By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On September 7, 2023, at least 11 people were injured in an attack at Shaheed Chowk in the Khipro town of Sanghar District in Sindh, in a Shia mourning procession which was being carried out in observance of Imam Hussain’s Chehlum (the 40th, concluding, day of ritual mourning). The procession was taken out by participants of a majlis, held in the Asgharia Imambargah. The trouble started when operatives belonging to the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) tried to block the path of the procession, claiming that mandatory permission had not been obtained. Sanghar Senior Superintendent of Police Abid Baloch stated that tensions in Khipro had been brewing for a few days, after the organisers of the majlis made public their intention to take out a mourning procession.
On July 8, 2023, at least five people were killed and 21 suffered injuries in an attack on Shias in the Boshera village in the Kurram District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
On May 4, 2023, assailants entered a school staffroom in a Kurram District school, where students were taking exams, and selectively killed seven Shia teachers.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), three incidents (above) of attacks on Shias, resulting in 12 Shia fatalities, have been reported in 2023, so far (data till September 17). In 2022, there was one such incident which had resulted in 63 fatalities. According to the SATP database, since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in Pakistan, at least 2,790 people belonging to the Shia community have been killed in Pakistan, in 480 incidents, and another 2,393 people have been injured.
Some of the prominent incidents of attacks on Shias included:
March 4, 2022: The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) carried out a suicide attack at the Kucha Risaldar Mosque of the Shia community at Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP, killing at least 63 people and injured another 196. Later, a post from ISIS-affiliated Amaq news agency claimed that a suicide bomber trained by the terrorist group had carried out the attack.
January 3, 2021 : Islamic State (IS) terrorists killed 11 coal miners belonging to the Shia Hazara communities by slitting their throats and injured four others in the Machh area of Kachhi District in Balochistan Province.
April 12, 2019: At least 16 persons. including two children and one Frontier Corps (FC) trooper were killed and 30 others, including four FC personnel, sustained injuries, after an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded at the Hazar Ganji vegetable market of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The target of the attack were the Hazara Shias.
Shias account for approximately 10-15 per cent of the Muslim population of Pakistan. The country is home to the world’s second largest Shia population, after Iran. Shias in Pakistan are geographically spread across the country. The highest numbers are found in Gilgit-Baltistan, where they form the majority. They also reside in Karachi, Sanghar, Nawabshah and Hyderabad in Sindh. Within Karachi, the concentrations of Shia, particularly Hazaras, can be found in Abbas Town, Hussain Hazara Goth, Mughal Hazara Goth, Rizvia, Ancholi, Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Gizri, Pak Colony and Manghopir. Shias live throughout Punjab, including in Lahore. However, Sunni and Shia communities are more segregated in southern Punjab. Most Shias in KP live in Peshawar, Hangu, Kohat, and Dera Ismail Khan. The Hazara community within the Shia sect mostly live in enclaves in Quetta due to the security situation in Balochistan, in Hazara Town and Mariabad. They also reside in Sanjawi, Mach, Zhob, Harnai, Loralai, and Dukki in Balochistan.
Over the decades, the Shias of Pakistan have been narrowly targeted and ruthlessly killed in armed attacks and by suicide bombers. They have been killed inside their mosques and shopping markets, while on pilgrimage to Iran and even at funerals. Shia have also been subjected to numerous forms of hate speech and acts, most commonly as campaigns in mosques, schools, public spaces and increasingly on social media. They are often maligned as a community for their religious beliefs. Such campaigns openly label them apostates or heretics, and call on Sunnis to kill them. There is a huge trend of takfir: a practice of calling another sect heretic, in which Sunni extremist groups raise slogans against Shias, call them Kafir (infidel) and declare them wajib ul qatl (fit to be killed). More dangerously, hashtags pronouncing Shias as blasphemers and infidels often trend on social media.
Furthermore, the ethnic Hazara communities also experience significant violent attacks as a result of their Shia ancestry. According to partial data collated by SATP, since 2006, 386 Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan in 81 incidents (data till September 17, 2023). The Country Policy and Information Note Pakistan: Hazaras, published in July, 2022 by the UK Home Office, notes,
According to Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), at least 2,000 Hazaras have been killed in terrorist-related incidents and targeted killings between 1999 and late 2017.
Hazaras are an ethnic group mainly based in Afghanistan, but also with a large population in Pakistan, with population estimates of this group in Pakistan ranging from 650,000 to 900,000. The majority of Hazaras in Pakistan, approximately 500,000, live in Quetta city.
Sectarian terrorism now runs across the entire range of Sunni Islamist groups in Pakistan, including adherents to what was once regarded as the more moderate Barelvi sub-sect – believed to constitute a majority of Pakistan’s population. Mentioning the danger of sectarian conflict within Pakistan and its percolation into various sects, the International Crisis Group (ICG) Report, A New Era of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan, published in September 2022, thus observes:
Until recently, the country’s sectarian divide mainly pitted some Deobandis against Shias, with hardliners among the former denigrating the latter with the slogan Shia kafir (Shias are non-believers) … Tehreek-e-Labaik [a Barelvi organisation] has now embraced the Deobandi antipathy for Shias as its own. Many Labaik members and supporters apply the Sunni concept of takfir – in effect, excommunicating Muslims whose practices they deem improper – to Shias…
As reported in March, 2021, according to the Center for Social Justice, at least 199 individuals were accused of blasphemy offenses in Pakistan in the year 2020. The accused were mostly Shia (70 per cent of cases) and Ahmadi Muslims (20 per cent of cases).
Significantly, on January 17, 2023, the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan’s federal Parliament, unanimously passed an amendment to Pakistan’s blasphemy law through the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2023. This private member’s bill was introduced by Moulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali, a member of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami. In the statement of objects and reasons for the Bill, Chitrali highlighted blasphemy on the internet and social media and argued that disrespecting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad and other sacred personalities “not only promotes the terrorism and disruption in the country but it also hurts the people from all walks of life.” Shia leaders and politicians joined other minority groups in vehemently opposing the controversial legislation, citing its potential for exacerbating sectarian tensions and victimizing minorities. On August 16, 2023, scholars, and political leaders within the Shia community warned that the blasphemy laws were being used to marginalize the Shia community and curtail their ceremonies, particularly during the mourning months of Muharram and Safar, under false charges of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s Government appears increasingly to be falling into the trap of fundamentalists and religious fanatics, instead of safeguarding the rights of all its people, and particularly the minorities, including minority Muslim sects, who have been systematically targeted in campaigns of hate and violence. It is clear that minority religious communities cannot live their lives free from threat or fear of assault in the Pakistan of today, even as their persecution is increasingly institutionalized, particularly with the further hardening of blasphemy laws.
- Sanchita Bhattacharya
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management