There should be no shame attached to reconciling with the reality that Islamic identity in the 21st century is not monolithic. It is a polylithic mosaic and no matter what Zakir Naik et al would want to have you believe, this fact remains unchallenged. Paradoxically, the position that there are no sects within Islam is, itself, an extremely sectarian argument put forth by what is one of the most orthodox and austere chains of Islam, in the modern context. A denominational plurality has emerged through a historical legacy fraught with ideological warfare and internal bloodshed. The impact of geo-economic politicking and cultural appropriation, which accompany empire building and the ensuing logic of power cannot be overlooked either. To be fair, and from a sociological point of view, this fate has been part and parcel of all great religions: historical accidents and unintended consequences, amongst other factors, have led to a gradual devolution of divinely ordained charismatic authority, which dictated social relations in times of the prophets, into more parochial forms.

Even if we restricted ourselves to an overview of Islamic denominations in just Pakistan, a deeply entrenched sectarian divide can be observed; one that is much muddier than what is wrongfully perceived to be a mere Shi’a-Sunni split. It should also be made clear that the chunk referred to as the Sunni majority has so many conflicting subsets that if we tried to formulate clear demarcations, it would be, predominantly, an exercise in futility. From the Sufi Barelvis, to Deobandis, to Twelver Shi’as, to Ahl-e-Hadith, to Salafis, to Nizari Ismailis, to Mustaliq and Sulaimani Bohras, to Ahle-Qurans, to Zikris, amongst others (including subgroups within even the categories listed above), there is scanty consensus over basic theological principles, jurisprudence, historical narratives, customs and practices. While there is a significant overlap amongst a few strands on one side, there is a wide-ranging incommensurable divide on the other. This split can often manifest itself in the form of outright violence in heated circumstances. But, more importantly, even amongst the peaceful and tolerant masses, abysmal feelings of mutual distrust and suspicion are rampant.

I focus upon the peaceful masses because there is a very thin line between a state of tranquility and turbulence. The susceptibility to fall prey to a vicious sectarian narrative that attempts to enforce its hegemony, often through aggressive means, over the other strands is enormous. It must also be kept in mind that all the strands are not equally violent. What’s more troublesome, however, in my opinion, is the reality that, often, “Us-and-Them” narratives are sold in a highly nuanced and camouflaged manner, and the disaffected seeker of truth might not realize that the, ostensibly, universalistic principles being preached through the moral high ground of the pulpit, are, habitually, anything but that. Disenchanted with the duplicitous and contradictory nature of the synthesis of tradition and modernity in contemporary Pakistani circumstance, many individuals attempt to seek meaning and truth in the world through the religious sphere.

Organized religious institutions harboring divisive agendas, often, as a direct result of their spiritual convictions, do not wear that reality on their sleeves and put forth a hypocritical façade of humility. The smaller minority sects are distinct due to their symbols and practices. It becomes trickier still for a newcomer to tackle the subtle variances amongst the mainstream camps.

There is a glaring dearth of information on the pluralistic nature of the sectarian dimension in Pakistani syllabi, whether in public or private educational institutions. But that begs the question whether teaching young impressionable students about the fault lines and the reasons behind their existence will promote intra-faith and inter-faith harmony, or solidify the splits even more? Or does the solution lie in teaching students how to think critically and reconcile with grey areas inherent in life? But wouldn’t that require the complete overhaul of our educational system, and consequently, our national identity construction project, which, regrettably, is based around historical concoctions and hyperboles?

It goes without saying that the present-day situation is not idyllic. Madrassah networks have assumed unchecked and unbridled power, especially post the ill-fated sectarian manoeuvers of Zia, and are tantamount to being the most potent “civil” society force operating within the country. Do the governments want to test their writ against what could be an unprecedented violent backlash by nationalising all madrassahs? And hypothetically speaking, although it seems close to impossible with the impotent nature of the current federal setup, even if the government was able to maintain control and implement such a policy, can a “tolerant, pluralistic and peaceful” narrative staying within the ambit of Islam be conjured up? We would be faced with countless impediments and it is not like theologians, politicians, policy advisors or think-tanks have a clear answer about how such a narrative would be put to work.

It seems very easy to suggest banal out-of-the-box solutions like making Pakistan a ‘secular’ state, but if there is any chance of finding a reconciliatory mechanism, it has to come from within the system, and has to be in line with contextual socio-cultural realities, which would not alter that much even if the state endeavored to adopt a policy of religious neutrality. Which opens up another conundrum. Can the state adopt a policy of sectarian neutrality, anyway, in the presence of the animosity that would be stirred up by the clergy who claim to have a monopoly on faith? Public consciousness cannot be transformed overnight. Experiments with suppression of public religiosity had adverse consequences in Iran, leading to a counter revolution, and the jury’s still out on the Turkish experiment. But the state should definitely control vigilantism committed in the name of God - through sheer, brute force.