- By Saba ImtiazSaba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. She was a Carnegie fellow at the New America Foundation in 2014, and is the author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me! and the forthcoming No Team of Angels.
Twenty-six Shi’a Muslim pilgrims,en route to Iran, died at the hands of the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi(LeJ) in Baluchistan’s Mastung area Tuesday evening. According to news reports and eyewitness accounts, attackers armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers stopped the busand forced passengers to get off. While women and children were reportedlyspared, they witnessed the execution. A car arriving to rescue the pilgrims was also fired on, and three people died in the second attack.
According to the bus driver "The attackers askedpassengers to step out of the bus and shot them after identifying them as Shi’as"
The attack was not an isolatedincident, but was instead part of a systematic campaign of violence in theprovince directed towards the Shi’a. In July, 18 people werekilled within 16 hours in Quetta in targeted attacks by the LeJ, including sevenpilgrims waiting for transportation to Iran. On the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday, a suicide bomber reportedly intended to attack the congregation of 25,000 people prayingat a mosque in the Shi’a-populated area of Marriabad in Quetta. Hisexplosives-laden car still killed 12 Shi’aand injured 32.
The campaign of anti-Shi’a violence has largely been directed towards the predominantly Shi’a Hazaracommunity in Baluchistan. According to a recent report in Newsline, "at least 347 Hazaras have been killed in [targeted] killings andsuicide and other attacks since 1999. Of the 328 Hazaras killed up untilDecember 31 last year, as many as 105 had been killed in 2010 alone."And government inaction is only helping the problem spread. According toAmnesty International, "Successive [Pakistani] governments have failed toaddress the increasingly explicit threats faced by Shi’a Muslims from groupslike Lashkar-e Jhangvi, operating openly in the Punjab and Karachi andapparently striking their victims at will in Balochistan and other parts of thecountry.
The LeJ, the militant wing of the virulentlyanti-Shi’a Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), has claimed responsibility forseveral of the attacks, and has vowed to kill more Shi’a. The Deobandi group’sstronghold is in southern Punjab, and since its inception in 1985, it has spread its campaign of anti-Shi’a incitement and violencethroughout Pakistan.
The group is officially banned inPakistan, but the ban has been far from effective. The state supported thecreation of the SSP, as General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime propped up Deobandi movements to counter its perceived rival Iran.
Zia’s death in 1988 did not endstate patronage of such groups. Hundreds of Shi’a have been killed since then,and the state continues to support groups such as the LeJ, and has called onits leaders for assistance in times of crisis. For instance, LeJ leader MalikIshaq was reportedly flown out of jail by the Pakistan Army to talk to the militants that had stormed the army headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009. Ishaq wasreleased this year after serving 14 years in jail. He was accused of killing 70 people and faced charges in 44 cases.
It was revealed after his releasethat his family was given a stipend by the Punjab government while he was in jail, and that he had been provided with police guards — while the witnesses who testified against him lived in fear of possible repercussions. Ishaq’s freedom — after being acquitted in 34 cases and being bailedout on 10 — was met with a display of adoration by his supporters, whoshowered rose petals on him.
Since then, he has embarkedon a public speaking tour, addressing crowds in Sindhand Punjab. His message has been consistent: he believes he was on the rightpath, and vows to work to further the SSP’s mission. And despite knowing thatthe intelligence services and government are keeping an eye on him, the crowdsstill show up to hear Ishaq speak, helping validate the belief held by Ishaqand his followers that the SSP’s mission is right.
In a letter to The Friday Times journal, the Pakistan Ulema Council has urged "different segments of societyto stop making assumptions about Ishaq’s release and help him become a usefulcitizen" while heralding his services to the army in the 2009 headquarterssiege. But for anyone who has seen Ishaq’s speeches, readily available onseveral social media platforms, it is hard to not foresee a bloody future aheadfor the Shi’a community in Pakistan. The speeches conclude with the crowdschanting anti-Shi’a slogans, while in Balochistan, a bloodied communitycontinues to mourn its dead.
Saba Imtiaz works as acorrespondent for The Express Tribune newspaper and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org