In just a month and half, Pakistan has suffered four deadly Taliban attacks against Shia Muslims by Sunni Muslim extremists. But it is not just the Taliban that are trying to eliminate Shia from country. Local extremist groups like the Saudi-funded Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat openly advocate an anti-Shia ideology and are believed to be recruiting anti-Shia militants. With recent reports of an alliance between the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State group, the Shiite community could face even more bloodshed. (via France 24)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
As reports of the dead continue, America is mourning for Pakistan’s terrible loss from a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Lahore. So far, at least 50 people are confirmed dead and over 175 injured by a barbaric triple-suicide bombing in the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, the second largest city in the nation.
The attack was part of a pattern of increased violence in Pakistan’s heartland, the province of Punjab, a troubling expansion of the Taliban insurgency tormenting the country’s western border.
“This is a barbaric attack,” wrote Raza Ahmed Rumi, a Pakistani expert on Sufism, on his Web site. The shrine, he said, “is not just another crowded place — it represents a millennia of tolerant Sufi Islam which is directly under attack by the puritans.”
The bombers detonated their explosives in the basement and inside the shrine, after a Sufi ceremony of singing and prayer, according to a witness, Muhamed Yusef, who was interviewed on Pakistani television. The police retrieved the heads of two of the bombers and estimated their ages as 17 and 22, the television reports said.
The blasts left a sickening scene of devastation. The Express 24/7 television network in Pakistan showed the shrine’s interior littered with bodies, prayer rugs and debris from the blast. Blood pooled on the white marble floor. Crowds gathered outside the shrine after the bombing, shouting, crying and protesting the attack.
“Those who still pretend that we are not a nation at war are complicit in these deaths,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for President Asif Ali Zardari.
As we have noted before, Pakistan has suffered – and continues to suffer – devastating attacks at the hands of extremist militants. Thousands of innocent Pakistani citizens have been brutally murdered by Taliban and other religious militants who seek to impose a medieval rule on the country by threat of force.
Pakistan continues to fight back against these militant groups. Despite suffering thousands of casualties and coming under direct attack by Taliban terrorists, Pakistan’s military and police forces sacrifice their lives almost daily to protect their fellow citizens.
That this attack comes just before 4th of July weekend is a reminder that our own democracy was built not only on constant sacrifice, but with the support of our friends and allies across the world. As Pakistan continues to sacrifice in order to firmly cement its own democracy, America mourns with you, and promises to stand unwavering at your side.
The murders of over 90 Pakistani citizens last week because of their religious beliefs makes clear that Pakistan’s parliament must amend the Constitution to remove sectarian clauses that in part incite such violence.
Section 260(3) of Pakistan’s constitution defines whom the law considers a Muslim. This is exceedingly important because the constitution restricts certain government offices to Muslims. For example, Section 41(2) requires that the President be “a Muslim of not less than forty-five years of age.”
But more than simply disenfranchising some citizens, the sectarian clauses in the constitution have created second-class citizens of religious minorities, and given fodder for the hateful rhetoric of extremists that encourages such violence as was witnessed last Friday.
In fact, the massacre of the Ahmadis was not the first time that a religious minority has suffered violent attack in recent months. Last August, religious extremists attacked a community of Christians in Gojra, killing many and burning down several dozen homes.
Pakistan’s parliament and President Zardari were quick to condemn the attacks in Gojra and provide funding to compensate victims, but until the government purges the aberrant laws that extremists use to justify these attacks, future violence is all but inevitable.
Cornell doctoral student Basit Riaz Sheikh, agrees. Writing for English-language daily, Express Tribune, Sheikh notes that the sectarian tensions that increasingly flare up today are rooted in the regime of dictator Zia-ul-Haq.
Until 1977, when Bhutto’s government was toppled, Pakistan was free of any major sectarian and ethnic tensions. The ten years of Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime would transform Pakistan from a tolerant society into one marred with ethnic and sectarian divisions and hate-driven politics. He fully crippled the religious freedom of minorities by imposing draconian laws in the name of the Anti-Islamic-Activity Act. Zia vanished, but we continue to pay for his sins.
The remnants of his era, in the shape of many in our media now and others, continue to insinuate hatred against minorities, the West, and all others who disagree with them. It goes beyond my imagination that we let these hate-mongers freely express their extremist sentiments on TV channels under the pretext of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to spread hate.
To build a stronger and a united Pakistan, we need to cleanse our constitution of the provisions that continue to divide us.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recognized the Zardari government’s progress in the area of religious freedom in Pakistan, but points out that until discriminatory legislation promulgated by previous administrations is removed, religious minorities will continue to suffer.
The Zardari government has taken some positive steps regarding religious freedom. In November 2008, the government appointed prominent minority-rights advocate Shahbaz Bhatti as Federal Minister for Minorities with cabinet rank. Mr. Bhatti has publicly promised that the Zardari government will review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and that the government is committed to protecting the rights of minority religious communities, including by implementing a five percent quota for religious minorities in federal government employment. In March 2009, the government appointed a Christian jurist as a judge in the Lahore High Court. It is not yet clear what impact these developments will have on religious freedom, which has been severely violated by successive Pakistani governments in the past. Discriminatory legislation, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians.*
Article 33 of Pakistan’s constitution requires the state to “discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens.” This vital mission of the government cannot be achieved while sectarian prejudice is codified in the nation’s laws. In order to protect the rights and the safety of all citizens, Pakistan’s Parliament should immediately move to amend the constitution by removing Section 260(3) and other sectarian laws.