear, against turning Pakistan into a sectarian battlefield. It is far easier and sensible to engage with the moderates first and the haters later, simply because indifference does not have an overtly fascist backing as much as hating does.
Four, register your protest and remember that there are endless avenues to do so. Speak to your children, reach out to your neighbors, bring up the topic at family dinners and hear what people have to say. Resist falling into the trope that there is only one way to reach God. Remind the people of their power, remember the change that dialog can bring. Persist. A few years ago, students across some cities formed human chains to protect minority places of worship against attacks. I invited a Shia friend, who always took part in such initiatives, to form a chain outside an imambargah to which he said, “Is it fair for me to be on the frontlines here when I am the one under threat?” The answer was no, it is not. Who if not us will extend support to the grieving? Who if not us will protect our fellow Pakistanis against hate and rigidity? It is dangerous to confuse moderation with indifference and become compliant with injustice. It is time for the moderates to act.
Minahil Mehdi is a student of religion, politics and ethics at the Harvard University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org