What it means to be a Shia in Pakistan

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The Shias are facing a slow genocide in Pakistan. To be a part of the estimated 15-20 percent of the population of Pakistan made up by Shia Muslims is be mindful of this fact and also that whatever the foreign implications, it is the State and its jihadi proxies like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) that are responsible for this ongoing genocide.

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It is becoming increasingly clear that the identity markers of Shias, such as names (Ali, Hussain, Fatima, Hasan, Reza, Abbas, etc), attendance at shrines and langars (communal meals freely distributed to commemorate the memory of the Karbala martyrs) and flagellation marks, are dangerous. While the Shias are the worst-hit community, the militants have not spared the others either, not even the majority Sunnis (both Barelvis and moderate Deobandis). Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs are also being killed by the same nexus of extremist Deobandi groups.

Groups like Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) are the parent organisations responsible for the genocide of Shias in Pakistan. It was formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba and is virtually indistinguishable from its militant wing, the LeJ. In effect, they are really one organisation that uses different names as a tactic to create confusion. They have been operationally linked with the Taliban and other groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad even before 9/11.

All these groups share the same beliefs and ideology, and belong to the Deobandi school of thought. They have not spared even those Deobandi scholars who don’t agree with their violent tactics.

Prominent names of their Deobandi victims include the late Maulana Yousuf Binori and Maulana Hasan Jan — Deobandi scholars who disagreed with the use of violence. Shias are under constant threat in Pakistan and nothing concrete has been done to protect their lives ever since the State officially went against them in 1978.

Aside from massacres, these groups have systematically targeted Shia professionals. The latest such casualties were a highly qualified 45-year-old eye surgeon and his 11-year-old son who were shot dead in Lahore on 18 February. The situation has gone from bad to worse and now Shia bankers, lawyers, doctors, activists, leaders, government officials and judges are being killed every day. This clearly feels like the community is being pushed towards marginalisation and ghettoisation.

It is disappointing to see that educated people from urban areas have adopted some of the hateful views that are propagated by groups like the ASWJ. Due to massive funding, both locally and from some Gulf countries, and State support, these groups have seized control over scores of mosques all over Pakistan. One would have expected Pakistan’s educated, urban upper-middle classes to boldly confront this menace. Sadly, they have failed to do so and their sparse recent efforts are too little, too late.

Similarly, the civil society groups too have failed in this regard. Instead of researching this issue in depth and presenting the findings to the world, most of them have bought into the State-manufactured discourse. Activists are more concerned about maintaining good ties with certain elements. Rather than risk offending them by stating the truth, they are choosing the easy way out by regurgitating the State’s discourse.

The media has played an atrocious role, but surprisingly, the State channel PTV has been far better in this regard than the corporate/ private channels. The latter give disproportionate air time to extremists and conspiracy theory cranks. Even as extremist groups issue statements taking credit for their latest atrocities, the media continues to provide a discourse of denial and of blaming other countries instead of inviting secular and moderate individuals to put the focus on home-grown extremism. The list of suspects is long, but chief among those who promote this culture of denial are Ansar Abbasi, Hamid Mir, Javed Chaudhry and their favoured guests like Hamid Gul, Farid Paracha and Orya Maqbool Jan. Please refer to the Pakistan Media Watch website and find out more about Abbasi’s role when the horrific videos of the Taliban’s public lashing of a teenage girl were released.

Laws and legal institutions are quickly becoming irrelevant to the situation in Pakistan. The highly politicised Supreme Court relied on lapsed ordinances, which had been introduced by a military dictator, to recently dismiss an elected prime minister. The same court also released the most dangerous anti-Shia terrorist, Malik Ishaq, leader of the al-Qaeda affiliated LeJ and vice-president of the ASWJ, continue the killings. Despite eyewitness accounts, published hate material and the boastful confessions of LeJ, the Supreme Court still released Ishaq. The judiciary is more concerned with settling its political scores with the current elected government and is alleged to have “an ideological bias” in favour of extremists. Its record in the cases of Ishaq, the Lal Masjid vigilantes and Hafiz Saeed speaks volumes.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s biased media continues to deflect criticism of this bias of the judiciary by blaming the prosecution. The media conveniently forgets to mention that the Supreme Court even overturned a guilty verdict against Ishaq.

The military had started creating the groups responsible for extremism even as early as 1985, when Gen Zia-ul-Haq intervened to protect the leader of these groups. In 1988, while Gen Zia was still alive, an anti-Shia pogrom in Gilgit (in PoK) had resulted in the killing of over 700 Shias. Contrary to the manufactured discourse of Pakistan’s pro-establishment media, groups like the Taliban and the ASWJ were linked well before 9/11 and the Taliban provided sanctuary to LeJ militants in Kabul as early as 2000. At that time, Pakistan was under the military dictatorship of Gen Pervez Musharraf and became the only country besides Saudi Arabia and the UAE to recognise the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan.

The so-called secular parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and, to an extent, the Awami National Party (ANP), have failed miserably in confronting the menace of anti-Shia extremists. The ruling alliance is seen as a weak government that is limping to the finishing line. Any credit for being the first elected government to complete its term is negated by the failure to confront extremism. The PPP and the ANP have also lost their frontline leaders like Benazir Bhutto, Bashir Bilour, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti to the same menace. Many of their leaders have spoken out against this extremism, but they have repeatedly failed to press Parliament into action. Sheikh Waqas Akram of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) has also condemned extremism, but there seems to be a lack of will to do anything to stem the violence.

The PML-N is in an electoral coalition with the ASWJ and the Punjab law minister, who is also a cousin of Pakistan’s chief justice, has openly participated in rallies with ASWJ/LeJ leaders. Until recently, Imran Khan was known as an apologist for these groups. However, the person who manages his Twitter account has done a commendable job by condemning LeJ for the bomb blast in Quetta on 16 February, in which at least 84 people were killed. Let’s hope this marks a turning point where Imran Khan distances himself and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf from the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (an umbrella coalition of more than 40 quasi-political religious parties).

Unless the State and, in this case, the military establishment abandon their project of strategic depth in Afghanistan and their India-centred policies, there is no hope for the Shias or for the Sunnis, Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs of Pakistan. At the same time, we must applaud those Shias and Sunnis who have defied all kinds of threats and continue to strive together for a better Pakistan.

(As told to Sheeba Naaz)

The writer is a business professional from Karachi.

Also Read: The Hazard Of Being A Hazara In Balochistan | By Ayesha Siddiqa

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