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Violence Against Pakistani Shias Continues Unnoticed

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Victims of a  suicide bombing in Pakistan"17 Shia Muslims killed and more than 35 injured in Hangu." "Three Shia police officials killed in Quetta." "At least 35 Shia killed and more than 50 injured in a suicide attack on a Shia gathering in Dera Ghazi Khan." "Four Shias killed and 10 injured when Taliban attack an Ashura procession in Hangu." "Suicide bomber kills at least 32 Shias and injures another 157." These and numerous such accounts from January and February 2009 can be found documented by the Shaheed Foundation of Pakistan, yet the plight of Shia Muslims in Pakistan has been overlooked by not only the world's media, but our own community in the West as well.

The Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan borders Afghanistan to the West. Areas such as Swat Valley, Dera Ismail Khan, Hangu, Quetta (in Baluchistan province), Kohat, Dera Ghazi Khan (in Punjab province), and Parachinar (in Kurram Agency) have experienced unending systematic killing of Shias since the 1980s. An escalation in sectarian violence began soon after a coup in 1977 against Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto led by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. According to Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival, General Zia led a process of "Islamization" which manifested itself as "Sunnification" around the country, particularly in the NWFP. As Taliban militias infiltrated this area after the Afghanistan war against the then USSR, they were supported both politically and financially by the United States and Saudi Arabian governments. The Taliban leaders who took refuge in areas of NWFP after the 2001 United States-led invasion of Afghanistan exacerbated the problem. Having previously terrorized Shias in Afghanistan, they worked to spread their influence in areas of Pakistan. Although many of these areas have a majority Shia population, geographically they are surrounded by Taliban militants and therefore face unending strife.

Tactics of preaching against Shias by radical clerics like Azam Tariq, combined with efforts by anti-Shia groups such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, and its branches Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba, perpetuated the mentality that all Shias should be killed and expelled from Pakistan. From that point, Shias in positions of power and wealth, including academics, police officers, lawyers, and doctors across the country, have been massacred. Similar to sectarian violence in Iraq, militants targeted religious gatherings, hospitals, and public spaces. Local Pakistani media have also claimed that "Taliban-linked militants in Parachinar, Hangu district, and much of the Kurram tribal agency have killed 25 to 30 people on a daily basis over the last six months."

The scores of deaths in the last few months is particularly alarming. According to reports by PressTV, in early February 2009 there were at minimum 35 deaths and 50 injuries in Dera Ghazi Khan, located in Punjab, while later in the month, 30 more people were killed and 65 more injured when a bomb tore through a funeral procession of another killed Shia leader in Dera Ismail Khan, located in NWFP. In early March, Taliban-associated militants killed five Shia Hazara Muslims in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan. Outside the town of Hangu, insurgents also targeted a bus carrying Shia children to school, whereby three students were killed and many others were hurt. On March 26, 11 people were killed by a suicide bomber in a restaurant in Dera Ismail Khan. On Friday, March 27, another suicide bomber in Peshawar targeted a mosque with hundreds of Muslims attending Friday prayers. At least 48 people were killed and numerous more wounded.

Both American and Pakistani human rights groups have acknowledged this near-genocide against Shias. The US Department of State's Country Report from 2008 stated that "Shia Muslims in Pakistan faced discrimination and societal violence" and confirmed the fact that Sunni Muslim extremist groups have published literature advocating violence against Shia Muslims.

More recently, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan stated in February 2009, "The killing of Shia notables in Quetta has sadly become a frequent occurrence. Some of the killings have been claimed by an extremist organization flying a religious standard. The number of the Shia community members killed there over the recent years has exceeded 300. The government's failure to track down the culprits has understandably enraged the targeted community, and it has also emboldened the perpetrators to kill with impunity. Besides religious figures, liberal politicians, businessmen, and government officials have been targeted."

The oppression has spread from physical to economic blockade. In 2008, road routes had been blocked. Also, evidence has been seen of militants who kidnap or kill those who attempt to get supplies to Shia-populated regions.

A few of the recent attacks are in response to President Barack Obama's plan to impose a strategy to repress militants threatening Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to an MSNBC report. Despite protests from the Pakistani government, these missile strikes are going to be continued and increased from last year. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan is concerned that this tactic is counterproductive since it kills innocent civilians, increases anti-American sentiment and "undermines its own efforts to isolate extremists."

Efforts to bring awareness to this issue have been carried out in Qom, Iran. A summit entitled "Holocaust of Shias in Parachinar" was held in light of hundreds of victims from Parachinar and Hangu. Tehran called the violence a "silent massacre", and according to Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, as reported by PressTV, "The incidents that have occurred against Pakistan's Shia community are a plot to create conflict between the region's Sunni and Shia population." This sentiment has also been seen in moderate Sunni communities, who believe that unrestricted killings of Shias would lead to sectarian violence in areas where both groups have previously lived peacefully.

The Pakistani government claims that it has taken measures to suppress the violence. Pakistani Interior Chief Rehman Malik said the Shia population was in need of greater protection. Therefore, Islamabad ordered security forces to carry out this task, yet the violence has continued. It is reported that thousands of Shia Muslims have been killed since the 1980s in a country where Shias make up nearly 30 percent of the population.

Our voices should no longer remain muted. We must convince the Pakistani government and its affiliates that it is crucial to take greater action against the violence perpetrated by these terrorists. Officials must target the sources and fuels of sectarian violence by apprehending leaders and members of Taliban-associated militant groups across the country. Their influence has reached major cities as well and must be stopped. Saudi-funded madressas (Islamic schools), which are used to target impressionable children and youth and preach the mentality that Shias are infidels, should be closely regulated and shut down in some cases. Furthermore, it is essential to provide the distressed minority populations with safe havens such as secure mosques, Imambargahs, schools, and transport routes which will allow citizens to carry on with their daily activities with relative peace of mind.

Author of this article: Sukaina Hussain
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