*Originally published in the December Edition of the PLUMS Dispatch*
My childhood has been a war between reconciling two levels of cultural religiosity. I have reached a (perhaps still incomplete) judgment; being a Shia’a puts you on a spectrum that is constantly at a tug of war between culture and religion. My friend Amna Haider is as Shia’a as they come. With the first of Muharram, the colored clothes go in and the Alams come out, but she does not subscribe to religious practices like fasting or praying. Asad Zaidi, on the other hand, focuses more on the basic tenets of religion, treating them as central rather than the specialized traditions of the sect. Although there are exceptions, I have largely noticed that Azadaari is more a preservation of a cultural identity especially for Pakistani Shia’as, who see it as an act of resistance from the oppressive state not dissimilar to Husssain’s (RA) defiance to Yazid.
Although Partition brought Shia’a and Sunni groups together in the Muslim League, after Independence the Sunni majority established a monopoly on issuing religious legitimacy at the expense of minorities like Ahmedis and Shia’a. It might be interesting to explore why Aga Khanis were not subject to the same level of persecution, perhaps because of the political and economic importance of the Aga Khan. The bloody history of sectarianism is evident with the Hazaras in Quetta, protesting terrorist attacks by sitting with the corpses of family members in the biting cold. This history is evident in my maternal uncle, a doctor, getting death threats and eventually leaving the country. It is evident in never being allowed to go to Majalis because my father was in the government and our expression of our faith was a threat to the powers that be. However, these experiences do not get the same coverage in mainstream media which reduces these issues to meaningless statistics. We are just an “attack on Shia’a mosque leaves 20 dead”.
It’s actually called an Imam Bargah. The growing disenchantment just fuels a reclusion by Shia’a groups into their Garrison towns which become oasis communities defined by their distinct culture. My only surviving grandparent, Nano, reminisces about how when she was young, her Hindu and Sunni friends and neighbors would take part in the festivities of Muharram. Their door would be open to all, with people flocking in to try her mother’s handmade Niaz. The subcontinent accepted these culturally driven traditions outside the confines of religion and saw them as an open experience for all rather one divided on religious grounds. In Lahore still, Hindu communities in Mochi Gate participate in Muharram processions and show a great reverence for the history behind it. Perhaps, persecution despite all its evils does one good thing of bringing minorities together in a shared resentment of their oppressor. These narratives of inter-minority relations are missing from discourses surrounding sectarianism.
Now, Azadaari in my Nano’s house has crept back behind closed doors and selective invites. The microphone is kept at an optimum level where the Salam can be heard in the other room but not to the passersby outside in the street. The Niaz still tastes great, but it has become a relic. An attempt to preserve what used to be, rather than to celebrate a belief grounded in religious history. An attack on culture is tackled by further strengthening the cultural bonds. Interestingly, I have encountered many people who attempt to write our story for us. Well intentioned individuals assume that by reading articles online or doing a basic Google search about the bloody Maatam that makes their insides squirm, they understand our traditions and by extension get to comment on what they do not like about these. Without relating these actions to the horrific history of persecution and the consequent symbolism attached to these traditions they do a disservice to the communities they attempt to understand. What they need to do is to listen. Leave your depersonalized screens micromanaged by censorship laws and listen to individual stories which give you a sense of private experiences that are lost to popular discourse. This article cannot possibly claim how to eradicate sectarianism completely but it can contribute to a few more open individuals. Having more personalized discussion on individual experiences of sect can attempt to bridge the gulf between groups. That is what builds a community which incorporates the white in the flag