Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Shi’a account for approximately 10–15 per cent of the Muslim population of Pakistan. They include a number of different ethnic groups and can be found throughout the country. Pakistani Shi’a are represented in all walks of life, but in many cases have succeeded in playing prominent roles in Pakistan’s cultural sphere and attaining influential, high-profile positions. Though as Muslims they are free from certain restrictions affecting other religious groups, Shi’a are still regarded as apostates by some extremist Sunni groups and individuals. As a result, many face regular hostility from extremists and public calls for members to be killed.
Among them, the most vulnerable is the sizeable Hazara population in Quetta due to their ethnicity as well as their religious beliefs. Hazaras are an ethnic group predominantly based in Afghanistan, but also with a large population in Pakistan, with estimates of this group ranging from 650,000 to 900,000. The majority of Hazaras in Pakistan, approximately 500,000, live in the city of Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan. While some Hazaras are Sunni, the majority identify as Shi’a. As both an ethnic and religious minority, Hazaras face intersectional discrimination.
The situation for Hazaras in Quetta is particularly serious, as highlighted by the series of bomb blasts around Alamdar Road in January 2013 which killed 126 members of the community, and a number of violent attacks thereafter. In addition to such high-profile incidents, there are frequent incidents of shootings and other attacks against individuals or small numbers of Hazaras in Quetta.
There was relatively little strife between Sunni and Shi’a groups until relatively recently. The roots of the militant attacks against Shi’a in Pakistan can be traced to the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, who held the presidency from 1978 following a military coup the previous year and remained in power until his death in 1988. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, many majority Sunni states including Pakistan began to fear the export of Shi’a Islam. In an attempt to counter this, Zia strengthened relations with Saudi Arabia and opened Pakistan’s doors to a fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism. Saudi Wahhabi religious preachers were welcomed into Pakistan, establishing madrassas and other learning centres where this interpretation was widely disseminated. The main targets of these religious leaders were Shi’a Muslims and Sufis, who are followers of Islamic mysticism.
In 1985, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) was formed with the main objective of aggressively promoting Sunni Islam. A decade or so later a breakaway faction of the group went on to form the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), with the aim of transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state through violent means. The LeJ’s founder and leader until 2002, Riaz Basra, was known in the 1990s for orchestrating an attack on Iranian diplomat Sadiq Ganji and killing Iranian Air Force cadets on an official visit to Pakistan. The group was banned in Pakistan in 2001 for provoking sectarian violence and subsequently listed as a terrorist organization by the United States government in 2003. The LeJ was also implicated in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and is suspected to have played a role in the 2009 grenade attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team.
From their inception, both organizations have publicly called for the killing of Shi’a in Pakistan and conducted a number of violent attacks against them. The SSP, having been banned in 2002 by the Musharraf government, was subsequently re-established under the new title of Ahl-e Sunnat Wal Jama’at (ASWJ) before being banned again in 2012. More recently, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, became associated with targeted killings against Shi’a.
In 2011 militants sent an open letter to the Shi’a, largely Hazara, community in Quetta, which numbers around 600,000 people, stating that ‘all Shi’a are worthy of killing’ and their intention to ‘make Pakistan their graveyard’. These statements were accompanied by a systematic campaign of violence directed towards the community in Pakistan, including Shi’a professionals, officials and pilgrims travelling to and from holy sites and festivals. Between 1999 and 2003, around 600 Shi’a were killed as a result of extremist violence and, in this span of time, approximately 500 Shi’a doctors fled the country as a result of the assassination of more than 50 of their colleagues in Karachi alone.
Attacks by extremist groups against Pakistan’s Shi’a have been on the increase since the 1980s, but targeted killings reached unprecedented levels in 2013, with some 700 Shi’a murdered. Many of those killed were Hazaras in the province of Baluchistan. The attacks included a particularly lethal suicide attack followed by a car bomb in the same location in January 2013, killing a total of 91 people in Quetta. The following month, another bomb in Quetta’s Hazara Town left another 110 dead. In March, two explosions outside a Shi’a mosque in Karachi killed at least 50 people. Another 30 people were killed in a further suicide attack in June outside a mosque in Hazara Town.
A sectarian bomb attack in Quetta on February 2014 that targeted Hazaras and killed at least 84 people also provoked a peaceful protest. Following the attack, about 4,000 women staged a sit-in, refusing to bury their dead and demanding that the government and security forces prevent further killings. Similar protests were also held in solidarity in other parts of the country, such as Karachi.
The targeting of Shi’a professionals by militant groups have continued to the present day, and in recent years these attacks have been especially bloody. Bombings carried out by militants and terrorist organizations have targeted social gatherings and crowded Shi’a areas with near impunity. Shrines have also been attacked on a regular basis, including an October 2017 attack in Baluchistan that killed at least 20 worshippers. There have been no meaningful crackdowns or investigations into the perpetrators of this violence, and police have generally been unable to stop attacks when they occurred.
Though the escalation of violent attacks against Shi’a in the last decade has occurred alongside a general deterioration in the country’s security context, the specific attacks against Shi’a are distinct in character and intent to most political killings, armed conflict deaths and indiscriminate violence against civilians. There have been a number of attacks on Shi’a pilgrims travelling to and from Iran to attend holy sites and festivals: the 700-km highway connecting Pakistan to Iran runs through Baluchistan and is vulnerable to militant attacks. The Shi’a community is not only affected by the wave of killings and suicide bombings.
Shi’a have also been subjected to various forms of hate speech, most commonly as campaigns in mosques, schools, public spaces and increasingly on social media. Shi’a are vilified as a community for their religious beliefs and individuals are also picked out for criticism. The campaigns openly label them as apostates or heretics, and call on Sunnis to kill them.
The situation for Hazaras in Quetta is now particularly serious. Because of their clearly identifiable features, it is dangerous for them to travel out of their neighbourhoods. In addition to the high-profile attacks that reach the headlines, there are frequent incidents of shootings and other attacks against individuals or groups of Hazaras in Quetta. According to a March 2018 Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, at least 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 were injured over the past five years as a result of violent attacks by extremist groups (community leaders warn that the actual figures could be far higher). These have contributed to an acute sense of insecurity and vulnerability.
While previously known to have been the most educated community in Quetta, figuring prominently in public life in Baluchistan, their freedom of mobility has been heavily restricted due to threat of attack. At present the Hazara community in Quetta has been effectively ghettoized to two predominantly Hazara areas, namely Hazara Town and Alamdar Road. Insecurity has in turn affected other areas of their everyday life, including access to education and employment. This insecurity also manifests itself along gendered lines, with the mobility of Hazara women particularly restricted.
Updated June 2018
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