THE sectarian cauldron is hot. The geopolitics of the Middle East is intensifying the sectarian identities and ideologies of particular groups of Sunnis and Shias all over the world. This is not a good omen for Pakistan. The attacks on Barelvis claimed by the Islamic Sate (IS) and its allies, such as the attack on the shrine of Shah Noorani in Balochistan in November 2016 and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh in February 2017 is evidence of the growing influence of IS and its message of declaring all those who do not subscribe to its message as heretics.
On April 25, 2017, a deadly attack carried out by a pro-Islamic State (IS) terrorist group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) targeting the Shia Muslims in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region killed 14 people. JuA, which splintered from the Pakistani Taliban in 2014, accompanies a poisonous anti-Shia ideology and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State Khurasan (ISK) in 2014. In the last two years, JuA has synergised with the IS to target Shiites across Pakistan. The emergence of IS in Pakistan and IS-linked attacks in league with anti-Shia militants, such as JuA, Jundullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-A), are sinister developments, especially where Sunni-Shia sectarian relations are concerned.
At the heart of these troubling formations is the Syrian conflict. Syria is home to a number of holy sites endeared by Shiites, including the shrine of Zaynab, the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad. This, among other factors, makes Syria an important country for Shia Islam; and an attack on Syria is considered a direct threat to the Shia sect itself. In light of this, the April 25 incident cannot be divorced from the December 2015 attack by LeJ-A in Parachinar, a warning to local Shiites to stop supporting the crimes against Syrian Muslims by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government. Added to this is the Saudi-Iran rivalry- something which has sectarian undertones and is partly responsible for the continuing Syrian civil war. Pakistan finds itself caught in a tug of war between its oil-rich ally, Saudi Arabia, and its neighbour, Iran.While Shia extremist groups associate with the larger Shia community in particular Iran. Likewise, the Sunni extremists and Islamist groups in Pakistan identify themselves with Saudi Arabia, underscoring the divide of Muslims in the country. This puts Pakistan in a paradox where any sign of closeness towards Saudi Arabia or Iran serves to only exacerbate the sectarian fault lines within its borders.
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have traditionally maintained strong ties based on reciprocity, whereby the Saudis’ oil and their deep pockets have helped Pakistan in times of need, while Pakistan has provided its military capabilities to help the custodians of the two Holy Mosques achieve their military objectives. Much to the surprise of the Saudis and their subordinates in Pakistan, this changed when the Pakistan government chose to remain on the sidelines instead of joining the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen in 2015 –a decision nettled the Saudis and their Arab allies. However, with the appointment of Pakistan’s ex-army chief Raheel Shareef to head the 41-nation Islamic military alliance against terrorism there were signs that Pakistan might join the fight in Yemen after all. But the exclusion of Iran and other Shia majority Muslim states from the Islamic Military Alliance gives it a distinctive Sunni character, and lends itself to being interpreted as an effort by the Sunni states to gather against Shia Iran and its allies in the Middle East.
Raheel’s attempt to assuage Shia concerns by setting conditions on his appointment, which included making Iran a member state in the alliance failed. The Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, has been more bellicose in his tone towards Iran than before effectively ruling out any chance of peace with Iran. The ongoing Qatar-Gulf rift is also evidence of the deep rooted rivalry.
On the other hand, Iran is Pakistan’s neighbour. Granted the two countries have a complicated history of bilateral relations. Nonetheless, it is important for Pakistan not to antagonise its neighbour, especially when, as over the past year, ties with Afghanistan and India have deteriorated and as they say you can change friends but not neighbours. Hence, Pakistan needs to exercise prudent.
This dilemma has become even more complicated in light of the recent Trump-led Arab Islamic American Summit in May. Not only did Trump sign a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia but he also slandered Iran by calling it a nation that “fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror”. Trump’s visit is important because it shows that the United States has picked a side in this rivalry for regional supremacy. But the side effects are dangerous. By appealing to the Sunni states, Trump has implicitly disregarded Shia Islam and added more fuel to sectarian violence.
The stalemate in Syria does not help Pakistan. Nor does the inflammatory politics between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Persian-Arab conflict goes far back in history. However it is equally a battle for regional influence. The Saudi-Qatar conflict is evidence of a power struggle, not a sectarian divide. It is important that Pakistan’s Government must not commit itself to either side of the Muslim world’s bloody Shia-Sunni sectarian divide and instead mediate between the two regional powers to abate the parlous situation.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not given the opportunity to speak at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit. Many deemed it embarrassing- some called it downright insulting. Be that as it may, it does provide Pakistan with an opportunity to separate itself from what is perceived to be an anti-Shia coalition and instead undertake a carefully balanced foreign policy towards the Middle East and by doing so help smother the flames of sectarianism.
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.
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