Are Shia Muslims in Pakistan bearing the brunt of Iran-Saudi rivalry? In a rather quiet city in southern Karachi, Pakistan, Sabiha Jafar (60) has been spending sleepless nights for more than a year waiting for her 32-year old son Syed Ali Mehdi. Mehdi was working in Dubai as a taxi driver and returned to Pakistan in 2017. On March 2018, he was whisked away by masked security personnel from his home for interrogation only to never return. The family has been shuttling between offices looking for Mehdi but no one can tell them where he is. Syed Ali Mehdi is one of the many Shia Muslims in Pakistan to have disappeared over the past few years.
Shia Muslims in Pakistan
The existence of Shia Muslims in Pakistan has been one of great turmoil since the founding of the state. In a country where only 20% of the entire population is Shia, it becomes very difficult to enforce the community’s intrinsic value and existence. Like it is often said about the Shia life in Pakistan, “A protest that initiates a movement and a protest that has to be done because there is nothing else left to lose as far as Shia history in Pakistan is concerned.”
Shia Muslims in Pakistan – Missing
The reach for sectarian violence in Pakistan is large and predominant. It can be said that 2012 was one of the lethal years for Shia Muslims in Pakistan. More than 200 people are said to have been killed in sectarian cleansing in different parts of the country. The trend for missing persons is not new in this part of Asia. The head of the Shia Missing Persons Committee in Karachi, Rashid Rizvi has led several protests in the city calling attention to the issue. Most of the people who were detained or have gone missing have been so only after returning from a pilgrimage from the Middle East. There are more than 1500 unsolved cases of enforced disappearances in Pakistan.
The commonly heard excuse for arrest and detainment (or even disappearance) have been that most of the men who have been to the Middle East have been suspected to have been engaged in some form of militant activity in Syria or IS fights across the region. The Zainabiyoun Brigade, a network of Shia foreign fighters operating in Syria and linked to Iraq have been one of the most secretive recruitment campaigns within Pakistan territory.
The other militia includes the Hezbollah, Fatemiyoun Brigade which consists of Aghan fighters. The authorities in Pakistan believe that most of the returning fighter from these militias could continue working under the orders of Iran or other Shia powers against the sovereignty of Pakistan. The Shias and other minority communities are hunted at their homes, places of worship and even in public buses. A large number of unprovoked violence has increased in the last few months.
“The most terrifying aspect of the state’s complicity in sectarianism is the nexus between sectarian extremists and the security establishment,” says Michael Kugelman in an article in the National Interest. There are credible reports that various state-run intelligence agencies are involved in feeding information on minorities in various parts of Balochistan.
These separatists are given free hand to do as they please to the minorities with little to no repercussions. The suspects are seldom arrested et aline prosecuted. There have been many instances where the police have refused to come to the aid of the minorities. The sectarian entities in Pakistan are found to receive considerable public support and adequate state protection.
The repeated attacks on Shia Muslims in Pakistan have made them flee to Europe and Australia. The region is strife with sectarian violence which makes Pakistan one of the deadliest places for Shiites outside the Middle East. Pakistan has fewer laws that cater to the protection of religious minorities. The establishment of the blasphemy law favours the majority Sunni population and is found to prosecute the minorities. The Pakistani government has in more than one way managed to institutionalise sect discriminations.
Pakistan has been at the epicentre of many of the instances where Shia Muslims have gone missing. Experts suggest that the situation in Pakistan is such that it has taken very precarious forms. Though Shia Muslims are being prosecuted around Pakistan, the situation is particularly challenging in Balochistan and northwestern region where they are facing “systematic onslaught by the Taliban and other militant groups.
There is a clear indication of “sectarian cleansing” in the region that is trying to eradicate the Shia Muslims. There is an utter disregard for the lives of Shia Muslims in Pakistan considering how poorly the state administration handled the case. An incident wherein several gunmen dressed as Pakistani security officials stopped a bus and asked passengers to produce their identification cards. The people belonging to the minority Shia group was shot in point-blank. Around 22 people were killed for which the Taliban took responsibility.
The situation in Balochistan is disappointing, to say the least. In regions of Balochistan, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates more than 728 Pakistanis have gone missing as of the 2016 annual report. Most of the disappearances are connected within the Western Balochistan province where there is a high rate of insurgency and separatist activities.
The Shiites and civil society activists are of the view that the establishment of a governor’s rule in the region could lead to more killings and random disappearances. The editor of the radical magazine ‘Baloch Hal’, Malik Siraj Akbar finds the appointment of the governor’s rule despicable for the reason that now there exists further chances of coup and military overtake which does not bode well for the insurgency-ridden region.
“The way a democratic government-although corrupt and incompetent – has been dismissed clearly shows that Islamabad treats Balochistan as a colony where it does not respect the public mandate,” says Akbar. The suggested and now imposed governor’s rule in the region will not solve anything until the government decides to go after the militants.
The region of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is especially targeted by Sunni-backed militants owing to the reason that the region has a Shia majority. Unlike the Wahabi groups which are close to Saudi Arabia, the Pakistani Shia groups are closely aligned with Iran. This connection has brought sectarian differences in the GB region.
Alternatively, the Pakistan government is against the movement itself. The Sunnis jihadists are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. The GB region is ripe with violence as a result of the geopolitical value the region holds. The region connects Islamabad with the borders of China, Afghanistan and Kashmir. The possibility of an autonomous and prosperous Shiite majority region does not seem to sit well with the Sunni majority state and that seems to be one of the sole reasons behind the Pakistan-backed violence in the region.
An attempt to undermine any attempt at the relevance of the Shia Muslims in Pakistan has been brought down by militant groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba among many others. The region is sceptical of turning over to Pakistan Administered Kashmir for the sole reason that they may become minorities and end up on the wrong side of persecution and violence.
The twin bombings in Parachinar was an indication to the fact that it would be unsafe to pander to the idea of a Pakistani accession. The region is one with a Shia majority and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Al Alami) terrorist outfit laid claim on the bombing, clearing indicating that they were targeting Shias.
Many of the security agencies suggest that the Syrian connection is the reason behind much of the disappearances of Shia Muslims in Pakistan. Pakistan, a Sunni majority country, is closely aligned to Saudi Arabia. With Riyadh and Tehran locked in conflicts peppered across the Middle East, Pakistan has become one of its theatres. The Syrian connection is more often than not used as a lazy excuse to detain the many Shiites.
Rashid Rizvi has found that most of the “missing Shiites” have no militant background and most of the people have been detained on account of having gone for a pilgrimage to Iraq, Iran and Syria. He finds it absurd that all of them could be enemy of the state and even if they were should be allowed a just and fair trial. Enforced detained is not an answer to the possibility of a crime.
With the Shia Muslims in Pakistan being persecuted in every part of the country, it becomes difficult to see hope but the Shia community stands resilient in their struggle for survival. The Shia community has found itself in a unique position, having intrinsically increased their assertion of their Shia identity. Though the violence is ripe and rampant, the community has sought to mobilise themselves into Shia-only committees and factions that are coming up as a result of their more insular approach.
As is the case with protest, it can be the first or the last resort to achieve an objective that otherwise cannot be fulfilled. The chosen path of Shiite protest by taking a rather defensive stand among many others can be seen as idealistic or delusional, to say the least. It is most definitely a double-edged sword in that they become easy targets for the simple reason that ‘they stand out’. The reason behind the violence is not factional it also trickles down to socio-economic inequalities that the state fails to provide infrastructure for. The failure of the state calls for community initiatives and sometimes one tends to fight back with whatever one finds.
“When you are a minority group whose collective memory is drenched in martyrdom and opposition to the perpetrators of violence, these are the battles you pick: you do whatever you feel will help you resist and survive — and you do it big.”
Maybe all that the Shiites have, are these manifestations of collective solace in the face of unmerciful persecution. The families of the disappeared men still wail in the dark shadows of violence and agony as Islamabad turns their backs like they always have.