On 20 January, heavily-armed gunmen killed a prominent Shiite leader, Allama Alim Al-Musvi, in northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. “Two gunmen opened fire on the scholar and escaped when he came out of his house and walked towards the mosque,” media outlets quoted a local security official as saying.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the murder, but Wahhabi and pro-Taliban groups have been blamed for such sectarian attacks in the past. Following the murder, protesters took to the streets in Peshawar and several other cities across the country to denounce the violence against Shiite Muslims, which make up 20% of the Pakistani population.
This kind of anti-Shiite actions rose dramatically in 2013. There were 687 sectarian murders in Pakistan last year, a 22% increase over 2012, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. Two major terrorist attacks on January 10 and February 16 killed 200 Shiite Hazaras and wounded several hundreds.
On 26 July last year, two suicide attackers hit a Shiite mosque in Parachinar, targeting worshippers as well as people in the marketplace near the area. At least 57 people were killed and 167 were injured.
Pakistan is also experiencing an increasing terrorist activity 2014. “Nothing is going to get better, and it is probably going to get worse,” said Sheikh Waqas Akram, a former member of the Parliament from the eastern province of Punjab, where sectarian attacks have been on the rise, to the Washington Post.
Shiite intellectuals and professionals have also become the targets of assassination attempts. “Among the victims last year were a prominent poet in Karachi, a well-respected doctor in the eastern city of Lahore and a university leader in the eastern city of Gujrat”, wrote the Post. Extremists are apparently trying to intimidate educated Shiites into leaving the country, a “brain drain by force,” said Salman Zaidi, deputy director of the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank.
On January 5 this year, a Shiite physician was killed as he was returning home from his hospital in Multan in Punjab province. Two days later, a Shiite bank branch manager was fatally shot in the northwestern city of Peshawar, according to Pakistani news media reports.
On January 6, a suicide bomber tried to enter a school filled with several hundred students in a Shiite-majority area in the northwest but was he stopped by a student, who has been hailed as a national hero after he died when the bomb went off in the fight.
Hazaras under attack
Many of the victims of the terrorist attacks are the Hazara Shiites, who have been forced into two ghettos in the city of Quetta. Around 90 Hazara Shiiteswere killed in several explosions in the city on January 10, 2013. Some Hazaras are now being advised against giving their children names that can clearly identify their religious group. However, they cannot hide their racial characters and have been often targeted when they travel in buses by extremist gunmen.
This situation has started to affect the education of Hazara children. This groups boasts a 90% literacy rate and the girls are encouraged to study but and work. However, school and college attendance among Hazara Shiites has dropped as they are increasingly wary of going out.
Many Sunnis do not feel safe either as the Wahhabism gathers steam. Sufi Muslims, for example, have also become a target for extremist groups. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, was shocked when six men were recently found executed near a Sufi shrine. All of the victims’ throats were slashed, and at least two of the men were beheaded. A note was found next to their bodies warning others not to visit the shrine. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
A few days later, in the northwestern city of Mardan, two men were killed as they were sleeping in a Sufi shrine. Sufi Muslims practice a mystical form of Islam and have been for years attacked by extremists.
Wahhabi and Taliban groups claim the attacks
Pakistan’s Wahhabi groups Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) -which recently changed its name to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat- and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which have links with both Al Qaeda and Taliban, are those who have launched the violent campaign against Shiite Muslims over the past years. Some top leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan -such as the late head of the suicide training squad, Qari Hussain, and the TTP’s current spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan- were all members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Punjab before they became part of the TTP.
Local sources claim that these terrorist groups have killed thousands of Shiite Muslims in the country in the last years. A Pakistani Taliban commander in Rawalpindi recently called on Sunnis to “rise and kill the Shiites, kill their officials and target their businesses.” They also want the Shiites to be declared “non-Muslims” by the Pakistani state.
For his part, Sayyed Shafaqat Hussein Shirazi, the deputy secretary general of Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen, which is the largest Shiite political organization in Pakistan, said in a recent interview: “Not one day passes without a martyr falling in Karachi, in Peshawar, in all Pakistani cities. If we have thirty days in a month, we have more than 100 martyrs every month. And they are being killed by the Saudi support. Saudi Arabia is supporting those who are behind these attacks”..
According to former Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the above-mentioned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is reportedly sponsored by Saudi Arabia, has been involved in 80% of terrorist incidents in the country. Credible reports point out that the group has set up several training camps in the remote Mastung area of Balochistan, from where they have been attacking buses carrying Shiite pilgrims to holy sites in Iran.
A history of tolerance
The massacre of Shiites in Pakistan has sparked international outrage, with rights groups and regional countries expressing concern over these facts. Human Rights Watch issued a statement in September 2013 asking the Pakistani government to “urgently act” to protect the Shiite Muslims in its territory.
Actually, the sectarian terrorism in the country is a recent phenomenon. In the first decades of Pakistan´s history, tensions between Shiites and Sunnis communities were rare. The country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also stressed tolerance. However, the Pakistani government encouraged the formation of militant groups in the 1980s to weaken the influence of Shiite-majority Iran and to fight against.Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. These groups were set up with the help of Saudi and US intelligence agencies. Now, the Pakistani policy of using extremist organizations as a foreign policy tool has, in the course of last years, backfired and become a serious problem for Pakistan itself.
Pakistani officials claim that sectarian violence intensified in the country in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. That year the Taliban regime was overthrown in that country and its fighters crossed into Pakistan. “There was no issue with Sunnis and Shiites in our district before 2007,” said Gulab Hussain Tori, a Shiite leader in Peshawar, to the Washington Post. “We were like brothers, but, unfortunately, the situation changed since 2001 and the arrival of militants.”
For their part, Shiite religious leaders have called on the authorities to take decisive action against the terrorist outfits involved in the sectarian killings. They also accuse the government of failing to provide security for their community. In 2013, there were many protests about the government’s seeming lack of interest in taking serious measures to stop the attacks and this situation continues to worsen.
The journalist Najam Sethi claims that the Punjab government of current PM Nawaz Sharif’s party turned a blind eye to the actitivites of the SSP and the LeJ, which are mainly based in that province, “in exchange for an implicit understanding that the LeJ voters in as many as 40 constituencies will vote for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)”. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has strongly denied any links with these organizations, dismissing accusations as baseless propaganda against the Punjab government.
Moreover, it is clear that officials and policiemen are reluctant to make strong cases against terrorist groups because they fear the SSP and the LeJ’s retaliation. Some policemen and judges have been killed in these years. This impunity, is, however, mboldening the terrorists.
Shiite Muslims in Pakistan have also condemned the negotiations between the government and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen has organized demonstrations in Karachi and other cities in protest against the talks. It stated that the negotiations are doomed to failure and only buy more time for the terrorists to stage more attacks on Shiite Muslims across the country.
Ali Hussain, a member of the Shite organization, claims that Nawaf Sharif´s government is giving the militants “another chance to kill innocent civilians”. Hussain called on the Pakistani government to “use full force against these extremist elements and to root out this meanness from Pakitstan.”
Therefore, the recurring attacks on Shiites and other religious groups reflect the failure of the Pakistani state to protect its citizens, especially the most vulnerable groups. So far, besides some cosmetic actions and a few token arrests, no meaningful step has been taken against the terrorists, who are not only known but have been brandishing their crimes openly. The current circumstances require extraordinary actions by the Pakistani government. Ultimately, it is the pakistani democracy itself that is at serious risk if the scourge of terrorism is not dealt with firmly and decisively.