The South Asia Channel

Plight of Pakistan’s Shi’a minority

Over 1,300 years after the brutal killing of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein in what is now Karbala, Iraq, Shi’a Muslims still mourn their loss. One group of Muslims at the time wanted the Islamic Caliphate to be handed down along hereditary lines, while another group wanted the Muslim community to elect a leader. This ...


Over 1,300 years after the brutal killing of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein in what is now Karbala, Iraq, Shi’a Muslims still mourn their loss. One group of Muslims at the time wanted the Islamic Caliphate to be handed down along hereditary lines, while another group wanted the Muslim community to elect a leader. This difference in political beliefs led a split between the groups into Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, who also now differ in their religious practices as well as their historical beliefs. Today, Shi’as come under fire all over the world, particularly during the month of Muharram, during which they mourn Hussein’s death with an inconsolable grief that many hardline Sunnis deem blasphemous.

In an attempt to prevent attacks on the one-fifth of Pakistan that is Shi’a on the tenth of Muharram, when their mourning processions fill the streets, Pakistani authorities banned motorcycles — which are often rigged with explosive devices — in the most volatile areas, closed thoroughfares near Shi’a mosques, and blocked cell phone signals in fifty cities.

Despite the fact that the country’s president and much of its military top brass are Shi’a, attacks on Pakistan’s Shi’a Muslims by militant extremists have steadily increased over the past few years, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues to operate largely unfettered. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 902 people were killed in sectarian violence between 2009-2011, and 425 have lost their lives in attacks motivated by religious intolerance in 2012. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 320 of those killed so far this year were targeted because they were Shi’a.

But no one speaks of this all-too-frequently renewed cause for grief at a communal mourning session for Shi’a women in a quite corner of Islamabad. A group of about thirty weep over the loss of Hassan, Hussein, and their relatives as one woman recounts the massacre at Karbala from her pulpit — a solitary chair in the center of a living room emptied of furniture.

"May you have no other grief than the loss of Hussein," she proclaims to the sea of whimpering women draped in black, causing only louder wails. "May your families’ young not suffer as Hussein’s family suffered."

Shi’a families across Pakistan are grieving the losses of young sons and daughters just as Hussein’s family did so many hundreds of years ago.

But such individual tragedies don’t merit the sort of grief Fizza Ali, 21, feels over the Karbala massacre. "In Muharram, we don’t ever mourn for personal reasons, because if our families or our brothers are getting killed, it’s all beside the point," she says. "The sadness over the loss of the Prophet’s relatives is more for us. It means a lot. It means more."

After pounding her chest and chanting along with the other women in black, Ali, a software engineering student says, "Even if we feel like we’re going to be attacked, we don’t fear it, Shi’as don’t fear it at all, because we cannot get stopped [sic] just by attacks even if our lives are in danger."

Ali says that Islamabad is relatively safer than other areas of Pakistan, but that Shi’as have also continued to visit sacred sites in more volatile areas, such as the Southwestern city of Quetta. 

"They’re being killed almost daily," Nasrullah Barech of the Center for Peace and Development in Quetta says when asked whether Shi’as there feel afraid to practice their faith.

"Before, the attacks were only in Muharram, or only at sacred Shi’a sites. Now, the killings have become routine across the city."

Barech’s organization runs interfaith dialogues to build community connections between Sunnis and Shi’as. He admits that there is a history of fraught relations between the two sects, but says the attacks have taken on new force in recent years.

"It’s hard to tell who is behind all of the attacks now. It’s not one sect killing another any longer," Barech says. "There are so many different militant groups that claim this bombing or that, and the police are unable to stop them."

Last Monday in Quetta, three Shi’as of the minority Hazara ethnicity were shot dead in targeted killings, and two more were killed days later when a vegetable shop was shot up by unidentified gunmen on a passing motorcycle.

In Islamabad’s "twin city," Rawalpindi, a bomb blast targeting a Shi’a religious procession killed 23 and left 62 injured on Wednesday night, while an explosion outside of a Shi’a mosque in Karachi claimed the lives of two people.

This weekend, two separate bombs went off in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan during Shi’a processions in honor of the Ashura holiday. A total of 13 people were killed and dozens more injured in these attacks, which were later claimed by the Taliban.

Raza Rumi is the director of the Jinnah Institute, a policy think tank that keeps tally of extremist violence in Pakistan. He says the attacks against the Shi’a community are alarming not only because of their sharp escalation, but because of the impunity with which they’re carried out.

"Usually no people are arrested and no justice is carried out," Rumi says.

He cites Pakistan’s decision to make a "permanent ally" of Saudi Arabia as a factor in the country’s growing intolerance, owing to the oil-rich nation’s strict Wahabi interpretation of Islam and denouncement of the Shi’a clergy based primarily in Iran. The other issue, he says, is Pakistan’s civil-military establishment, which patronized anti-Shi’a groups to combat the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"The problem is that for 30 years it has allowed these militant groups to gain strength, to deepen their roots in society, to raise funds, to get direct funds from the Middle East, that now it’s no longer a simple issue of controlling them. Even if the state of Pakistan wants to control them, it’s a five- or 10-year long battle."

He points to a number of legal and political reforms that might ease tensions, including stricter monitoring of the mosques and religious seminaries that foster extremism.

Many blame a corrupt and inefficient police force, in addition to a failing criminal justice system for the inability of the state to curb sectarian violence. The Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to release of the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant group for a lack of evidence is seen as case in point. LeJ leader Malik Ishaq was thought to be involved in the murders of dozens of Shi’as, but witnesses in the cases against him were continually killed or disappeared. Since his release in the summer of 2011, Ishaq has gone on to incite further attacks on the Shi’a community.

Still, Rumi maintains hope for an end to the brutality against religious minorities in the country. "We have become a bit cynical in Pakistan because of these daily doses of bad news," he says. Looking at his hands as if to read out the fate of the nation, he borrows a line from many men who couldn’t help but maintain hope for a better future, "But we shall overcome."

Beenish Ahmed is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

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