SWANA region Radio collective members David Lloyd and Soraya Zarook spoke with our editor, Sadia Abbas, regarding the causes and likely outcomes of rise in sectarian antagonism in Pakistan.
Throughout the month of September, which coincided with Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, this year, Pakistan witnessed massive demonstrations in Karachi and other cities against the minority Shia community, which constitutes about 20% of the population of this Muslim nation. Demonstrations of thirty thousand or more, mobilized by various extremist sects of the Sunni majority, chanted slogans like “Shia Kafir” (“Shia are Infidels”) or that Shia are blasphemers against Islam and threatened violence against them. The crowds included members of militant extremist organizations known to have targeted Shias Muslims. Mainstream news outlets in the United States have paid little attention to these developments.
Accusations of blasphemy are peculiarly charged against the background of the recent sectarian deployment of Pakistani laws, which date back to the British colonial period but were strengthened in the military’s efforts to “Islamicize” Pakistan in the 1980s. Accusations have led not only to arrest, charges and even sentences of death, but also to lynchings and the murder of those accused—often fallaciously or maliciously. Observers fear that this upsurge of highly orchestrated anti-minority antagonism portends a destabilizing exacerbation of sectarian tensions in this nation that is the hinge of a region that has suffered decades of actual conflict and threats of all-out war.
But what lies behind this upsurge in sectarian violence and intimidation? To what extent is it state-sponsored or, at the least, facilitated by state actors, including the military in particular, in the long-running “game of thrones” that characterizes regional politics? Do these demonstrations function as part of the military’s use of Sunni extremist groups to further its interests in Afghanistan and in the North-West Provinces? Is it an effort to divert the opposition that has become increasingly vociferous under ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in its attacks on the government of former cricketer, Imran Khan, whom they regard as a puppet of the military establishment? How far, as some fear, is the sectarian violence being aggravated by external actors, whether Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Pakistan have cooled of late, the predominantly Shiite Iran, or Pakistan’s arch-enemy India, conflict with which has been heightened of late by that nation’s virtual annexation of Kashmir?
Sadia Abbas is a Professor of English and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, Newark. She is the author of At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham University Press, 2014), which won the modern Language Association’s First Book Prize. Her novel, The Empty Room, was published in 2018 by Zubaan Books and was shortlisted for the DSC prize for South asian literature . Her commentaries on contemporary Pakistan and on Europrean neoliberalism and Europe’s treatment of refugees and migrants can be found in Dawn, Counterpunch, Tank Magazine, and other publications. She is also the editor of the online journal Ideas and Futures.
David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, is a poet, playwright and critic, working primarily on Irish culture and on postcolonial and cultural theory. His most recent critical books include Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (2016) and Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics (2019). Poetry collections include Arc & Sill: Poems 1979-2009 (2012) and Furrow Archive (2019). His play, The Press/Le Placard is available in a bilingual edition with the series “Nouvelles Scenes—Anglais” of the Presses Universitaires du Midi, 2018. His writings on Palestine and BDS can be found on Mondoweiss,Jadaliyya, LARB and other outlets.
Soraya Zarook is an international student from Sri Lanka and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in English at the University of California, Riverside. She reads Sri Lankan Anglophone literature to think about the limits and potentials of literature to ethically engage questions of postcolonial trauma, justice, and memory. She is invested in how the literary, the ‘real,’ and the clinical intersect to muddy our understanding of what forms of knowledge and practice are privileged in responding ethically to violence. She traces how literature resists “trauma” as it has come to be understood, practiced, and theorized within the Western academy.
SWANA Region Radio is a weekly review of politics and culture that seeks to broadcast the voices of the voiceless from Kolkata to Casablanca. The work of a collective of radio volunteers, mostly from the region of South and West Asia and Northern Africa (SWANA), the show is broadcast on Pacifica Station KPFK (90.7 FM in Los Angeles, 98.7 FM in Santa Barbara and 93.7 FM in Northern San Diego, as well as streaming worldwide on kpfk.org). The show is available on audio archive for 60 days at: https://archive.kpfk.org/index_one.php?shokey=rintifada. A list of recent shows and audio files of them can be found there and you can download a podcast and listen to SWANA shows regularly wherever you are. SWANA Region Radio is now also on Spotify where you will be able to find this and other shows. Please follow SWANA Region Radio on Facebook and Instagram: your endorsement helps the show survive.