Islamabad: After sentencing leading Shiite leader to death by Riyadh recently, analysts and people in Pakistan warn that tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia may fuel sectarian violence in Pakistan if Islamabad fails to play a neutral role.
Saudi Arabia Ministry of Interior earlier on January 2 this year had said that Riyadh had executed as many as “47 terrorists” including top Shia leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr sentencing to death sparked anti-Riyadh protests in several countries including Iran where demonstrators forced their way into Saudi Embassy and resorted to torch the facility, prompting Saudi Arabia to severe diplomatic ties with Tehran.
Media reports say that Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Iran in the wake of its growing animosity with Saudi Arabia.
In addition, United Arab Emirates (UAE) also downgraded its relations with Iran, recalling its ambassador in Tehran state news agency WAM reports. Sudan, another African country also expelled entire Iranian diplomatic staff including its ambassador.
Pakistan is a sectarian-prone country and latest tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have left direct impact on country’s sectarian landscape. The recent standoff between Tehran and Riyadh has sparked rallies by Shiite and Sunni sects’ followers in support of both countries.
Lawmaker Asad Umar from Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) said Pakistan should stay neutral because both Tehran and Riyadh are brotherly Muslim countries.
People in Pakistan from both sects should refrain from holding protests either in favor of Iran or Saudi Arabia, he said adding that “Islamabad needs to mediate between both the countries and draw a middle line in its relations between both the countries.”
Amid escalating tensions, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said that “Pakistan believes in peaceful co-existence and wants a solution to the current crisis since terrorists benefit from differences among Muslim Ummah.”
Analysts and people on the street say that the country’s leaderships should adopt a middle line to avoid internal sectarian rift. The Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have good number of sympathizers back in Pakistan.
“Pakistan should remain neutral and offer every possible platform to calm down the tensions otherwise it will lead the country to chaos,” said a senior officer at the federal government who wished to go unnamed because he is not authorized to speak to media.
The moment the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia arrived in Pakistan, enraged pro-Iranian demonstrators held a big protest in Islamabad against what they called the execution of Nimr. Small scale rallies were also held in remote parts of the country in favor of both Tehran and Riyadh.
Arif Wahdi, Secretary of Shia Ulema Council, told News Lens Pakistan the Islamic world received “great setback following the execution of a seasoned Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr” who was striving for democracy.
He said that some elements are up to create tension within Islamic world and the beneficiary would be the third force but he didn’t disclose the name of the third force.
Referring to the 34-nations alliance formed by Saudi Arabia to what Riyadh says an anti-terror alliance, Wahdi said that Pakistan should not join the alliance because it has no representation of all Muslim countries.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accompanied by Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif’s visits to both Riyadh and Tehran is a good step forward to calm down the tensions, he added.
“As a united nation, we should maintain interfaith harmony in our ranks,” Wahid said.
According to The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) that tracks sectarian casualties in the region said that sectarian violence claimed 327 lives in 2015 in Pakistan. Since 1989 till the current year, it said that a total of 9,903 persons have been killed in the religion-related violence in the country.
Majority from both the sects preferred communal coexistence in the country. Muhammad Ayub, a teacher at a seminary in the congested Rawalpindi City, said that everyone should enjoy freedom of religion but foreign politics should not be exported in the country.
“Protests in favor of either Iran or Saudi Arabia will only create mayhem and turmoil within the country and won’t serve any cause,” Ayub added.
When contacted, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, he told News Lens Pakistan that the country “direly needs communal co-existence at this juncture.”
He suggested that foreign-sponsored sectarian violence should not overshadow religious harmony in the country otherwise it would leave far-reaching negative impact on the country politics, economy and religious harmony among different school of thoughts.
Ashrafi said that Pakistan should play a mediatory role between the two warring parties because people here have emotional and spiritual attachment to both countries.
Ali Hussain Kazmi, a university student in Islamabad, said that the issue regarding tussle between Tehran and Riyadh is really a complicated one for government of Pakistan to handle.
“Pakistan simply should not become a party to side with one country. We as a nation can’t afford Shia-Sunni tension in the country,” he remarked.
Allama Qamar Zaidi, leading Shiite leader and secretary information Tehrik Nifaz e Fiqa e Jaffria (TNFJ), told News Lens Pakistan that peaceful protests is the right of every one.
“Our leader has equally condemned sentencing to death of Sheikh Nimr and torching of Riyadh embassy by Iranian protesters,” he added.
Political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi said though protests have been held in support of Iran and Saudi Arabia but those were of low intensity and didn’t pose a serious threat to national harmony.
When a nation goes on path to religious orthodoxy then sectarian violence tends to take place, he observed. “The government should evolve strategy to discourage religious extremism,” he added.
In the wake of any tensions abroad, “we should remain only Pakistani citizens and Muslims,” Rizvi remarked.
A paper “Sectarian Conflicts in Pakistan” written by Moonis Ahmar says that the sectarian issue of Pakistan is “as old as the history of the country.”
Ahmar says that sectarian divide in Pakistan has been on the rise since 1970 and 1980 partly due to domestic political changes and impact of Iranian revolution.
The paper noted that the era of military dictator late Gen, Ziaul Haq who came to power in 1977 pursued a policy of ‘Islamization,’ which resulted in intensifying of sectarian polarization between Shiites and Sunnis and other Sunni groups.
Pir Sher Muhammad, president Inter-faith Harmony and Peace Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told News Lens Pakistan that holding protests in support of either country is “really a tragic development.”
Some elements within the country, he said are striving to foment sectarian violence but it is the responsibility of every Pakistani not to play in the hands of such elements.
“As a country and nation, we should stay neutral whenever there is any tension between Muslim states, specifically Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he added.


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