Pakistan’s Muslim Shias hunted down

Introduction to JournalismBy Sadia Humayun

Picture this. As you make your way to work, you are suddenly hauled off the bus, asked to identify yourself by name and the sect you belong to and then without warning, gunned down; or that you are targeted by unknown assailants on a motorbike whilst in your car on a main street, in your office, shop, place of worship or religious procession/pilgrimage. There is no safe place left apart from the inner sanctum of your home. Or so you thought until your home becomes the target of a bomb attack leaving countless dead and hundreds homeless. Why? You happen to belong to the minority sect of Muslim Shia.

Or imagine your little community in a small part of a city suddenly gets raided by a crazed mob that burn down over hundred homes while the police stand by and you are forced to flee for your life leaving in your wake your destroyed house and your entire possessions. Reason? You are part of the down-trodden Christian community where one of your neighbour, already in police custody, has been accused of blasphemy.

Many more of such horrifying stories can be recounted. Their common denominator being that those targeted belong to the different religious minorities in Pakistan and these minorities are becoming increasingly marginalised in their own country.

Both of the scenarios, the second one being on a recent mob attack on Christians in Lahore, are a reminder of how unsafe Pakistan has become for religious minorities. This attack follows a rising tide of targeting on Pakistan’s Shia Muslims.

The media sometimes misinterprets the Shia killings as the product of sectarian conflict. However, in reality, these brutal attacks reflect the Islamists’agenda to purify Pakistan making it a bastion of a narrow version of Islam for the Sunni Muslim. A drive which began as early as the 1940s, picking up momentum in the 1990s, has now taken shape in full blown version of transforming Pakistan into a land of religious purification

The Shias in Pakistan account for roughly 20-25% of the Muslim population. The non-Muslim minorities such as Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, have been target-killed, kidnapped, converted under duress and had their places of worships bombed and vandalised with alarming regularity. At the time of partition in 1947, Pakistan had a healthy 23% of its population comprise non-Muslim citizens. Today, the proportion of non-Muslims has declined to approximately 3%. The distinctions among Muslim denominations have also become far more pronounced over the years as is evident by the persecution of Ahmadiyyas and Shias.

Once, Pakistan as a whole, and the now beleaguered and neurotic city of Karachi in particular, enjoyed a population with a cosmopolitan complexion where people of all faiths intermingled both at work and at home.

In fact, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was himself a Shia Muslim, named a member of the now embattled Ahmadiyya sect, Sir Zafarullah Khan, as Pakistan’s first foreign minister. As originally conceived, Pakistan did not discriminate among various Muslim denominations and non-Muslim minorities too were assured of equal rights as citizens.

No child would question another at school about their religious denomination as nothing was thought of at that time. In today’s Pakistan, even young children are mindful of their own and their peers’ religious and ethnic background. Little wonder as the strong negativity for all minorities is now firmly institutionalised as the school curriculum teaches hatred when it should be celebrating diversity.

Over the years, Pakistan’s constitution has been amended to designate the Ahmadiyya as non-Muslims and the influence of the Salafi ideology from Saudi Arabia, has been undertaken by Deobandi groups against the Shias. A terrorist offshoot of the Deobandi movement has been escalating atrocities against Shias in an effort to either drive them out of the country or to force them to accept a lowered status in an Islamised Pakistan. No one is spared as their targets have included men, women and children.

The targeting of Shia doctors and other professionals in Karachi has also been an attempt to make the middle-class Shia flee abroad to leave only the poor and voiceless of their community behind.  In fact, Shias are being hunted down from city to city and amidst the paralysing fear and cowardice there is a deafening sense of silence.

Whilst on his recent visit to London, I asked Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani peace activist and an academician, to give his thoughts on the mute reaction of the society at large. He found the “studious silence of the Shia massacre by the Sunni majority” disquieting. “Describing the killing as sectarian is outrageous because a conflict assumes two warring sides. But in fact here there is just one side – the Shias – which is being massacred.”

“For now the Shias are feeling the brunt along with the Ahamadiyyas, but tomorrow it will be one Sunni faction butchering another,” warned Dr. Hoodbhoy.

The fear of a reprisal is always looming large. Unlike the disillusioned Hazaras, who have now started taking up arms to protect their neighbourhoods in Quetta, the Shia community in Karachi remains committed to peace and reconciliation. But with no end in sight to the killing fields, one wonders how much more it would take before they too revolt. The same could be said about the dignified silence of the targeted and vilified Christian and Hindu community.

“United we Stand, Divided we Fall’’ were words said by Mr. Jinnah for the country he founded with high hopes and aspirations. They have never seemed more tragically relevant as they do now.