Why Pakistan's Shiites are worried to death
With barely a month going by without a sectarian attack, Pakistan’s Shiite minority is now a terrified community. But are the Pakistani state and the all-powerful military to blame?
It was a dreaded midnight call, as chilling as it was brief, that upended Amjad Hussein’s world, forcing him to flee the city of his birth, leaving his wife and two young children behind.
On April 16, just hours after a suicide attack at a hospital in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta killed 10 people, Hussein got an anonymous phone call.
“The caller, who I could not trace, said, ‘this time, you escaped. Next time you won’t,” recalled Hussein in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Pakistan. “That’s it. It was just two or three sentences.”
Hussein decided he wasn’t going to stick around for the next time.
Terrifying though it was, the call was not surprising.
An ethnic Hazara, a historically persecuted, predominantly Shiite Muslim minority, Hussein was a reporter at a Pakistani national news station. The Quetta hospital attack had occurred as local journalists were interviewing the family and friends of a Hazara businessman who had been killed earlier that day.
As a journalist, Hussein had extensively covered the rise in deadly anti-Shiite attacks in the northwestern province of Baluchistan, of which Quetta is the provincial capital.
There were not too many Hazara journalists working for the mainstream Pakistani media and Hussein was a high profile figure - which can be a dangerous thing in Pakistan today.
Shortly after the call, the 38-year-old father of two decided it was time to leave Quetta for the relative safety of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. But on his reporter’s salary, he could not afford to bring his wife and children along and so, he says, he lives in a constant state of anxiety about their security.
Fear and loathing among Pakistan’s Shiites
The level of fear and loathing has been steadily rising among Pakistan’s Shiite community, which comprises around 20 percent of the population in this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation.
Last week’s attack on a group of Hazara pilgrims - who were forced off a bus, lined up and shot dead execution-style in Baluchistan - was particularly shocking even by the grim standards of violence-riddled Pakistan.
A virulently anti-Shiite extremist group, the Lashkar-e-Janghvi, claimed responsibility for the attack. A particularly vicious offshoot of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group, the Lashkar-e-Janghvi – or LeJ – has worked closely with al Qaeda networks in Pakistan, according to security experts.
But unlike al Qaeda, the LeJ gets scant attention in the international community – and even, it seems, in Pakistani government and law enforcement circles.
In a flurry of statements condemning the attacks, international and domestic human rights groups blasted “the Pakistan government and its security forces” for “abdicating their responsibility” to defend its citizens from a “deadly form of discrimination”.
‘Deep state’ fuels the Pakistani rumor mill
But within the Shiite community – and in some non-Shiite circles as well - there is a widespread belief that Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex, the real power in this South Asian nation, is not just amiss at protecting minorities, but is actively supporting sectarian extremist groups.
The release in July of the virulently anti-Shiite LeJ chief only appeared to confirm their fears. Malik Ishaq, the controversial LeJ leader, was re-arrested Wednesday following the international outcry over the September 20 attacks on the Hazara pilgrims.
When it comes to proving the involvement of Pakistan’s famously shadowy military-intelligence network though, most analysts and human rights experts admit that such allegations can be as challenging to discount as they are to prove.
“Trying to present evidence as to the direct linkage – by that I mean evidence presentable in a court of law – is difficult,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a leading Pakistani security and military commentator whose book, “Military Inc.” is considered a reference on the Pakistani military’s substantial business empire.
“But there certainly is circumstantial evidence. The very fact that the military is supporting some groups, which in turn have linkages with groups with deeply sectarian agendas, is considered a linkage. Don’t forget that Pakistan has grown as a Sunni state where some of the foreign policy tools and the security policy tools are militant outfits that are considered state assets,” Siddiqa added.
The historic weakness of Pakistani civilian governments combined with the all-powerful military’s alleged “double-game” of cooperating with international anti-terror efforts while supporting certain militant Islamist groups has not only affected Pakistan’s standing in the international community, it has also fostered a culture of conspiracy and mistrust among its citizens.
Faced with a vast military intelligence apparatus that includes the infamous ISI spy agency and a variety of security directorates from whose cells many opposition and dissident figures have not emerged alive, the Pakistani rumour mill is alive with allegations that the “deep state” – a popular term for the shadowy military intelligence apparatus – is responsible for a variety of ills that have beset the nation in recent times.
Charged for murder – and released
For many Pakistani Shiites, LeJ chief Malik Ishaq’s release from prison in July after spending 14 years in jail was proof – if it were necessary - of complicity between Pakistani authorities and anti-sectarian groups.
A native of Punjab, Pakistan’s most-populated province, Ishaq was accused of killing 70 people and faced 44 criminal charges, 34 of which have been dropped due to lack of evidence.
One of the charges against Ishaq is for involvement in the planning – while in prison – of the March 2009 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Security experts say the group also collaborated with al Qaeda in the deadly September 2008 attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel.
While little is known about Ishaq in the West, most Pakistanis know him as the militant who was reportedly flown out of jail by the Pakistani military to negotiate with assailants during the hours-long, hugely embarrassing 2009 attack on the Pakistani Army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Shortly after his release in July, Ishaq embarked on an incendiary public speaking tour, addressing crowds of fired-up, slogan-chanting supporters.
Just days after the September 20 attack on the Hazara pilgrims, Ishaq was put under a 10-day preventative detention – a period of house arrest during which time a detainee has access to communications via cell phones and the Internet – allegedly for his own safety.
It was a protection that, some critics noted, was not adequately provided to terrified witnesses during his trial, one of many factors in the Pakistani prosecution’s dismal record on attempting to convict Ishaq.
By Wednesday though, Ishaq was back behind bars, detained – but not yet charged – under a public order act, according to police officials.
‘Good’ militant groups vs. ‘bad’ militant groups
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies, speculates that Ishaq’s July release was possibly linked to a much-touted government militant rehabilitation programme, or that his release was a part of a political compromise with the Punjab provincial government.
“Ishaq has the capacity to activate terrorist cells although he has promised not to get involved in violence. But what is the guarantee of this, the government has not revealed,” said Rana.
Rana believes that in its attempts to counter rising Islamist violence, the Pakistani government should tackle the ambiguity between terrorists and sectarian organisations on a policy level.
“The Pakistani government needs to evolve a multifold approach to tacking this problem,” said Rana. “It’s important to differentiate between terrorist organisations and non-violent sectarian organisations; both need different approaches to tackle.”
But Siddiqa questioned such an approach.
“It’s as if sectarian violence has a less serious connotation, it shows you how seriously they take this,” she said. “Such an argument completely misconstrues the various dimensions of the ideology of Sunni Deobandi militant organisations, which view attacks on religious minorities or attacking the US as various dimensions of the same central point.”
The new powerbrokers
A longstanding reason for the Pakistani state’s soft approach to anti-Shiite groups has been the pervasive Arab-Iranian jostling for influence which gets played out in a Sunni majority nation that shares a 900-kilometer border with Iran, the world’s Shiite powerhouse.
But many Pakistani experts believe the answer to the state’s indulgence of groups such as LeJ lies closer to home.
The LeJ, the argument goes, has a growing core of loyal supporters who represent a sizeable vote bank, which makes figures such a Ishaq powerbrokers in regional and national elections.
With presidential and parliamentary elections tentatively set for 2013, Siddiqa believes their influence will only increase.
“They are the new arbiters, the local players who are fast replacing the state,” said Siddiqa. “If anyone imagines that Malik Ishaq will have no role to play in the next elections, they’re only fooling themselves.”
With a prognosis like that, the future does not look bright for Hazaras such as Hussain.
Originally hailing from central Afghanistan, the Hazara community in Pakistan is primarily comprised of migrants who fled persecution more than a century ago as well as newer migrants who fled the Taliban regime. While they hold Pakistani nationality, Hazaras are often easily identified by their central Asian features and have historically borne the brunt of religious persecution in the region.
With the Muslim holy month of Muharram starting end-November, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned that sectarian violence could rise.
“Worried? Of course we’re worried,” said Amjad Hussain, on the line from Islamabad. “Even talking to the press is dangerous. But what can I do? I can’t just watch my community being killed. Our only options are to appeal to the international community – and if we’re lucky enough, to immigrate to other [Western] countries such as Australia and Canada.”