Shia-Sunni tensions in Kashmir: Real or manufactured?

The recent execution of Shia cleric and scholar Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr along with 47 others in Saudi Arabia triggered protests among Kashmiri Shias across the Valley. The protests prompted police action and curfew restrictions for several days in the Shia-dominated areas of Srinagar city.

Some people saw Nimr’s execution by the Saudi authorities through a Shia-Sunni equation. The same emotion echoed across the Valley during the protests as Shia anger over the execution poured on the streets. As tensions rose, there were fears of a Shia-Sunni showdown. Good sense prevailed, but a sectarian faultline in Kashmir’s otherwise homogeneous society was once again dangerously exposed.

Several Shia organizations had called for rallies including a call to converge at the city centre of Lal Chowk to protest against the execution. The Shia-populated areas saw youth battling it out for several days running with the police and Indian paramilitary forces in ding-dong clashes of stone throwing and tear gas shelling.

As Shia demonstrators raised slogans denouncing the Saudi rulers, sectarian disturbances seemed on hand. Sunnis also complained that some Shia youth raised objectionable and abusive slogans against some historical personalities who Sunnis revere. This fuelled further tensions with a looming threat of a clash.

I don’t know why people are seeing it through sectarian prism when it is not. Sunnis too protested along with Shias against the execution.

There were reports from some areas that Sunnis were planning to hit the streets too to show their support for the Saudi Kingdom, which they see as the guardian of the two holy mosques at Makkah and Madinah. That didn’t happen though.

Influential clerics and leaders of the Valley appealed for calm but remained tight-lipped about Nimr’s execution preferring to not criticize the Saudis.

As Shia protests spread, police and paramilitary forces used what residents called “excessive force” to quell the protests. They said that the police fired too many smoke shells on the protesters, choking people in the localities.

“The police took these protests as any other protest when they were not. Law enforcing agencies must distinguish between different protests. Such protests cannot be dealt with all-out force,” says Hussain, a resident of Ashai Bagh, Srinagar. The ‘excessive’ tear gas shelling actually brought more protesters on the streets who pelted stones on the police.

Inspector General Police Javaid Mujtaba Gillani refused to answer why police aggravated the situation by ‘overusing’ smoke shells.

“Don’t teach me. Ask the question,” Gillani said before snapping the call.

Leaders of religious organizations in Kashmir hold differing views on Nimr’s execution and the subsequent events.

Abdul Lateef al-Kindi, General Secretary of a prominent Sunni religious organisation Jamiat Ahli-Hadith, says the execution of Nimr by the Saudi authorities is not a sectarian issue as 47 Sunnis were also executed along with him by the Saudis. “Those who came on streets to protest the killing of Nimr took it in a wrong way. They made it a Shia-Sunni matter when it was not,” says al-Kindi. He feels any counter protests by Sunnis in support of Saudi Arabia could have “stirred up a hornets’ nest.” al-Kindi is pointing to the polarization that often takes place in Kashmir between the two sects because of some local or global happening involving Shias and Sunnis.

He believes any condemnation of the Saudi rulers, who are the custodians of the two mosques is “unacceptable.”

As happens often with self-proclaimed religious authorities, al-Kindi, who is Saudi-educated in theology, also holds certain views that are debatable and tend to feed the Shia-Sunni differences over various issues.

The President of J&K Anjuman-e-Sharie-Shian, Agha Syed Hassan Mosawi, says that Kashmiris didn’t take it as a Shia-Sunni matter. “The people,” says Agha, “came out on the streets to show solidarity with the family of Sheikh Nimr who was executed for no crime.

“I don’t know why people are seeing it through sectarian prism when it is not. Sunnis too protested along with Shias. It is wrong to say that these protests were driven by sectarian zeal.”

Agha says Shias too consider the Saudi King as the custodian of the two mosques “but the Saudi King must behave like a king”.

“It doesn’t befit the Saudi King to muzzle dissentious voices by executing people.”

Dr Hamidullah Marazi, who teaches at Shah-i-Hamdan Institute of Islamic Studies, Kashmir University, sees the sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis as “a perennial process with no end in sight.”

Marazi feels it is the “distorted vision” of Muslims that has led to the Shia-Sunni conflict. “History is being given more preference and importance than scripture.” He believes if both sects follow the scripture and put interpretations of history aside, the differences can be bridged.

“But if they harp on history and make personages the criterion of truth and falsehood and remain selective about their likes and dislikes, then the friction will continue ad nauseam.”

Marazi believes “deep-rooted factionalism and blind denominational adherences” have fostered polarization   between Shias and Sunnis. “Call for Shia-Sunni unity is a charade. Politics is given more importance than unity and masses are rallied emotionally.”

History is being given more preference and importance than scripture.

Despite differences Shias and Sunnis in Kashmir by and large share a congenial relationship. Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani who heads the DNA bureau in New Delhi seconded this in an article in a Pakistani Urdu daily Duniya, “There is no doubt that sectarian hatred has become a feature of Muslim world. However, this is also a fact that to a great extent Kashmir has been immune to such an assault,” Iftikhar wrote.

But the relationship sometimes comes under strain when incidents like Nimr’s execution are portrayed as a Sunni versus Shia affair. This sparks feelings of sectarianism as one of the communities or both go over the top.

A local newspaper Kashmir Reader, in the wake of the protests triggered by Nimr’s execution, raised an important question in one of its editorials about how such protests can cause wider damage. “Should Kashmiris, belonging to any sect or denomination, replay political events elsewhere to the point of hurting their own common interests? And how does one look at the real schism within Islam with a view to try and bridge it?” the newspaper commented.

The Shia community feels it was a natural response to what they call “the unjust killing” of Sheikh Nimr whom most Shias held in esteem.

Bilal Ahmad, assistant professor at Department of Politics & Governance, Central University Kashmir, believes incidents like the one following Nimr’s execution have the potential to create disturbances between the two communities.

There is a very thin membrane between being political and apolitical these days.

“These incidents can take any shape. There is a very thin membrane between being political and apolitical these days,” says Bilal, who has been keenly observing developments after Nimr’s execution throughout the world, especially the Middle East.

He feels the instantaneous diffusion of information or misinformation over the social media presents new challenges in such situations driven by sectarian or other emotional tensions. “With the advent of the smart phone technology, the social media has a great potential to make or mar any given situation. But more often, social media gets easily mutated into rumour machines,” says Bilal. He also believes emotions get out of hand because of politics rather than religion which, he adds, creates an atmosphere of Shia-Sunni polarization.

It was this polarization that was so palpable on the streets of Kashmir as protests broke out following Sheikh Nimr’s execution. And it is this rapid polarization that creeps in between Shias and Sunnis which social and political analysts feel religious leaders and politicians from both sects should not let run wild.

 

Who was Sheikh Nimr

Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was a prominent Shia cleric and scholar in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. Born in 1959 in Qatif’s Awamiya village, Sheikh Nimr was a persistent critic of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. He emerged as a leading figure in the 2011 protests in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’. He had a strong following among Saudi Shia population particularly the youth.

After completing his secondary education, Nimr moved to Iran in 1979 for studies and then continued his higher studies in Syria. He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1994 after an accord in 1993 between Shia opposition groups and Saudi authorities.

Saudi Supreme Court Confirms Sheikh Nimr Death Sentence

Nimr’s fierce opposition to Saudi government led to a perennial friction between Saudi government and Saudi Shias of the Eastern Province. He was called in for questioning by the security services on numerous occasions.

He was detained in 2003 after conducting public prayers at Karbala Square in Awamiya. Nimr shot to prominence after Shia pilgrims at alBaqi Cemetery clashed with Saudi security forces in February 2009. The clashes escalated and soon spread across the Eastern Province, the heartland of Saudi Shias.

Nimr gave a speech in which he held the political authorities directly responsible for the violence, accusing them of using the religious police to target the Shia community. This was the beginning of his direct confrontation with the Saudi government.

He was arrested in 2012, the year after protests broke out in oil-rich Eastern Province following the ‘Arab Spring’.

During his arrest after a car chase in the province’s Qatif district he was shot four times in the leg — three people were killed in the days of protests that followed. Later he was sentenced to death by a Saudi court.

His death sentence was confirmed in October 2014 and was executed on 2 January 2016 along with 46 others, most of whom were Sunnis and unrelated to Nimr’s campaign against the Saudi government. The executions were carried out inside prisons across the Kingdom and carried out by firing squad or decapitating.

Sheikh Nimr’s execution was widely condemned across the world with Iran saying Saudi Arabia will face ‘divine revenge’ for it. Nimr’s execution sparked protests among Shias who denounced the Saudi monarchy. In Iran the Saudi embassy was attacked by protestors after which Saudi government snapped diplomatic relations with Iran. As tensions between the two countries rose, a showdown between them seemed imminent. There were serious concerns of sectarian violence in various countries with mixed Shia, Sunni populations.

In Kashmir, Shias took out processions at various places triggering protests with police amid fears of a SuniShia clash.

 

Shia-Sunni divide: Historical perspective

The Shia-Sunni divide is one of the oldest of human history. This division started in the first century of Islam, (7 AD), and continues till date. This fourteen century old split raises ugly passions among Shias and Sunnis which has at times resulted in blood shed.

The word Shia is a contraction of Shiat ul Ali, which means “group or party of Ali”, while the word Sunni is a contraction of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jama’h, which means “people of the Sunnah (Prophet’s traditions).

In the early Islamic history, Shia Islam was a political entity, which believed that Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was the rightful leader to head the newly created Muslim dominion after the Prophet’s death in 632 AD. On the other hand the other party whose members later called themselves Sunnis, believed that the Prophet had indicated either implicitly or explicitly that the succession after him will follow this order: Abu Bakr, then Umar, then Uthman and then Ali as Caliphs. The Shias never accepted the caliphhood of the first three Caliphs—Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman. Umar and Usman were assassinated while in power.

The entire Islamic history has been a continuous saga of political rivalries between these two sects. Though Sunnis have always been the dominant political group, there have been occasions when Shias challenged their political supremacy.

The differences deepened as the power struggle became intense and internecine wars became bloodier. There were no religious differences or different doctrines of Shia and Sunni Islam then, as is found today.

The dispute resulted in full-blooded sectarian strife for ages to come after Ali was martyred in 661. The real doctrines of Shia-Islam, however, were formulated after the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, at Karbala, Iraq in 680. His martyrdom became their central tenet, which is mourned every year during the month of Muharram. The martyrdom of Hussein and others at Karbala is observed by some Sunnis as well.

Both Shias and Sunnis believe in one God, Muhammad as the last prophet, Qur’an as the final word of Allah and Ka’bah the direction for prayers, but differences have persisted and have assumed political and sectarian hues.

The entire Islamic history has been a continuous saga of political rivalries between these two sects. Though Sunnis have always been the dominant political group, there have been occasions when Shias challenged their political supremacy.

The broader Shia and Sunni groups are further divided into many groups and denominations, ranging from moderates to extremes. The Sunnis makeup the 80% of Muslims, while the remaining percentage is that of Shias.

The pressures from modern global geopolitics exacerbate the Shia-Sunni differences making unity a distant dream.

The Zaidis, Ismailis and Ithna Asharis (Twelvers or Imamis) are the three main branches of Shia Islam today. Among them, the Twelvers is the largest group. They believe that the Prophet’s religious leadership, spiritual authority and divine guidance were passed on to 12 of his descendants, beginning with Ali, Hassan and Hussein. They believe it will culminate with the arrival of Mehdi at an unspecified future time. Both Shias and Sunnis await Mehdi, a descendant of the Prophet who will restore justice on earth and rid people of all afflictions before the end of times. Most Shias believe Imam Mehdi is already born and is awaiting an appropriate time to return. Sunnis don’t share this belief.

The pressures from modern global geopolitics exacerbate the Shia-Sunni differences making unity a distant dream. Both groups now realize that they face common challenges. There have been attempts on international level to reconcile the opposing points of view. In 1959, Shaikh Mahmoud Shaltoot of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University issued a fatwa that “the Ja’fari school of jurisprudence (fiqh) is a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship as are other Sunni schools of jurisprudence i.e Hanafi, Hanbali, Shaafii and Maliki.” It is also recognised by many Sunni scholars that the Zaidiyah school of fiqh is also historically valid.

The main problem has been the extremist leaders from both sides who draw their political power by perpetuating these differences and are so mired in factionalism that they fail to separate history and politics from doctrine.


 

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