The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah Al-Shaikh, has said in a sermon that those behind Shia Muslims’ protests in the Gulf were after the region’s wealth and material resources. This sermon, a report of which appeared in Al-Watan newspaper, was made at a doubly crucial time. In a general backdrop of Shia Muslims protesting throughout the Gulf, the sermon coincided with Ashura. If it is also kept in mind that the Grand Mufti is a descendant of the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, and that Wahhabism has been used by Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, this is a strong statement. It should be seen in the context of the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, while he was in Pakistan for the D-8 Summit, which tended towards religious reconciliation. There is no doubt that the divides in the Muslim world such as sectarian divisions like the Shia-Sunni divide, are seen as the splitting factors in the potential unity of Muslim states and are also seen as largely self-inflicted. In Pakistan, when there were several attacks on Ashura gatherings and processions, despite elaborate precautions, which included a shutting off of mobile phone services as well as a public holiday on Friday and a ban on motorcycles, this is a particularly worrisome trend. In Syria, the Alawite President is being opposed by the West and Saudi Arabia, but backed by Iran and Lebanese Shia militants Hizbullah.

Pakistan should take stock of its undoubted links to Saudi Arabia, but it should also take account of its differences while deciding its own course of action. It should remember that it is not a Wahhabi country, and shares many more cultural commonalities with Iran. It is a neighbour, and not a commercial rival but a customer for its gas. It must therefore examine the Grand Mufti’s statement carefully, and glean from it the acceptable message of sectarian unity. However, that implies identifying the factors fuelling these particular flames, and it must not shy away from the task just because the answer does not suit the government. The Pakistan government’s over-dependence on any one centre of power is not the wisest course to pursue. The Pakistan government should take to heart that sectarian divisions are the greatest damaging factor to the Muslim countries long-term wellbeing. The government should realise that it cannot achieve sectarian harmony until it realises that along with foreign forces — some of which may come as a surprise if they are named, while others may not — hands that are all too local are also encouraging hate and must be brought to a path of tolerance.