Years ago, in an airport in the Middle East I struck-up a conversation with an Arab while we waited for our connecting flights. In our ensuing conversation he made many references to a minority group in his country called “rafidah.”. I had never heard of the term and asked him about it. He told me, that in Arabic, “rafidah” refers to someone who has defected – someone who rejects rightful leadership. It was apparent this was a depreciatory term for Shias living and working in the region.
Pakistan has no shortage of its own pejoratives for Shias. The reference “khatmal” is derived from a word that means “bedbug.” Many Sunnis see Shias as parasites – sucking the lifeblood from their Sunni-faith. Like bedbugs, Shias need to be exterminated – linguistically softening the genocide of a people. If a group of people is referred to as bedbugs, how quickly will a government respond to their needs? When 130-people were killed in a bomb blast last week in a Shia neighborhood in Quetta, the Government was not shocked into responding, rather it slowly “yielded to protests.”
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for this attack. The militant group splintered out of the Sipah-e-Sahaba and has close ties with the Taliban. The hatred these Sunni militant groups bear towards Shia Muslims is fundamentally theological. The split between Sunni and Shia originate in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over which of his Companions should lead the nascent Muslim community. Sunnis refer to themselves as the people who follow the true tradition of the Prophet Mohammad. Many Sunni militants consider beards a religious obligation and demand unconditional acquiescence – threatening punishment for non-compliance. The Prophet Muhammad is assumed to have had a beard and those who insist that devout Muslims grow beards contend that they are doing no more than asking the faithful to emulate the Prophet and his Companions. The growing of the beard for many Muslim-fundamentalists has become the imaginary, first-step in becoming Arab and erasing any memory of their collective ethnicity and culture. These hirsute symbols are symptomatic of a prevailing bigotry mirrored by such people.
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Sunni clerics routinely look to the past to inform present day decision-making. These clerics routinely condemn minority groups – like Shias – who think differently. Only when a person believes in the plurality of life will it become normal to condemn violence. Octavio Paz very eloquently once said,
What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity. By suppressing differences and peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens life and favors death. The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life.
Pakistanis must believe in the plurality of faith so they can fully condemn violence. Freedom of faith is a basic and fundamental right. Without it, citizens are reduced to beings vassals – never truly self-aware – held hostage to the many interpreters of maladies.