Saturday, January 09, 2010

OPINION: Fifteenth column in Crescent Times - Bloody politics of division in my birthplace ...

One of my relatives is visiting my birthplace of Karachi at the moment. She hopes to see siblings she hasn’t seen for years, in some cases, decades.

Visiting Karachi at this time is always a little risky. The city is an ethnic and sectarian melting pot. Ethnic Pathans (also known as Pushtuns) dominate the transport industry. Most other businesses are owned by so-called Muhajir - Muslims who migrated from various parts of India after the 1947 Partition. There are large Shia communities of various denominations, and the Sunnis are also fragmented in various ways. To give readers an idea of just how prevalent the sectarian divide is, the last time I was in Karachi during the mid-90’s, my cousin took me for Friday prayers one day. We had to walk past 3 mosques to get to the mosque. I asked my cousin what was wrong with the first three. “One is barelvi, the other is shia and the third are ahl-i-hadis.”

Back then, Karachi experienced a multilayered civil war. No one quite knew who fought who or why. There was conflict between rival factions of the Muhajir political party. Then there were Sunni and Shia groups fighting a proxy war on behalf of their respective Saudi and Iranian sponsors. One anti-Shia party called ASSP (which probably stood for the “Absurdly Silly Saudi Party”) fought pitch battles against the Shia TNFJ (which probably stood for “Totally Nuevo Funky Jihad”).

Exactly whose side you fought on depended on which conflict you were fighting. One day, you’d be in a trench with Ahmed shooting in the general direction of Javed and Ali from that nasty Muhajir splinter group. The next day, you and Javed were in the same trench shooting in the general Absurdly Silly direction of those nasty pro-Iranian TNFJ infidels Ahmed and Ali.

Now things have taken a definite turn for the worse. For my elderly relative to visit Karachi during Muharram took plenty of guts. Like many traditional Sunni families, we commemorate Muharram in certain ways. We fast on Ashura (the 10th day of Muharram when Imam Hussain was martyred along with most of his family at Karbala) and we also refrain from certain forms of entertainment.

Pakistan TV channels frequently have religious programs commemorating Muharram, which my parents in Sydney get to watch thanks to the dish on their roof. But this time Muharram in Karachi is bloodier than ever. Much blood is spilt during religious processions when men and boys perform rituals that many Shia religious authorities condemn as innovation. Still, these practices have entered South Asian Shia culture in much the same way as circling and prostrating to the graves of saints has entered South Asian sunni culture.

Thousands take part in these processions. Sometimes sectarian riots take place. But Pakistan right now has much bigger worries than sectarian rioting. When even traditionally anti-American religious party leaders are using phrases like “war on terror” in a serious fashion to describe the fight against the renegade Taliban, you know there’s an unusual level of strife.

According to one Pakistani politician, in thelast year Pakistan has now had more suicide attacks than Iraq and Afghanistan. One recent attack targeted the women’s section of the Sharia Faculty at the International Islamic University of Islamabad. Talk about the Taliban implementing sharia! More recently, the notoriously anti-Shia Taliban attacked a Muharram procession in Karachi, killing over 40 people. And the most recent episode was an attack on a volleyball game that killed over 80.

So will we have special security set up for mosques (especially Shia ones), educational institutions and volleyball grounds? No way. Don’t be surprised if Murdoch bloggers start suggesting it’s more important for our security that we perform cavity searches on non-white people for explosive underwear.

Pakistan’s terrorist attacks have received little coverage and have led to little reconsideration of our policy toward that troubled country. Pakistan is always blamed for terrorism in various parts of the world, and it’s as if Pakistanis dying from suicide attacks is treated as a case of “serves you right”.

Still, for my relative in Karachi, the inconvenience to her schedule has been most disturbing. She may not be able to see third cousins she hasn’t seen for 40 years, presuming she even knows they exist. Which hopefully means her kids can remain single until the next trip.

First published in the January 2010 edition of the Crescent Times.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf

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