The Rising Threat Against Shia Muslims in Pakistan

The efforts of various governments to counter the growing influence of extremist forces have not been effective.

People in Karachi protesting rising violence against Shia Muslims in January, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Karachi residents protesting the rising violence against Shia Muslims in January, 2013. Credit: Reuters

A few weeks ago a delegation of the Pakistan’s People Party led by Senator Sherry Rehman staged a protest at the National Press Club in Islamabad over the killing of social activist Khurram Zaki, who was well-known for his open criticism of extremist groups in Pakistan. However, the protest was against not just the murder of a social activist but also yet another Shia Muslim becoming the target of extremist forces in Pakistan in the name of sectarianism.

Admonishing the federal government for turning a blind eye to the plight of Pakistan’s Shia community, Rehman said, “The purpose of the National Action Plan was not to impart selective justice – the government cannot continue ignoring these killings.”

In Pakistan, the environment in which the minorities find themselves is characterised by hate speech, the invocation of blasphemy laws and a surge of vicious attacks on worshippers and sacred places. Pakistan is an Islamic country. However, Jinnah’s vision seems to have faded with the passage of time. Now, not only non-Muslims are being harmed but also sub-sects like the Sufis, Ahmadis and Shias.

The Shia Muslims of Pakistan

Shias account for 15-20% of the Muslim population in Pakistan. The country is home to the second largest Shia population after Iran. Shias in Pakistan are geographically spread across the country. The highest numbers are found in the Gilgit-Baltistan province in the northern region, where they form the majority. Cities in Pakistan like Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Multan are also home to large Shia communities. There are numerous Shia mosques and dargahs, or shrines, located across Pakistan.

The majority of Pakistan’s Shia community adheres to the Twelver school of thought; other sub-sects are the Ismailis, Khojas and Bohras. Most of these are not easily distinguishable by either name or identity. Among Twelver Shias, however, the most vulnerable is the Hazara community in Quetta region as they are easily recognisable due to their ethnicity and language. Quetta is home to nearly 6,00,000 Shi’ite Hazaras. According to estimates, for every 10 Shias killed in Pakistan, 5 of them are Hazaras.

Targets against Shias

Over the years, the Shias of Pakistan have been specifically targeted and killed by machine guns and suicide bombers. They have been killed inside mosques and shopping markets, while on pilgrimage to Iran and even at funerals. Hazaras have been the victims when extremists have gunned down buses packed with pilgrims heading to Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border at Baluchistan. In 2011, extremist organisations in Quetta sent an open letter to the Shia Hazara people stating: “All Shias are worthy of killing and the intention is to make Pakistan their graveyard.”

In January 2014, a suicide attack on a bus with Shia pilgrims left at least 22 dead. Reacting to the rising spate of selective violence against the Shia community, Fatima Bhutto, niece of late Benzazir Bhutto, wrote in the Hindu in 2015 that Shias had overtaken Hindus and Christians as the targets of sectarian killings and Pakistan had become “a country of ghosts”.

Attacks on Shias escalate during the month of Muharram, when Shias mourn the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet by taking out street processions in the thousands. During Muharram in 2012, 30 Shias were killed and more than 200 injured in attacks. In November 2013, on the 10th day of Muharram, a suicide bomber killed eight people and left 30 injured in a Shia procession in Rawalpindi.

Various reports on the death toll

A report by the Human Rights Watch states that more than 500 Shia Hazaras have been killed since 2008. According to another report, by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, around 600 Shias were killed between 1999 and 2003 as a result of extremist violence and approximately 500 Shia doctors fled the country as a result of the assassination of more than 50 of their colleagues in Karachi alone. In October 2015, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon urged the Pakistan government to protect its citizens, including Shia Muslims.

Below is a list by the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) compiling data on incidents of targeted violence against Shia Muslims from 2003 to May 16, 2016.

Year Incidents Killed Injured
2003 4 24 17
2004 8 129 466+
2005 10 86 223
2006 9 60 61
2007 28 258+ 195+
2008 23 150 371+
2009 17 183 455
2010 34 `245 693
2011 24 136 199
2012 115 399 439
2013 81 504 965
2014 45 116 116
2015 38 251 316
2016 6 11 2+
Total 446 2558+ 4518+

(+approximate number)

Reasons for the violence

The first main reason behind the violence is religious – the great Shia-Sunni divide in Islam that dates back to the death of Prophet. The succession of the caliphate is a highly debated topic in Islam and will always be. Sunnis believe that Abu-Bakr was the right man to succeed the Prophet; Shia Muslims instead affirm that the Prophet had decided that his cousin and son-in-law Ali should succeed him. The two sects have clashed for centuries. In Pakistan, the extremist Sunnis, or the Wahabis, consider Shias to be apostates and believe that it is right and pious to kill Shias for being ‘non-believers’.

The second reason is political – specifically, Pakistan’s long-standing support of Saudi Arabia. As Shia-dominant Iran tries to export its Islamic revolution beyond the Middle-East and into countries with significant Shia populations, Wahabi-dominant Saudi Arabia views this as a threat. Saudi Arabia’s alleged financing of Sunni militant groups has been a sore point in Washington as well. In 2009, a cable released by Wikileaks made public the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning that “donors in Saudia Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

In 2012, Iqbal Haider, the former law minister of Pakistan, told Deutsche Welle that most jihadist and terrorist organisations operating in Pakistan are Wahabi and funded by Saudi Arabia. Pakistani historian Mubarak Ali said that Wahabis are against any cultural plurality, so they attack shrines and other cultural centres that are, in their view, ‘un-Islamic’.

Prominent anti-Shia groups

Prominent anti-Shia groups banned by the Pakistan government are the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jama’at, previously known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A report published in 2013 by the Human Rights Watch Pakistan revealed that the LeJ reportedly has links with the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies.

LeJ believes it has a sacred calling – to safeguard the legacy of the Prophet and his companions – and it sees Shias as the main obstacle in this goal. One LeJ operative captured in 2012 by the Pakistan army told Reuters, “Get rid of Shias, that is our goal. May God help us.”

Over the years, various governments have taken the initiative to protect the Shia Muslims of Pakistan. But their efforts have not been effective in countering the growing influence of extremist forces. These forces have now started targeting notable Shia clerics, speakers, journalists and those with influential positions, in a bid to weaken the strength of the community. Andreas Rieck says, in The Shias of Pakistan: “Sunni extremists have increasingly targeted them [Shias] with hate propaganda and terrorism.” Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and the most highly regarded individual within the country was himself a Shia Muslim; however, his vision for all communities to live in peace and safety is no longer even acknowledged.

Uzair Hasan Rizvi is an independent multimedia journalist.