With the sighting of the Muharram moon, while imambargahs start bustling with religious activity, a sense of fear also spreads in the cities and towns as everyone starts praying for the month to pass without any security incident.
While mosques and imambargahs commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (AS), the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), personnel of law enforcement agencies are deployed across towns and cities on security duties.
Due to several terror attacks and incidents of sectarian clashes, the imposition of Section 144 has become a norm now, as has the placement of barriers, concertina wire, barriers, bunkers, walkthrough gates, armed guards, snipers on rooftops, and shutting down of nearby shops. The scene resembles a warzone than a religious commemoration. Even those residing in imambargahs are forced to plead with security officials to let them get in and out.
While this has become the new normal for the younger generation, it was not always like this.
According to 67-year-old Shahid Ali Mazhar, who has been partaking in Muharram majalis and processions since the last 48 years in Peshawar, none of the shops used to close down during the Ashura processions in the city. “It used to be secured by a handful of security officials and volunteers and the Muharram processions and events were not a source of problem but an inclusive event, with members of the other sects erecting Sabeels to give away food and water to the mourners,” he recalled.
Even now, the Central Aman Committee acts as a bridge between the city’s Shia and Sunni communities. Founding member of the committee and central deputy secretary Peshawar, Khawaja Safar Ali Safar, said the peace committee formed under the leadership of Zafar Ali Shah has formed over 30 sub-committees that are tasked with ensuring the passing of a peaceful Muharram. “These committees are not only for Muharram but directed to keep working all year round to promote and protect intra-religious harmony,” he added.
Safar asserted that even today there are many families in the city with inter-sectarian marriages as it was a common feature back in the day. “We were all living peacefully under one roof until the Zia era when Islamisation started and outsiders were brought into Peshawar,” he shared.
Sitting in the Adil Baig Imambargah in the old city area, Syed Jalaluddin recalled the peaceful times with tears in his eyes. He said the 1992 Kohati incident changed everything, confining mourners into narrow streets surrounded by security personnel. He remembered how people from around the city and nearby villages would come to the city to take part in processions “but now even those living inside the city have to plead with security officials to be allowed to partake in the processions”. He implored that it is crucial to remove the differences created to divide Shias and Sunnis, adding that young parents should teach their children about human rights so they never grow up to differentiate between sects and religions.
Jalaluddin’s wife, Irfana Jalal, said numerous women from the surrounding areas of the city would visit the imambargah in Muharram but they cannot do so now due to lack of spaces to stay overnight and security issues. She hoped the security officials can at least allow women easy access to the imambargah and Muharram processions so they can fulfil their religious duties.