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What causes violence in South Asia? It’s all about identity, says Dr Vali Nasr

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Published: November 23, 2014

“This is about power; this is about hegemony,” Vali Nasr. PHOTO: HABIB UNIVERSITY FACEBOOK

KARACHI: Dr Vali Nasr knows what causes violence in South Asia. “It’s about identity. It’s always about identity,” he says.

A leading academic on Middle East and the Islamic World, Dr Nasr spoke to The Express Tribune shortly before his talk on ‘The Growing Role of Sectarianism in Muslim Politics, Globally and in Pakistan’ at Habib University on Saturday.

Nasr has a strong connection with Pakistan, where he worked as part of his PhD research. “Coming to Pakistan is like a home coming,” he said. He is calm, yet candid, when he talks about the schism between Shias and Sunnis. “Sectarianism is the oldest conflict,” he said, adding that the desire of one community to exert power and dominance over another is in no way restricted to the Sunni-Shia conflict. “This is about power; this is about hegemony.”

Drawing a backdrop to understanding the present-day global politics, the rise of militancy, the difference between Islam and Islamism and the issues Pakistan is facing, Nasr explained to a packed auditorium the problems and the possible solutions. “Unfortunately, the dominant discourse in the Muslim world does not promote pluralism,” he said, talking about why religion becomes puritanical, and is seen as black and white with the belief that only one interpretation is correct.

Therein, according to Nasr, lies the root of sectarianism. “Modernity and reformation in the Muslim world today is much less tolerant than tradition was,” he said. “Those who talk of modernity today want to jump from tradition to liberal secularism. Where is the historical process for this?”

When asked a question about the rise of extremism in Pakistan, he said: “When the rich become disconnected with the poor, the poor turn to the clerics.”

In Nasr’s opinion, the strain between Pakistan and India is not just Kashmir. “Pakistan is still toying with various ideas of identity, whereas India has still not reconciled to the idea of Pakistan,” he said. He also spoke about Lahore and Karachi in the 1940s as places with pluralistic societies in this region. In his opinion, the solution to sectarianism in the region will have to be through strong will and determination at all levels of society.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2014.

Muslim denominations: Are you Shia or Sunni?

Published: November 4, 2014

At that age, it didn’t seem like a big issue. But as I grew, I realised that it was indeed a big issue. PHOTO: FILE

It started quite early. I was seven-years-old. That’s when I first realised that there was something called a “Shia”, and people thought I was one; because in Pakistan, certain surnames are associated with being a Shia. ‘Zaidi’, one of them, sounds similar to the surname ‘Zahidi’, so I was and am often asked this question – “are you a Shia?”.

So I came home and asked my father, to which Abba replied in a very matter-of-factly that by faith, Shias and Sunnis are both Muslims. He explained to me that it’s like two brothers from the same family, we all love Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his family, and are still very sad about what happened to his grandson Imam Hussain (RA). He further explained, as best as he could to a seven-year-old, that we are from the sect called Sunnis.

At that age, it didn’t seem like a big issue. But as I grew older, I realised that it was indeed a big issue. The issue, basically, is what has caused sectarian and ethnic differences and cleansings and violence over centuries; the issue that has stained many with innocent blood; the issue is that we cannot accept someone different; the issue is of us versus them, of “the others”, this religion versus that, this sect versus that, this province versus that, this ethnicity versus that.

This is an overly simplistic analysis maybe. Or maybe not. We can go into the historical causes, but history will always be partial, lack objectivity and will literally be to each his own. So we have no sure way of knowing why Sunnis and Shias have remained daggers drawn.

Society conditions us in such a way that we have a hard time coming to terms with whoever differs from us, may it be in thought process, language, ethnicity or race, caste, creed and religion. Going against what the Holy Quran tells us to do, we don’t overlook the differences and don’t concentrate on the similarities – we do just the opposite.

I was blessed that I grew up as daughter of a father who, being a Sunni by belief, made sure that solidarity with Shias was order of the day. Abba and I spent countless tenths of Muharram talking about the history of Islam and of the Karbala massacre, with him telling me both sides of the story. He would tell me to not listen to music loudly or not do anything on that day that would hurt the sentiments of Shia neighbours or friends. And he made sure that I understand that differences in perspectives are “natural, because Allah has created each one of us differently, and our circumstances shape us. Therefore, give each other margin”. His words have stayed with me.

Sadly, many of us stereotype the others. Sometimes, you will catch one side whispering amongst themselves about the other. We are scandalised when the other group’s namaz is somewhat different, seemingly, or they break their fast in Ramazan slightly earlier or later. Same Allah, same Messenger (SAW), same Quran just doesn’t seem enough, and so we stereotype each other.

Polarisation between Shias and Sunnis has resulted in followers conveniently deciding to divide, amongst them, the companions of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

“So I am going with Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman (RA) and you go with ‘Ali, Imam Hassan, Imam Hussain (RA) and Prophet Muhammad (SAW) family. In my religious literature and talks, I will talk about Ayesha (RA) and you can talk about Fatima (RA). For guidance, I can look at the rulings of Abdullah bin Masood (RA) and you can choose Abdullah bin Abbas (RA).”

The worst form of reactionary psychology is then to hit where it hurts the most – disrespecting the ideas or the people the other group holds sacred. Thus, those who were closest to Allah get dragged in our tug of war – a war which makes no sense.

However, when it comes to Hajj or Umrah, both groups are peacefully praying in the same rows, embracing the differences and celebrating the commonalities. They are performing tawaaf of the same Holy Ka’abah, doing sa’ee together between Safa and Marwa, and praying from the same Holy book, though they may differ at times in how they interpret it. Why not carry the same acceptance with them outside the haram too, and say to each other from the heart “Assalamu’Aalaikum” (Peace be upon you)?

But that does not seem to work, and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that for the longest time, every year in Muharram, we pray that these days pass without any casualties. What I do know is that year after year, innocent lives are lost – in retaliation, in reaction. Hatred takes over peace. Anger takes over sanity. The real face of Islam gets blurred, ironically on these most special of days for Muslims.

There is very little we can do about it, except start looking inward, reflect where we let stereotypes rule us, and where we crossed a line and forgot that there is no compulsion in religion.

I am a Sunni, and I peacefully remain one by choice. But another human has an equal right to follow whatever path they want to. The followers of all faiths must feel secure and not be punished for what they believe in. Humanity, peace and the true message of Islam is bigger than these denominations.

Ashura’s message: Looking away, being indifferent is not an option

By Farahnaz Zahidi Published: November 15, 2013

What’s more important, actually, is the stuff we all agree upon; the stature of those who were martyred that day, what they stood for and how we can draw lessons from that fateful day for our present day. PHOTO: REUTERS

There are days when one just wants to give up and look the other way. Become indifferent. The inner argument is,

“What difference can I make, realistically?”

I recall feeling that way so many times. Like when I see “small” things like bribes being taken and given in front of me. That gnawing feeling, when people in your area steal water through suction pumps and you are the idiot who doesn’t do it because you think it’s wrong.

Worse still, is the feeling you get if you stay quiet when you see a close relative scolding a small child, working as domestic help, and holding back his salary as a form of reprimand. When someone in a position of power refuses to get their baggage scanned at the airport and breaks the queue conveniently, while the labourer going to Dubai in his chappals is met with dismissive glances and extraordinary checks.

Killers and goons go scot-free. The weak relent, simply because there is no option. The mightier becomes stronger. The system supports it — the jungle raaj, where might is still the biggest right.

An initially reluctant and then habitual silence follows. We don’t say anything to anyone. Not even politely. The world looks on. Or looks away.

Imam Hussain (ra) could have looked the other way, but he didn’t.

He could not.

Brought up in the lap of the Prophet (pbuh), indifference was never an option. Imam Hussain (ra)’s grandfather taught people to help both the oppressed and the oppressor – the oppressed by taking up their cause and the oppressor by trying to stop him/her from being unjust.

And so Imam Hussain (ra) chose the tougher path. The road less travelled. The 9th and 10th of Muharram, year after year, reminds me of exactly this.

It is irrelevant whether I am Sunni or Shia. I say this because that is what people quizzically ask me whenever I express love for the Prophet’s (pbuh) family or talk about lessons from Muharram.

But I digress.

Coming back to what today means to me, what I do know is what I need to know. I learn this from what happened at Karbala, among countless other lessons, that the grandson of Allah’s beloved (pbuh) stood firm on his ground and chose to be martyred rather than live a life where one makes the choice of brushing injustice under the carpet and pretending it never happened.

There is a story I remember reading in context of the explanation of a part of the Quran. It is the story of a people who disobeyed God in a crucial matter and consequently faced punishment. The story tells us that in that town, there were three groups of people; those who defiantly sinned, those who did not sin but remained silent and, those who did not sin and also tried to persuade the disobedient ones to stop.

In the end, God only forgave the third group.

For us as individuals and as a nation, speaking out against structural violence, systematic injustice and oppression has never been so important. Our related apathy and indifference has never been a bigger offence. When silence becomes habit, submission becomes the norm and indifference reigns. Consequently, injustice and tyranny rules to the detriment of a nation.

What’s important, however, is how we make our voice heard. A lot of tact, wisdom and sincerity is required, as is empathy.

As I entered work today, I overheard at least three different conversations on different tables where small groups animatedly talked about what actually happened at Karbala; the how, the why and the many versions of history were spoken about.

What’s more important, actually, is the stuff we all agree upon. The stature of those who were martyred that day, what they stood for and how we can draw lessons from that fateful day for our present day. We channelise energies arguing, debating and proving that we are right and the other is wrong, instead of focusing on what Karbala teaches us all:

Looking away is simply not an option.

Ali (ra) – The eternal hero of a Sunni Muslim woman

For me, he is the emblem of heroism. Of wisdom. Of passion. Of love of Allah.

He accepted Islam as a ten year old child, when very few were willing to risk their life. He grew up, literally, in the house of Allah’s beloved (saw). He resembled Rasool Ullah (saw) in mannerism and action. On the night of the migration from Makkah, he slept in the bed of the Prophet (saw) with the risk that the enemies may kill him in place of the Prophet (saw).

Our beloved (saw) trusted Ali (ra) with his treasure, his youngest daughter Fatima (ra). He was the Prophet’s (saw) kin.

While Rasool Ullah (saw) breathed his last on the chest of our mother Ayesha (ra), Ali (ra) was the one to bathe Rasool Ullah (saw) after his death.

Ali was a lion in the battlefield and most humble in private life. In worship, such was he that he told people to pull out an arrow lodged in his body during salaat (namaz) because when in the presence of his Rabb in prayer, he focussed on nothing else.

Ali (ra) is my hero, forever.

They are all my heroes: Abu Bakr (ra) and Umar ibn Al-Khattab (ra) and Uthman bin ‘Affan (ra) and Ali (ra). Each a sparkling gem warding away darkness and showing rays of light. Each with their own beautiful unique personalities. Each chosen by God for special work. Each guiding us in their own way.

Yet, with the mention of Ali (ra) the heart softens with the realization of how beloved he was to the Prophet (saw) of Allah. He is the father of Hasan (ra) and Hussain (ra), and the love of Fatima’s (ra) life.

These glimpses from ahadith and seerah remind me even more why Ali (ra) is who he is to me:

 Abu Turaab

So many incidents are recorded about the beautiful way the Prophet (saw) used to solve disagreements between Ali and Fatima.

One such incident resulted in Ali getting the title Abu Turaab – “The man covered with dirt” – this title was one of the dearest to Ali. For once the Prophet went to visit his daughter Fatima & he did not find Ali home. He asked about him, so Fatima told her father that she had some argument with her husband so he left home angry in the afternoon without taking his usual nap. The Prophet told someone to go & look for Ali. He came back saying that he is in the mosque. The Prophet went to him to find him lying on the floor with his dress falling off his flank which was covered with dirt. The Prophet woke him up clearing the dirt off his body & addressing him with a smile: “Wake up you who is covered with dirt”.

The Prophet’s (saw) Kin

When the verse 3:61 was revealed to the Prophet (saw): “Now that you know the facts, say to them ‘Come, let us summon our sons and your sons, our women and your women and ourselves and yourselves and pray Allah and beseech Him to accurse those who intentionally assert falsehood’”; he summoned Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussain and said: “O God, & these are my kin”.

How can a believer not love Ali (ra)

Zirr reported: ‘Ali observed: By Him Who split up the seed and created something living, the Apostle (may peace and blessings be upon him) gave me a promise that No one but a believer would love me, and none but a hypocrite would nurse grudge against me.
Reference: Book 001, Number 0141: (Sahih Muslim) 

The strength of Ali – in fighting the enemy and fighting anger

I love the incident where Ali (ra) was fighting with an infidel on a battlefield. Ali was about to thrust his sword into the other man’s heart when all of a sudden the infidel raised his head and spit at him. Ali immediately dropped his sword, took a deep breath, and walked away. The infidel was stunned. He ran after Ali and asked him why he was letting him go. “Because I’m very angry at you,” said Ali.
“Then why don’t you kill me?” the infidel asked. “I don’t understand.”

Ali explained, “When you spit in my face, I got very angry. My ego was provoked, yearning for revenge. If I kill you now, I’ll be following my ego. And that would be a huge mistake.”
So Ali set the man free. The infidel was so touched that he became Ali’s friend and follower, and in time he converted to Islam of his own free will.

He whom Allah and His Messenger (saw) love

Narrated Salama: Ali happened to stay behind the Prophet and (did not join him) during the battle of Khaibar for he was having eye trouble. Then he said, “How could I remain behind Allah’s Apostle?” So ‘Ali set out following the Prophet . When it was the eve of the day in the morning of which Allah helped (the Muslims) to conquer it, Allah’s Apostle said, “I will give the flag (to a man), or tomorrow a man whom Allah and His Apostle love will take the flag,” or said, “A man who loves Allah and His Apostle; and Allah will grant victory under his leadership.” Suddenly came ‘Ali whom we did not expect. The people said, “This is ‘Ali.” Allah’s Apostle gave him the flag and Allah granted victory under his leadership.
Reference: Volume 5, Book 57, Number 52: (Sahih Bukhari)

He was to the Prophet (saw) what Haroon (as) was to Musa (as)

Sa’d reported Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying to ‘Ali: Aren’t you satisfied with being unto me what Aaron was unto Moses?
Reference: Book 031, Number 5916: (Sahih Muslim)

For whosoever is Prophet (saw) Mawla, Ali is Mawla

Sayyidna Abu Sarihah (Radhi Allah) or Zayd ibn Arqam (Shu’bah is uncertain about it) said that Prophet (salallaho alaihi wasalam) said: He for whom I am Mawla (friend, beloved, helper), Ali is Mawla
Reference: Sunan al Tirimdhi Hadith No. 3733 – Imam Abu Isa Tirimdhi (rah) said: This Hadith is “HASAN SAHIH”

Published at: http://www.mybitforchange.org/2013/ali-my-eternal-hero/