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Pakistani Shias need to discontinue the idea of political allegiance to an external authority figure – by Nabeel Jafri



Where do the Twelver Shias of Pakistan go from here? The violence this group has been subjected to in recent times has been discussed increasingly in mainstream media. The solutions being offered to this problem range from being as vague as religious tolerance to as open ended as peaceful co-existence. However, a common strand that emerges in this dialogue is the placing of the responsibility of bringing changes on either the Pakistani state (it must provide security for its inhabitants; it must address institutionalized religious bigotry; it must reform the educational curriculum to eliminate intolerance, etc.) or the Pakistani society at large (we must raise awareness about this issue; we must face this sensitive issue head-on; we must do a better job of calling a spade as spade, etc.). Little to no discussion has been had on what the Twelver Shias can do themselves to address this issue.

This group comprises of between twenty five to thirty five million Pakistanis. They are geographically distributed all over the country, ethno-linguistically diverse, and fall across a varying socio-economic strata. Their sheer size makes them the largest minority in Pakistan. However, they are not politically recognized as one. The constitution of Pakistan uses religious boundaries to determine minorities and thus has two distinct labels- Muslim and non-Muslim[1]. This is especially damaging for groups like the Shias because their minority status in the public sphere is not even acknowledged as such in the political sphere. They are thus robbed of certain privileges awarded to other minorities such as guaranteed electoral representation etc. This is not to say that the Shias have not been well represented in Pakistan’s political institutions but that this representation has not necessarily been of the Shias. For example, Jinnah was a Shia but that does not make him a representative of the Shias.

This political absence of the Shias, arising from the existing institutional vacuum highlighted above, is part of the problem affecting this group today. There are lots of politicians who are Shia but there is no politician who is for the Shias. Historically, the Shia vote has been divided somewhat equally across the mainstream secular political parties. Religious political parties, both Shia and non-Shia alike, have not fared well in this regard. It could be argued that the label of Shia as a political identity has never been exploited successfully in Pakistan’s history[2]. If rallied, their population would make them a useful political player. They would not be strong enough to ever form a government but their size could potentially enable them to help make or break governments. The question that arises is- what is preventing the Shias from rallying together to form such a political presence?

The answer to this question lies in a better understanding of this group, as it sees itself. Shi’ism is predicated on two important historical events: the usurpation of Ali’s right to succession by the larger Muslim population and the unjust martyrdom of Hussain a few years later. These two events serve as a common denominator between the various sects within Shi’ism as well as serving as a common differentiator for these sects with respect to the rest of the Muslim population. The idea of ‘usurpation’ and ‘unjust martyrdom’ help us understand how the Shias view themselves in history. They consider themselves to be a persecuted minority and from the offset identify themselves as being marginalized.

Another distinguishing feature of Shi’ism is the routinization of Mohammed’s charisma. For the Shias, Mohammed’s death did not mean an end to the guidance sent by God- only that it had been transferred over to the members of his family. Therefore, the political leadership as well as religious leadership fell upon the Imam of the time. Given that these Imams were almost always leaders of a small group relative to the Caliph who oversaw much of the Middle East, persecution was inevitable. It is possible that these persecutions could have been purely political in nature. The existence of multiple Shia sects with differing Imams (Zaidis, Ismailis, Twelvers to name a few) is an indicator that there were many competing rivals for the same title of the Imam and this presence lends credence to the idea of the persecutions perpetrated by the Caliphate as either being solely political in nature. However, the Shia historical narrative paints these persecutions as religious in nature because it flows well with the overarching marginalization narrative discussed above.

This historical summary helps us take our first step towards understanding the Pakistani Shia community. In their worldview, they are the perpetual victims of a tyrannical majority. Precisely because this violence against them is as old[3] as the beginnings of Islam post-Mohammed, the Shias have come to, in part, accept it as a duty and a way of life. Understanding that this group only partly accepts violence as expected is key for it indicates that this group is neither docile nor apathetic. An examination of the different historical instances of violence in Pakistan seem to indicate that this group has internally developed a threshold of an acceptable level of violence, beyond which it would demonstrate and agitate. Violence here can be understood as both fatal (leads to a loss of lives like the recent Quetta bombings in Jan 2013) and non-fatal (an unfair imposition of law like the Zakat law in 1980). Interestingly, the Shias hold an impeccable record of successful public agitations (were able to get their immediate demands recognized and satisfied by the government right away) including in the examples mentioned above, though the total instances of their nationwide agitations can be counted on one hand.

Another key event, also fundamental for understanding the Pakistani Shias, is the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979. It must be remembered that this revolution was inherently Islamic[4]– it was neither Persian nor exclusively Shia in nature as has been often touted. An odd coalition of the clergy and the left successfully overthrew a monarch who had been installed after imperial powers had successfully derailed Iran’s democracy in the 1950’s to prevent a nationalization of the oil industry. The clergy took the driving seat of this revolutionary vehicle and rose to power. Their pan-Islamist aims were in line with similar behavior else, for example the contemporaneous gathering of the Organization of Islamic Countries. The reform that this revolution sought to implement was to be purely ‘Islamic’. The revolution capitalized successfully on the favorable reception it received in Islamic countries for having overthrown a puppet of the Western powers. However, given that they clergy in this revolution were predominantly Shia, their success was not met with as much excitement by their rivals in the political sphere else where, like Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan, at this time, was also under Zia-ul-Haq who had already initiated his campaign to institute his interpretation of Islam into the everyday sphere of the country. Given that Zia’s version of Islam was distinctly Sunni, the Shia youth of Pakistan instead focused their attention on Khomeini’s success and became huge fans of his. The revolution in Iran served as a catalyst for the explosive growth within Pakistan of the Imamia Students Organization (ISO) that had been formed in 1972. The ISO reciprocated by becoming the first Shia organization to publicly adopt Khomeini as the marja-e-taqlid (a source of emulation) in 1979. Thereafter, its activities and rhetoric became overly influenced by Iran. It engaged in tussles with the local ulema over many of the prevalent practices of the Shias in Pakistan that it deemed ‘unorthodox’. The ISO continues to this day to pledge its allegiance to the office of the Supreme Leader in Iran.

Given ISO’s youthful vigor, strong history of social work and penchant for organizing along community lines, they managed to establish a strong presence within the Pakistani Shias. This was evident in their successful protest against Zia’s attempts to enforce zakat deduction schemes nationwide. ISO argued that this law did not fit in with their interpretation of Islam. Zia was eventually forced to grant this exemption to the Shias. Such examples of public leadership by the ISO are rare. Their strong links with Iran means they view themselves not as leaders of the Pakistani Shia society who must bring change, but as member of an Iranian inspired transnational Shia society who must advocate for a Islamic regime which transcends national boundaries. Thus, they do not come forward and seek to create a distinct Shia label in the political sphere in Pakistan for they consider such involvement to be beyond the scope of their activities because it does not align with the directions coming from the office of the Supreme Leader of Iran.

The issue here, then, is this- the one group that can rally the Shias of Pakistan by relying on its networks pointedly abstains from doing so. Instead, they have historically deferred this reponsibility by helping create various political Shia groups none of which fared any better than their predecessors. The latest incarnation is called Majlis Wahadat-e-Muslimeen (MWM). Whereas the political groups usually have more power than their student wings, in this case it is the opposite. The ISO is more powerful and established than its political arm. However, they are both equally inspired by Iranian style of leadership and believe strongly in Khomeini’s Wilayat Faqih system.

This system says that Islam gives a jurist custodianship over the people. Thus, it demolishes the geopolitical sphere altogether by arguing that political loyalty is concentrated in the same place as religious loyalty. Therefore, national boundaries become irrelevant and national political networks are superseded by a people’s allegiance to the Supreme Leader.

This entire system of governance, in the context of political leadership, is misguided in the present day because the political leaders are removed (geographically, ethnically and socially) from their adherents. Working on the premise that the Pakistani Shia group increasingly faces violence, that it is not protected by the state as a minority and that it actually has a surprisingly effective record at mobilization when violence escalates, we are seeking to understand why this group refrains from effectively exploiting the Shia identity as a political label. Taking the relationship of the ISO with the Iranian system of governance, and viewing it in the light of the historical understanding of the Shias of themselves as well as their understanding of the concept of authority which does not distinguish between religion and politics, we begin to see how a minority facing persecution in its own country can remain apolitical[5]. A large number of the Shias of Pakistan consider its loyalties and obligations towards the Supreme Leader (or an alternate Ayatollah) instead and therefore do not necessarily get involved themselves in the politics of their residing country.

The problem with such an approach is manifold. For one, the authority figure (like an Ayatollah) cannot effectively intervene in the domestic politics of the residing country. Shias in Pakistan may be an unrecognized minority and suffering both systematic and unsystematic violence but there is nothing the ayatollah can do about it because it would conflict with their own ambitions of pan-Islamism. There is also a visible barrier between the interactions of the authority figure with those that consider him as such. This alienation is the inevitable product of a transnational political allegiance. The authority figure can also be said to have a linguistic communication barrier with his populace and no effective means to overcome this with time. The authority figure is also unable to sufficiently understand many local existing traditions and customs that might in turn make it harder for him to understand his followers. The authority figure is ultimately premised on the idea of orthodoxy, which itself arises from reformism. Reformism only initially challenges orthodoxy- it subsequently refines and strengthens it.

It is clear that Khomeini’s revolution in Iran was premised on breaking the imperial power structures only to replace them with religious ones. The clergy have continued to exert their influence through various means on a population that has no geographical connection with them. At the same time, the clergy has also been extremely silent on the treatment of the Shias in Pakistan. Neither the ISO nor MWM have addressed the issue of the silence of the clergy on this topic.

The Shias in Pakistan find themselves in a strange position. They live in Pakistan where they face increasing violence. However, their understanding of history means they consider this violence expected and therefore tolerate it to an extent. They also subscribe to an interpretation of religion where religious and political authority is concentrated in the same figure. For the Shias, this figure has always been located in the Middle East. Therefore, the Shias in Pakistan have not historically been as successful in creating and exploiting a distinct Shia political identity partly because the party with the most outreach within Shias is content with social work and reformism. Also, strangely, the Shia parties have always sought to implement an Islamic system. This does not make much sense because Islam has been divided into distinct sects since the death of Mohammed. There is no universal Islamic system but there is the Caliphate and the Imamate, both two distinct forms of governance, over which the sects are broadly divided. Thus, a lack of political nous by the Shia parties has led to dismal or no mobilization under a political label. The circumstances in Pakistan for the Shias will not change unless the Shias discontinue the idea of political allegiance to an external authority figure and seek to mobilize themselves under a distinct Shia political label to lobby, at least, for recognition of their minority status.


[1] This arose as a direct consequence of the debate on what Pakistan was to be. The Muslim/Non-Muslim binary falsely assumes a homogenous Muslim population. I have previously highlighted why there is no such thing as the Muslim Ummah here.

[2] Perhaps it arises from the lack of need for such an action. However, given that the situation has deteriorated for this group in recent times, perhaps the time is ripe for such an action.

[3] This violence has obviously varied across time and space and does not have a linear historical trajectory. Regardless, it has existed in one form or the other and this is important for our analysis.

[4] Both the Shia and the Sunni groups seek to validate their individual interpretations of system of governance by labeling it Islamic

[5] Apolitical here implies two different understandings. Firstly, due to the political vacuum in the institutional setup of the country; Secondly, as a response to the violence they face on a daily basis.