Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
Tahir-ul-Qadri’s demonstration in Islamabad dominated headlines last week, but it was another set of protests that are more likely to shape Pakistan’s future. While thousands rallied in support of election reforms, thousands of other Pakistanis were demanding basic security for themselves and their families.
Following a terrorist attack that killed almost 100 Shia, families refused to bury their dead, instead taking them into the streets of Quetta and refusing to leave until the Army was directed to take over security in the region.
The sit-in was about more than the devastating attack that preceded it, though. It was an outcry from a community that has been attacked mercilessly for years. In fact, more Pakistanis are being killed in sectarian attacks than in drone strikes. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, between 218 and 343 Pakistanis died in drone strikes last year. But by September of the same year, at least 320 Shia were killed in sectarian attacks according to Human Rights Watch – and this was before attacks that killed dozens more during Muharram. The attack in Quetta last week alone killed almost double the number of people as drones in 2013, setting a very worrying start to a new year.
Most of the anti-Shia attacks, including last week’s, are being carried out by the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) led by a man named Malik Ishaq. What’s troubling, though, is that Malik Ishaq is not hiding in a cave somewhere. He not only operates very openly, but with at least tacit support from very powerful institutions in Pakistan.
After spending several years in jail on dozens of terrorism charges, Malik Ishaq was freed by the Lahore High Court due to lack of evidence in the summer of 2011. On hand at his release were a number of influential religious figures including the head of the Pakistan Ulema Council, Tahir Ashrafi, who was photographed riding next to a garlanded Ishaq as he drove away. The Express Tribune, an English-language daily in Pakistan, reported that Ashrafi said he believes “Ishaq should be integrated in mainstream religious parties claiming he has now been deradicalised.” Shortly thereafter, Ishaq began organizing anti-Shia rallies across Pakistan.
But it’s not just Tahir Ashrafi who has supported Malik Ishaq since his release. Last year, Malik Ishaq appeared on stage at a Difa-e-Pakistan (DPC) rally in Multan alongside Tahir Ashrafi, Sheikh Rashid, Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul and a number of other prominent religious and political actors.
Even while he was in prison, Ishaq was receiving support through some official channels. In 2011, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed that he LeJ leader’s family had been receiving monthly payments from the provincial government since the PML-N took power there in 2008. In 2012, the PML-N enjoyed election support from the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) after Malik Ishaq was given the position of Vice President. And earlier this month the PML-N and ASWJ held a joint press conference to denounce Tahir-ul-Qadri as pursuing a foreign agenda.
As if on cue, Tahir Ashrafi is now threatening legal action against a group of Pakistani bloggers who write about sectarian attacks in Pakistan, claiming that they are “Irani[an] loyalists [who] have been directed to spread lies to incite conflict in Pakistan.” Given his connections to Malik Ishaq, it will be hard for Pakistan’s Shia not to hear sectarian tones in Ashrafi’s allegation that Shia-majority Iran is attempting to “incite conflict in Pakistan” by raising awareness of anti-Shia violence.
TIME’s Omar Waraich warns that anti-Shia violence in Pakistan could
ignite regional conflict with Iran “have grave consequences not just for the country but also the wider region”, and it is certainly true that tension with a third neighbor is the last thing that Pakistan needs right now. Of greater concern, however, is, as Waraich observes, the internal threat of destabilization that anti-Shia violence presents. Politicians from across the political spectrum were quick to condemn last week’s bombing in Quetta. But as Pakistan’s Shia lose their patience – and their lives – a more tangible solution to the crisis is needed soon.
The following is an open letter received from Pakistani-Americans expressing condemnation of the ongoing threat to Pakistan’s Shia community from militant groups including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and calling for “a concerted, nationwide campaign to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Shia violence.” While Americans for Democracy & Justice in Pakistan supports the rights of all religious communities to live in peace and security, the letter reflects a personal statement by the signatories and is made available here for informational purposes only. For more information or to be added as a signatory, please email email@example.com.
To Whom It May Concern:
We would like to express our strong condemnation of the brutal killing of over eighty innocent civilians in the January 10, 2013 terrorist attacks in Quetta, Pakistan, conducted by the Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) organization. We call on the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of these and other terrorist attacks against Pakistan’s Shia Muslims.
The attacks this Friday are the latest in what is a persistent and murderous campaign against Shia Muslims across Pakistan waged by the LeJ and its partners. Approximately 400 Shia Muslims were killed by the LeJ and its allies in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. The anti-Shia violence in Pakistan has not been restricted to a single ethnic group or region. In recent years, it has included:
the siege and killings of Shia Muslims in the Kurram Agency;
the targeted killings of Shia Muslim professionals in Karachi as well as Hazara and non-Hazara Shia Muslims in Quetta;
the mass murder of Shia Muslim pilgrims in Balochistan and Gilgit; and
large terrorist attacks against Shia Muslim processions in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Rawalpindi.
According to international conventions and customary international law, these constitute genocidal acts perpetrated by terrorist groups like the LeJ.
With Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s visit to Quetta and the imposition of governor’s rule in Balochistan, there are indications that the Government of Pakistan (GoP) is attempting to take action to protect the area’s Shia Muslim community. But an all-of-government and all-of-Pakistan approach is necessary to stem the tide of anti-Shia violence, which has hit every corner of the country.
A concerted, nationwide campaign to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Shia violence is necessary. Such a campaign must be conducted under civilian command by the GoP, provincial governments in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh, and authorities in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with the full support of the army, intelligence agencies, judiciary, and police. It must coincide with a broader effort to improve the prosecution of alleged terrorists, including the institution of witness protection programs.
Inaction by the federal and provincial governments and other arms of the state has enabled the LeJ threat to metastasize. The GoP must reverse course and fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizenry. Similarly, Pakistani journalists, military officials, politicians, religious leaders who have either supported anti-Shia organizations or have shied away from explicitly condemning them, must recognize the collective costs of complicity or silence and reverse course.
We are encouraged by the peaceful sit-ins that have taken place in cities such as Quetta, Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, where thousands of Pakistanis have braved the cold to protest against the murderous campaign against Shia Muslims. We are heartened to see support from a broad segment of Pakistanis, transcending ethnic, regional, and religious boundaries. And we hope that the civic unity displayed by Pakistan’s Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, and others serves as permanent bridges that lead to a more peaceful and progressive Pakistan.
But a strong civil society cannot make up for weak government resolve in combating the rising tide of terror. The GoP must take decisive action to stop the genocidal campaign against Pakistan’s Shia Muslims. The LeJ, which has allied with al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, is not only an existential threat to the country’s Shia Muslims, but to all Pakistanis.
We close with the words of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who warned of his countrymen’s indifference to the Nazi threat:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Concerned Pakistani Americans
Waris Husain, Writer/ Attorney
Manzur Ejaz, Writer/Economist
Mohammad Taqi, Writer/Academic Physician
Arif Rafiq, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
Omar Ali, MD, Writer/Academic Physician
Beena Sawar, Journalist/Documentary Filmmaker
Ayaz Muhammad Khan, Virginia
Zaid Jlani, Journalist/Activist
Raakin Iqbal, Architect/Producer
A bipartisan group of US Senators comprising Robert Menendez (D–NJ), Roy Blunt (R–MO), Benjamin Cardin (D–MD), Mark Kirk (R–IL), Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D–PA), and Mike Johanns (R–NE) wrote to Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari last Friday expressing serious concerns about discrimination and violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and the application of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
In their letter, the Senators quoted Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, from his opening address to the Constitutional Assembly on August 11, 1947:
Discrimination, violence, and persecution on the basis of religion are a direct affront to the fundamental values of freedom and personal choice our nations subscribed to as signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…These violations run counter to the Pakistani constitution and the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, when he stated “you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.”
A copy of the signed letter is available below:
President Asif Ali Zardari today addressed a joint session of parliament today and laid out the state of the nation in 2011. The president began by recognizing the sacrifices of Pakistan’s religious minorities in the fight against extremism and intolerance, described the progress Pakistan has made in both political and economic reforms since 2008’s democratic elections, and the nation’s continued commitment to democracy, justice, and “defeating the mindset that preaches violence and hatred.”
Members of Congress introduced a resolution expressing the condolences of the House of Representatives to the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan upon the assassination of Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti and called on the United States to renew its efforts with international partners in the Human Rights Council and the United Nations General Assembly to promote religious freedom and tolerance in accordance with international human rights standards.
The bi-partisan resolution, H. Res 164, was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey and co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York, Rep. Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Rep. Daniel E. Lungren of California, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. of North Carolina, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, and Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey.
The resolution recognizes the vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for a nation of religious plurality and equality, and expresses support for the government’s actions to promote religious tolerance and the rights of minorities in the country including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani’s appointing the first cabinet-level official on religious minorities in 2008 and the allocation of a quota of 5 percent of all federal jobs for members of minority religious groups.
The resolution also recognizes that extremist groups for have used the blasphemy laws to trigger sectarian violence, intimidate members of religious minorities and others with whom they disagree, and exploit these laws for their own political ends including falsely accusing Muslims and non-Muslims alike for the settling of personal disputes,. The resolution further recognizes that the law is used against Muslims more than any other religious group.
In addition to expressing condolences on the assassination of the Minister, the resolution calls on the US to “assist efforts to protect the religious freedom of all Pakistanis through prioritizing the prevention of religiously motivated and sectarian violence, enhancing training for local law enforcement including emergency response and scene investigation, prompt and thorough investigation of any incidents of violence, and training of judges on inter- national human rights obligations.”
The resolution was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday.
Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington hosted a memorial for fallen Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti on Wednesday. Pakistan’s Ambassador, Husain Haqqani, was joined by American officials including US Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero in calling for increased religious tolerance the world over.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, said he decided to hold a service for Bhatti at the embassy as there was an “unconscionable silence” by many Pakistanis who in their hearts are respectful of other faiths.
“When Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered and we remain silent, some of us have died with him,” Haqqani told the service attended by US officials and Pakistani expatriates.
“If we are silent, we allow evil to win,” Haqqani said. “It is unacceptable, it is un-Islamic, it is not what Pakistan was founded for, it is not what Pakistanis living abroad can be proud of as Pakistanis and — if I may use a term that has been abused in Pakistan — it is blasphemy.”
I am shocked and outraged by the assassination today of Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. This was an attack not only on one man, but on the values of tolerance and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds championed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father.
I recently had the opportunity to meet Minister Bhatti. He was a patriot and a man of courage and conviction. He cared deeply for Pakistan and dedicated his life to helping the least among us on Earth. I extend my deepest condolences to his family and friends.
The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Pakistan to build a more stable and prosperous future for all — a future in which violent extremists are no longer able to silence the voices of tolerance and peace.
I am deeply saddened by the assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti today in Islamabad, and condemn in the strongest possible terms this horrific act of violence. We offer our profound condolences to his family, loved ones and all who knew and worked with him. Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear – the right to speak one’s mind, to practice one’s religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one’s background or beliefs. He was clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out, and, despite innumerable death threats, he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance from those who preach division, hate, and violence. He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faiths. Those who committed this crime should be brought to justice, and those who share Mr. Bhatti’s vision of tolerance and religious freedom must be able to live free from fear. Minister Bhatti will be missed by all who knew him, and the United States will continue to stand with those who are dedicated to his vision of tolerance and dignity for all human beings.
Riz Khan recently hosted a discussion of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law with Gov. Salmaan Taseer’s daughter, journalist Shehrbano Taseer; President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and human rights activist Asma Jahangir; and Professor of Islamic Studies Amjad Waheed.