In the wake of rising attacks on Shia places of worship in Pakistan, a group of young people and civil society activists formed a human shield outside an imambargah, a Shia mosque, in Karachi. The activists echoed slogans of unity and brotherhood and chanted “Shia-Sunni bhai bhai” (Shias and Sunnis are brothers).
Since the beginning of 2015, more than 80 people have been killed in four attacks on imambargahs in three different cities of Pakistan. Banned anti-Shia militant organizations operating in the country Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) and Jundullah, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling it revenge for the Pakistani military offensive Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban in North Waziristan.
According to the site South Asia Terrorism Portal, Pakistan’s death toll from sectarian violence has spiked extraordinarily the last few years. In 2014, sectarian violence took 200 lives, and in 2013 and 2014, more than 500 people died each year in sectarian killings. The site says since 2001, 3935 people have died in sectarian killings in Pakistan, 2372 of whom were Shia Muslims.
The human chain outside the Shia mosque in Karachi was organized by the Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA). The network of youth activists came together in 2007 and work in countering extremism, peace-building, conflict resolution and social welfare. In a recent news report, PYA's co-founder Ali Abbas Zaidi said “in my 30 years, this is the first time I would accept that things have gotten completely out of the state’s control.”
What is the reason of existence of a state if it cannot ensure right to live of its citizens? #Pakistan
— Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi (@Ali_Abbas_Zaidi) February 18, 2015
Shia Sunni Brotherhood
The Twitter hashtag #ShiaSunniBrotherhood was used to share the message of unity.
— Nida Qureshi (@q_nida) February 9, 2015
We all believe in the same Allah and the same Prophet, this should stop. #ShiaGenocide
— Raafay. (@Amazican) February 18, 2015
Politicians also joined in, calling out Takfiris, who are Muslims who accuses other Muslim sects or followers of other Abrahamic faiths of apostasy:
— Senator Faisal Abidi (@SenFaisalAbidi) February 14, 2015
Shia mosques under attack
There have been four attacks on Shia mosques this year so far.
Rawalpindi, February 19: A suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque in Rawalpindi, close to the capital Islamabad, during Maghreb prayers, killing at least three people and injuring several. Jundullah, a splinter group of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a reaction to the Pakistani military offensive Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. The same group also claimed responsibility for the two other attacks this year.
Peshawar, February 13: On February 13, at least 21 people were killed and 50 others injured during a gun and bomb attack at an imambargah in north-western city Peshawar's Hayatabad area, when suicide attackers and gunmen, dressed in police uniforms, attacked worshippers offering Friday prayers.
Shikarpur, January 30: Militants targeted a Shia mosque in the southern city Shikarpur, killing at least 60 people. The attack was launched during Friday prayers. It was the deadliest sectarian incident to hit the country in nearly two years.
Rawalpindi, January 10: A powerful explosion rattled an imambargah in a densely populated area of Rawalpindi, killing at least eight people and injuring another 16. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
The government's failure
Pakistan’s army has been engaged in a full-scale offensive against the Taliban and other militants in North Waziristan and tribal districts bordering Afghanistan since June 2014. The recent spate of terror attacks are seen as blow-back.
— Zaki Shah (@ZakiAbbasShah) February 18, 2015
Shia community leaders and some political parties have criticized the government for failing to address the tide of sectarian violence in the plan.
Criticizing the government, Asghar Askari, a leader from the pro-Shia political party Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) said:
This is the fourth attack [on the Shia community]; this government is a murderous and terrorist government. We have been lifting bodies due to them.
Condemning the attack, the MWM leader asked Pakistan's army chief General Raheel Sharif to expand Zarb-e-Azb into Punjab as well. “We will stage a long march if Shia killings do not stop,” he said while addressing the media. He also demanded the arrest of the people behind the recent attacks.
Pakistan’s Shia population
At 30 million, Pakistan has the second largest Shia population in the world after Iran, according to scholar and researcher Vali Nasr. Shia in Pakistan make up 20% of the country's Muslim population, which is about 97% of the total population. The country's Shia Muslims began to feel marginalized during the Islamist policies under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 70s and 80s. Anti-Shia militant groups became visible in the country in the 90s and often targeted the Shia community in Pakistan's largest urban city Karachi. Since 2001, sectarian violence in other cities and in Kurram Agency, along the Afghanistan border, and in Balochistan, along the Iran border, specifically targeting ethnic Shia Hazaras, have been rising.
Shia Muslims make up about 15 percent and Sunni Muslims about 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. The two major branches of Islam differ in rituals and interpretation of Islamic law. Historically, Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully, and still do in states like India. But in recent years, Shias continue to face targeted killings, imprisonment, and systematic persecution in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Some experts claim the recent Shia-Sunni tensions are more about politics and power than religion.
Sectarian violence or Shia genocide?
According to a Middle East Institute (MEI) report, sectarian violence has claimed 2,300 lives in Pakistan’s four main provinces and 1,500 lives in the tribal areas since 2007. Prominent members of Sunni and Shia groups have fallen victim to the violence. Increasingly the victims are Shia Muslims, which is why it is seen as a Shia massacre and #ShiaGenocide is increasingly being used in Pakistan. In the last 30 days, according to Topsy, the hashtag has been used 16K times. #ShiaGenocide was first used 4 years ago by Pakistani blogger Abdul Nishapuri.
The term ‘sectarian violence’ has been used to describe the recent attacks in Pakistani media, but Rehan Naqvi, Norway-based journalist, argues:
What Pakistan is experiencing is not sectarian violence but “gradual genocide” of Pakistani Shia Muslims being carried out by a fraction of ”Muslims” who are quite frequently disowned by majority of Sunni Muslims.
Sibtain Naqvi, a writer and social commentator, attempts to define the term further:
This is a deliberate massacre of a particular community .. The right term is not ‘sectarian violence’ which implies that it is a war between two sects. If this was a war, then there would be Shia suicide bombers or killers attacking other sects. The right term is ‘genocide’ defined as, “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.”
Arif Rafi, author of ‘Pakistan’s Resurgent Sectarian War’ report, explains:
It is important that we identify this as not a Sunni-Shiite conflict, but a conflict between Sunni Deobandi and Shiite Muslims – with Shiite civilians bearing the brunt of the violence.
Some people are advocating to steer clear of the Shia-Sunni debate, saying militants want to create differences among Pakistanis. And some activists like Jibran Nasir of the Reclaim Your Mosques movement want scholars across the Sunni Shia divide to unanimously condemn and demand the shutting down of all banned extremist militant organizations operating in the country with impunity.
Pakistan's chief military spokesman Asim Bajwa strongly condemned the recent attacks:
Recent spate of terrorist attks highly condemnable.Our heart goes out to aggrieved brothers/sisters,we stand with them at time of grief-1/3
— AsimBajwaISPR (@AsimBajwaISPR) February 18, 2015
While condemning the blast, a spokesman from Pakistan's leading Shia council Allama Arif Hussain Wahidi said:
Enemies want to see an end of the Shia-Sunni unity, but that will not happen.
Twitters trends #ShiaSunniBrotherhood, #ShiaGenocide and Facebook pages like ‘I am Sunni and I condemn killing of our Shia brethren‘ echo the voices of unity in Pakistan. But the government needs to step up. An editorial in Pakistan's oldest English newspapers Dawn suggests:
It is still not too late. The country, despite grievous blows to the Shia community in recent years, is not on the verge of a full-blown sectarian civil war. But if fighting sectarianism is not made a priority now, the implosion in parts of the Middle East is a haunting reminder of how quickly and irreversibly matters can get out of control.