Talking Jihad

Three Views of One War

These Christians also want the war to stop, primarily because they fear a backlash against their community, seen by some Muslims as "Western" and therefore suspect. Father Bhatti fervently disputes that Catholicism was brought in from outside, insisting that Saint Thomas visited Taxila, a nearby town, in the first century. He does admit, however, that the Christian movement gathered steam in the 19th century, when Hindu "untouchables" converted as a means of escaping India's brutal caste system.

The Christians here say the unthinkable, putting voice to thoughts heard few other places in Pakistan. "Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization," says Nasir Inayat, a 24-year-old parishioner at Our Holy Father. "Those [Pakistanis] who go to fight with the Taliban, this is not jihad that they are on."

He quickly adds, "But they have their holy book and we have to respect this." When he says, "have to respect this," he means it literally. Christians here walk a fine line; a Christian is currently on death row for blaspheming the prophet Muhammad. At the Catholic school where Nasir studied, Islam is a subject mandated by law, just as it is in every school in the country, public or private.

As for buying guns for self-defense, Nasir says this has been rejected by the community members in favor of prayer. "Jesus Christ is our brother; God gave his only son for us. As Christians, we have to shed our own blood, not shed the blood of others. The Bible says, 'There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.' The Bible is asking me to lay down my life, not to take the lives of others."

Like the Christians, many among this nation's Shia minority, who may number as many as 30 million, are fearful of sectarian violence, but some are fighting back. There are numerous Shia mosques in Rawalpindi, but the Shias say they don't want to make waves; at each door, a request for an interview is met with "no comment."

At Ali Masjid, a ramshackle mosque located down a Rawalpindi alleyway, admission is refused once again to a foreigner, but Pakistani hospitality takes over among the half dozen guards out front. They invite a journalist and an interpreter into an open-walled guard post located on the corner. It is a hut, really, with a low steel barrier along each side and a clear line of fire down both approaches to the mosque.

Inside there are some cushions on the floor, a small sink, a gas burner, and an automatic rifle. Three hundred Shias have been killed so far this year in sectarian violence, and two guards watch the street warily as the other men take turns cleaning vegetables. One steps outside to choose dinner from among the chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys that roam up and down the street.

One of the guards launches into a history of Shiism as the others listen, occasionally offering details or clarifications. It is a long, extraordinarily complex story of betrayal and the power struggles that took place after the death of the prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago. The guard explains that of the four caliphs, it was Ali who was clearly chosen by Muhammad as his successor. Yet the other three caliphs ruled first, leaving Ali to wait 15 years before assuming his rightful position. Later, in what is probably the seminal event in Shia history, the prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussain was betrayed, murdered, and decapitated at Karbala, in what is now Iran.

Each year the Shias here and around the world mark this event with self-flagellation. "We take very sharp knives," the guard explains, "and tie them to chains, and we beat ourselves with them until we are badly cut and bleeding. If I stand on the street and cry, someone will stop to ask why. If I beat myself, more people gather around. If I perform zangeer-zani [beating oneself with knives], then a lot of people will gather around and ask why. I want people to ask me why, to take notice, and I will tell them of the death and betrayal of Imam Hussain." One Shia shows off a scar the size of a small walnut over one of his vertebrae. "I felt no pain at all," he says proudly.

The Sunnis are outraged by this behavior, saying the Koran forbids self-mutilation. And they disagree over Muhammad's chosen successor, and are furious that the Shias disparage the first three caliphs. Also, there is very serious disagreement over whether the Koran as it exists is a finished document.

To outsiders, some of this may seem like a squabble over ancient events. But listen to the passion with which the guard tells his tale, and look past his shoulder to the man with the rifle, and one realizes that this tale is a vital part of the teller's life. Many of the Shias' holiest sites are in Iran and Iraq; Iran in particular has been very nearly at war with Afghanistan's Taliban. And the Taliban leaders, with characteristic intolerance, have declared that "the Shias are not Muslims" and massacred approximately 5000 Shias inside their borders.

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