Pakistan is in denial over spreading sectarian violence

After decades of turning a blind eye, the government seems helpless in the face of attacks on Shias and other minorities

By: Mustafa Qadri

While banned political groups preach hatred towards religious minorities in Pakistan’s major cities, a conflict along sectarian lines is spreading across the country, even to areas not previously associated with violence. Having spent decades turning a blind eye to the calculated violence of groups with a clear agenda based on hatred and intolerance, Pakistan’s government appears helpless in the face of continuous attacks on Shia Muslims and other minorities.

Sectarian attacks are not new in Pakistan, but there has been an upsurge, especially in Balochistan since at least 2010, in the Khurram and Orakzai tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, the port city of Karachi and across the Punjab. Now the frosty, picturesque mountain ranges of Gilgit-Baltistan, on the northern border with China, are seeing an increasingly violent sectarian conflict pitting Muslim Sunnis against Shias.

On 3 April nine Shia passengers were taken off a bus in Gilgit and executed, after a grenade attack on an anti-Shia rally in the same area killed four and injured close to 50. In the two weeks since these incidents occurred, a string of tit-for-tat attacks by Sunni and Shia groups has led to at least 69 deaths. The army has been called in, phone signals jammed and a curfew ordered which has brought life in the area to a total standstill. Markets became ghost towns, children could not enter their schools, and expectant mothers and patients were told to stay at home. Communities complained that the measures, while well-intentioned, could make things worse by preventing people from receiving urgent supplies and carrying on with much-needed employment. But the measures were a sticking-plaster solution to a much deeper, festering wound on Pakistan society.

In February an armed group boarded a bus in the north-western Kohistan region and asked to see the ID of every passenger. Noting they were Shias, the assailants, picked 25 passengers out and shot them execution-style, killing 18 including three children, and injuring another seven. Similar targeted killings of Shia Muslims have occurred in Balochistan and Gilgit while in years past Christian and Ahmadi communities have also been attacked by angry mobs often on the pretext of alleged blasphemy.

This demonstrates a systematic and deliberate pattern of targeting minority Shia Muslims by militant groups including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, formerly known as Sipa-e-Sahaba. Both are technically banned, but have been allowed to promote their intolerant, xenophobic views openly in prominent rallies in every major city of Pakistan. Sunni religious leaders and activists, most, if not all, belonging to these and other anti-Shia groups, have also been killed in reprisal attacks implicating Shia religious groups, while many have been caught up in bombings targeting Shia processions, especially in Quetta, capital of Balochistan, and Karachi.

Sadly, the Shia community is not the only religious minority facing violence. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 50 Hindus have been abducted from Balochistan, mostly for ransom, in the past four years. The province’s predominantly Shia Hazara community, recognisable by their Asiatic features, have faced a brutal campaign of targeted killings by Lashkar-e-Janghvi, while the government promises greater help but with no on-the-ground impact. The practice of forced conversions and marriages of Hindu girls in Sindh province, typically to justify their kidnap and rape, got rare public attention after the media highlighted the case of Rinkle Kumar. But such abuses show no sign of ending soon because police are easily bought off or the perpetrators have influence within the government.

There are two broad reasons for this violence. First, discrimination has been institutionalised to such an extent that it has become normalised. The syllabus in our public schools and the discourse in our media describes non-Muslims as enemies of Islam, while our passports require us to affirm that members of the Ahmedi religious sect are not Muslim. Groups preaching violence have been allowed to exploit legitimate grievances. The line between religious welfare work and the activities of violent extremists has also been blurred. Many, if not most, religious welfare organisations are not fronts for radicalisation. But so many groups mix their vitriol with legitimate charity, like shelter, food and medical camps for the poor, occupying the space left by government neglect and corruption. Groups that on paper have been banned by the government and the international community brazenly parade on prominent squares, are given air time on television, and even sometimes co-opt the police into preventing minorities from observing their faith. Lawyers and judges involved in blasphemy cases, for example, have told Amnesty International of scenes of extreme intimidation in courts that virtually guarantee they will not get a fair trial.

In recent years Pakistan’s parliament has made several welcome amendments to the constitution, such as reserving seats for women and religious minorities in the federal and provincial parliaments, a right to a fair trial, freedom of speech, a right to information and freedom of expression. Yet non-Muslims are still forbidden from being elected president or prime minister. And in practice there are severe failings in the implementation of enshrined protections thanks to the impunity enjoyed by powerful state and non-state actors, under-resourcing of the justice system and endemic corruption.

People are not inherently intolerant in Pakistan. For generations religious communities generally lived in harmony with each other and intermarriage is still not unheard of. Activists from all walks of life continue to challenge received wisdom on matters of faith, national security and identity too. But when those resisting the challenge are free to use violence without any risks of being brought to justice, exercising basic freedoms, or fighting to uphold the rights of others, becomes a deadly pursuit. Who can blame ordinary citizens from avoiding the debate in such a toxic environment?

Amnesty International urges the Pakistan government to challenge the systematic campaign of vilification and attacks on minorities in the country. Violence targeting people on the basis of their religion should be an urgent concern for everyone who cares for Pakistan and the region. The failure to address these abuses will only exacerbate the general breakdown in law and order in the country by sending the signal that there is total impunity for any abuse justified as a protection of religious sentiments.

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