Muharram in Pakistan is a most stark reminder of the plight of Muslims today. Here we are, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and some amongst us have to practice our faith with the unseemly sight of armed security all around the mosques and Imambargahs. Sectarian divides do not exist only in the Muslim World. Christianity is also rent by doctrinal and other divides but one does not see the faithful of different Christian creeds worshipping under the protection of state security in Christian or so-called secular societies.
But here we are in the Muslim World, more intolerant of each other than of the enemies outside. Thus we have many Arab states dialoguing with Israel despite the violence and abuse Israel has heaped on the Arabs – not just the Palestinians –and despite the occupation of Arab lands by an expansionist Zionist entity. In contrast, there is no dialogue between the Arabs of the Gulf and Iran to resolve some of their outstanding disputes. Is it not strange that no Muslim state has taken the initiative to rectify this omission?
No wonder then that we are easily exploitable by the West for their agendas – especially post-9/11 when one clear agenda that has emerged in West is to weaken and restructure the Muslim World of the so-called greater Middle East. Central to this agenda of restructuring the Muslim states of the greater Middle East, being pushed with the US in the lead, is to accentuate the Shia-Sunni divide. In Iraq, we have been seeing this in play ever since the US invasion of that country. Given the US occupation of Iraq, one has to ask the question whether the executions of Saddam and two others were deliberate in their political clumsiness? After all, the executions certainly aggravated the sectarian divide. And one has heard increasing influential voices within the US calling for the division of Iraq along sectarian/ethnic lines which would result in the creation of an Arab Shia state.
Another dimension of the US policy of accentuating the sectarian divide within the Muslim World is aimed at building a Sunni bloc which will isolate Shia Iran in an effort to deny it any operational space in the Middle East. This is unrealistic since Iran, like the Arab states, is an integral part of this region and, again like the Arabs, has linkages with other actors of the region. Nor are all these linkages based on the Shia factor. After all, the Iran-Syria relationship is not premised on the Shia factor and neither is the Hamas linkage since Iran like some other Muslim states is committed to the goal of a viable Palestinian state and Hamas at present represents the elected voice of the Palestinian people.
The US obsession with undoing the Islamic Revolution in Iran is working at multiple levels, all of which threaten to unleash utter chaos, bloodshed and anarchy in our region if any of these plans come to fruition. There is the outright military option of attacking Iran with or without Israel’s assistance. Also, having little comprehension of the region, the US feels it can effect regime change in Iran from outside. At the moment many Iranian dissident groups are being trained and supplied by the US to destabilize Iran even as the US is seeking to “fight terrorism” elsewhere. Most recently, there is news coming out of the UK (where else!) that the US is also looking to encourage an Iranian Baloch secessionist movement.
For Muslim states to fall victim to this dangerous US ploy will only serve to harm their own interests in the long run. US commentaries in their official institutional journals seek to redraw the maps of the Muslim states of the Greater Middle East and Gulf States are special targets of this redrawing – especially Saudi Arabia. Is it not time for the Muslim World to wake up to the reality of the threat from outside, rather than aggravate their fears of “the other” from within? This should hold especially true for the Arab World which has seen one central Arab player in the Middle East become almost peripheral after Camp David; another strong but dictatorial Arab state completely destroyed through a direct military invasion; and a third, Syria, living under constant threat. In addition, American and allied forces have a major presence in most of the Gulf States and Pakistan and Iran are now surrounded by extra regional forces to the north and south.
The major issue at the moment is not simply the Palestinian issue since that has become embroiled in a larger US-Iran issue. That the Iranians may not have helped their cause by some of their belligerent posturing does not detract from that fact that on major issues their position is a direct result of the threats received from the US and Israel and the discriminatory approach meted out to Iran on the nuclear issue. If the Arab states allow themselves to be pitted against Iran, it will not bolster their security one iota in the long run since the US is seeking to target them also under the so-called “democracy” agenda.
Instead, it is time to alter qualitatively the interaction within the Muslim World and Muslim societies. Pakistan, by need, must move to play the role of an intermediary between the Arab states and Iran since we cannot afford to opt for any one side. President Musharraf’s call to the Iranian leader before he embarked on his tour of the Arab states was a farsighted and reassuring gesture. Now we should go further to commence a dialogue rather than allow the divides to become even more accentuated.
Why blame the US and its Western allies in playing the sectarian card. We Muslims need to heal our cleavages ourselves so that others cannot exploit our differences. One does not expect the Shia-Sunni divide in terms of belief to be overcome, but what one should expect from fellow Muslims is to respect and tolerate our fellow Muslims so that within our Muslim states each one of us can conduct our religious rites without fear or persecution. After all, almost fourteen hundred years after the noble sacrifice of the Prophet’s (PBUH) Family we should be able to learn the spirit and essence of Islam. What better time than the month of Muharram to practice tolerance and reach out to fellow Muslims across the divides. Is it not possible for our Muslim “brothers and sisters” to rid themselves of the frightening hatred that presently consumes them to kill innocent Muslims in a wave of fanatical fury?
For unless we learn humility, tolerance and acceptance of “the other” from within the Ummah, we will always be prey to external exploiters and subjugators. Look at our own state of affairs in Pakistan today: Our national institution of the military has been attacked not only by a terrorist suicide bomber but also by our supposed ally, the US. How have we arrived at this juncture?