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Shi’a become latest target of Pakistan’s extremist Islamic factions; murders, hate speech and numerous blasphemy allegation sow seeds of long-term religious tension

20 October 2020

Recent weeks have seen a surge in registration of blasphemy cases involving members of the Shi’a Muslim community, and a disturbing wave of online and offline campaigns against the community in Pakistan. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and the Al Khoei Foundation are concerned that events between August and September 2020 confirm that proscribed anti-Shi’a organisations, which have a history of targeting all religious minority communities, including Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus and Shi’as, still operate with impunity.

The government of Pakistan must protect the rights of its Shi’a Muslim citizens (along with those of all faiths and no faith) by acting to protect their lives, prosecuting those who carry out violence or incite violence against the Shi’a or any other religious community. The government needs to act to ensure that Shi’as, like those of all other faiths or no faith, continue to have the ability to live their lives without threat or fear of attack.

The start of the wave of violence

The current wave of anti-Shi’a rhetoric and violence began with the advent of the Islamic sacred month of Muharram, when an elderly Shi’a man was arrested on the 30th of August over allegations that he had recited Ziarat-e-Ashura, an essential part of Shi’a practice in which they proclaim their allegiance to the third holy imam, Husayn ibn Ali. Deemed un-Islamic or blasphemous by banned militant organisations, the act led to pressure on the police to arrest the man on the evening of that same day.

This episode paved the way for further blasphemy allegations, arrests and ultimately violence across the country. In early September, a Shi’a man, Qaiser Abbas, was shot dead in broad daylight at his shop in Kohat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Then, on the 13th of September, Malik Alamdar Hussain, the license holder of a Shi’a procession [1], was gunned down in Heelan area of Mandi Bahauddin, Punjab. On the 15th of September, two more Shi’a men, Syed Mir Hassan Jan and Irtiza Hassan, were shot dead in Kohat.

A momentum of hate

In the midst of these 4 killings, in a single week, three public rallies were organised by some mainstream religious groups, as well as proscribed militant outfits, in Karachi and Islamabad with slogans referring to Shi’as as ‘infidels’. Consecutively, on the 11th, 12th and 13th of September, three massive rallies were held under the slogan ‘Azmat-e-Sahaba’ (‘Honour of the Companions’). These marches were organised by Sunni religious and religio-political organisations including Jamiat-e-Ulama Islam and Tahreek-e-Labbaik Party, a far-right organisation known for anti-minority hatred and misuse of the blasphemy laws, Ahl-e-Hadith Action Committee and proscribed organisations including ASWJ-SSP.

Thousands of participants and supporters of these rallies were heard openly calling Shi’as ‘infidels’ and were seen pelting stones at the Imambargah, a Shi’a mosque and community centre. Demands were made to ban Muharram processions, other essential Shi’a rituals and practices, and implement across the country the controversial Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam bill which, having recently been passed in the Assembly of Punjab, is a direct attack on the freedom of religion of Shi’as and other minorities.

Clear evidence of online hate speech

The Pakistan Hate Speech Monitor documented a massive wave of anti-Shi’a hate speech online specifically between the 26th of August and the 20th of September 2020. On a sentiment algorithm, the overall conversation was negative at 46 per cent, far higher than the positive conversation (10 per cent).

There were three major spikes in hate speech, the first being the week of the 2nd of September with 48 mentions, the second from the 12th of September with 234 mentions and the third visible in the week starting from the 18th of September with 43 mentions. The Urdu word for ‘infidel’ was particularly prevalent. All three spikes collectively reached millions of social media users in Pakistan, with the top influencer’s reach exceeding 500,000.


A call to the government of Pakistan

MRG and Al Khoei are gravely concerned that the Pakistani authorities’ inaction against proscribed organisations and other actions inciting hatred and violence against Shi’a communities will lead to more violence and hate speech against an already heavily persecuted minority. Approximately 4,847 members of this community were recorded as killed in religious hate attacks between 2001 and 2018.

We demand the government of Pakistan to:

  • Investigate allegations of blasphemy swiftly and decisively. No allegation or First Information Report (FIR) of blasphemy should be recorded or processed as a result of an individual reciting Ziarat-e-Ashura.
  • Investigate all instances of violence and incitement to violence fully and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
  • Act immediately to stop proscribed organisations from continuing to operate, broadcast hate messages, incite violence and organise mass events which result in spiralling inter-religious community tensions.

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, promised to uphold freedom of religion or belief and vowed to protect religious communities in his election manifesto. We expect the Prime Minister to fulfil his promises to safeguard and protect the rights of all citizens as per the Constitution and in line with Pakistan’s international human rights commitments.

Photo: Supporters of religious groups shout slogans during an anti-Shi’a protest in Karachi on September 11, 2020 / AFP.

[1]  A procession license is a formality, a legal endorsement, or ‘No Objection Certificate’ issued by the government to allow a religious procession, usually in the name of the organiser. The government is then bound to provide security.