Daily Archives: 13 October 2006

Pakistan’s Transition from Shia to Sunni Leadership

From: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 88-90:

Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an Ismaili by birth and a Twelver Shia by confession, though not a religiously observant man. He had studied at the Inns of Court in London and was better versed in English law than in Shia jurisprudence, was never seen at an Ashoura procession, and favored a wardrobe that often smacked as much of Savile Row as of South Asia. Yet insofar as he was Muslim and a spokesman for Muslim nationalism, it was as a Shia. His coreligionists played an important role in his movement, and over the years many of Pakistan’s leaders were Shias, including one the country’s first governor-generals, three of its first prime ministers, two of its military leaders (Generals Iskandar Mirza and Yahya Khan), and many other of its leading public officials, landowners, industrialists, artists, and intellectuals. Two later prime ministers, the ill-fated Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Radcliffe-educated, currently exiled daughter, Benazir Bhutto, were also Shia. Feeling the wind shift in the 1990s, Benazir styled herself a Sunni, but her Iranian mother, her husband from a big Shia landowning family, and her father’s name, the name of Ali’s twin-bladed sword, make her Shia roots quite visible. In a way, Benazir’s self-reinvention as a Sunni tells the tale of how secular nationalism’s once solid-seeming promise has given way like a rotten plank beneath the feet of contemporary Pakistan’s beleaguered Shia minority.

Benazir’s father came from a family of large Shia landowners who could afford to send him for schooling to the University of California at Berkeley and to Oxford. He cut a dashing figure. Ambitious, intelligent, and secular, he was a brilliant speaker, with the ability, it is said, to make a crowd of a million people dance and then cry. His oratory manipulated public emotion as the best of Shia preachers could, and his call for social justice resonated with Shia values. His party’s flag conveniently displayed the colors of Shiism: black, red, and green. Although he never openly flaunted his Shia background, he commanded the loyalty of Pakistan’s Shia multitudes, around a fifth of the population. What he lacked in the area of regular religious observance he made up for with his zeal for Sufi saints and shrines, especially that of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the widely popular Sufi saint of Shia extraction whose tomb is a major shrine in southern Pakistan.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s years in power (1971–77) marked the pinnacle of Shia power in Pakistan and the high point of the promise of an inclusive Muslim nationalism. But the country that Jinnah built and Bhutto ruled had over time become increasingly Sunni in its self-perception. The Sunni identity that was sweeping Pakistan was not of the irenic Sufi kind, moreover, but of a strident and intolerant brand. Bhutto’s Shia-supported mix of secularism and populism—sullied by corruption and his ruthless authoritarianism—fell to a military coup led by pious Sunni generals under the influence of hard-eyed Sunni fundamentalists. In April 1979, the state hanged Bhutto on questionable murder charges. A Sunni general, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, strongly backed by Sunni fundamentalist parties, personally ordered that the death sentence be carried out, even after Pakistan’s highest court recommended commutation to life imprisonment.

The coup of 1977 ended the Pakistani experiment with inclusive Muslim nationalism. Shia politicians, generals, and business leaders remained on the scene, but a steadily “Islamizing” (read “Sunnifying”) Pakistan came to look more and more like the Arab world, with Sunnis on top and Shias gradually pushed out. Pakistan in many regards captures the essence of the political challenge that the Shia have faced. The promise of the modern state has eluded them as secular nationalism has been colonized from within by Sunni hegemony.

UPDATE, 31 December 2009: Comments are now closed on this blogpost.

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