The sectarian wedge

Shias are essentially the minority within the Islamic world, with only about 15%-20% of the total Islamic adherents.

For an estimated 10% (about 20 million) of the total Pakistani population today, the Pakistani Shias have punched above their weight in terms of historical relevance and consciousness of the nation. From the founding father of Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first president Iskander Mirza, president Yahya Khan, Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani Army in the Indo-Pak war of 1965 Muhammad Musa Khan Hazara, to the politically-omnipresent dynasty of the Bhuttos — the Shias were an integral part of the Pakistani narrative, at least initially.

Globally, the theological divide of the Sunni-Shia denomination dates back over 1,400 years of Islamic schism, with each side questioning the legitimacy of the other sect. However, the sectarian wedge amongst the ummah acquired a violent inter-sovereign dimension after the Iranian Revolution — or the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in 1979. This milestone event lit the spirit of Shia revivalism, as Ayatollah Khomeini was perceived to be following the footsteps of the revered Shia Imam, Hussein Ibn Ali.

As Shias are essentially the minority within the Islamic world, with only about 15%-20% (about 300 million out of 1.6 billion) of the total Islamic adherents, they were traditionally oppressed till the re-emergence and assertion of a theocratic Iran, in whom they found a spiritual and material benefactor of their suppressed rights.

Since then, a competitive spirit accelerated within the region with the Arab Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia) generously funding the propagation of its puritanical form of Sunni Islam – or Wahhabism - while the Iranians stepped up support for Shia-movements in the other West Asian countries such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sipah-e-Muhammad in Pakistan and more recently the Houthis in Yemen.

Today, beyond the ostensible and the more visible ‘fight against terror’ and its prominent manifestations like the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaida, lurks an equally dangerous undercurrent of a sectarian divide that is tearing apart the countries in the region. This irreconcilable divide has ensured the shift in principal focus from the traditional ire of anti-West and anti-Zionism agenda towards angularities of bitter sectarianism, with Iran championing the Shiite sensibilities.

Besides Iran, two other countries that are the Shia-ruled are Iraq (where the majority Shias were earlier brutally ruled by the minority Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein) and Syria (ruled by the minority Shia-offshoot, Alawite ruler, Bashar Al Assad). Besides these, Azerbaijan and Bahrain are Shia majority countries while a prominent Shia-minority exists in Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India.

The bloodlust in the ongoing ‘fight against terror’ in the IS-held Iraqi-Syrian swathes also has a clear sectarian divide with the composite Shiite forces in the form of the modern day Iraqi Army, elements of Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese Hezbollah, Assad’s Syrian Army and the private Shia militias fighting together as one principal bloc, as opposed to the other Sunni bloc of the combined forces of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and UAE composing the broad alternative grouping.

The Western powers have dragged themselves into the conflict for their own geopolitical reasons. This sectarian mayhem has spilled over to Yemen (where the Saudi Arabian have been bombing the Iranian-supported Houthis), Lebanon (where the armed Hezbollah retain a parallel armed force, besides the official Lebanese Army), Saudi Arabia (where the restive Shias in the Qatif region were exacerbated with the hanging of the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016).

Worsening the sense of mutual suspicions has been the geopolitical success of the Shia-led forces from Assad’s inevitable continuation in Syria, Houthis holding ground in Yemen despite concerted efforts by Saudi-led forces, and the most game-changing acceptance and integration of Iran in the global arena, after the signing of its nuclear deal.

These parallel tensions morphed into the Iranian ban on the mandatory pilgrimage for all Muslims, the Haj in Saudi Arabia.

Amidst this backdrop, the Saudi-led initiative of launching a 39 country ‘Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism’ (IMAFT), ostensibly as a counter-terrorist force, is laced with sectarian implications as all 39 countries are Sunni-ruled. Ironically, most of the current Islamic terrorist groups like the IS, Al Qaida or Taliban were overtly or covertly supported by countries of this grouping who are now taking on their own Frankenstein-creation.

Sleepless nights
However, the ground gains for the ‘Shia Crescent’ (as the wary King Abdullah of Jordan alludes of a spectre with Shia-dominated landmass from the shores of the Persian Gulf to Levant Countries and Yemen) is giving sleepless nights to the Arab-Sunni nations who face the dual task of regime-protection against the IS and their ilk, along with the parallel danger from Iran and its Shia-supported proxies breathing down their neck in a competitive tug-of-war.

Pakistan, with its own fragile history of extreme sectarian-related violence, did well to avoid joining the Saudi-led alliance initially, given the obvious ramifications of further emboldening the Sunni supremacists within, and upsetting the powerful neighbour, Iran. But, its recent move of approving the services of the former chief of Pakistani Army General Raheel Sharif to lead the Riyadh-based alliance has put the nation in a quandary.

Having found itself in the crosshairs of expected sectarian intrigues, the Pakistani NSA defended Gen Sharif’s move with incredulous logic, “he will become a reason for the unity of Muslim Ummah”! Given the prevailing Saudi sentiments and intentions, the inherent messaging in Gen Sharif’s move is one of forsaking the supposed neutrality that Pakistan maintained on the Saudi-Iranian rift, and will willy-nilly rile the Iranians dangerously.

The economic-military-strategic calculus within the Pakistani establishment would have accounted for the invaluable financial and strategic support expected from the Arab countries as its own relationship with its principal ally, the US, is on very thin ice. This, given Pakistan’s undeniable dalliances with terror groups, besides the ever-growing proximity to its ‘all weather friend,’ China. The internal considerations for Pakistan aside, Raheel Sharif leading a Saudi-funded military force is bound to redraw the strategic equations and implications in the dynamic global order, internally in Pakistan, and in the sub-continent.

(The writer is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry)

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