Features | Society | South Asia

COVID-19 Fans Religious Discrimination in Pakistan

Referring to COVID-19 as “the Shia virus.” Denying aid to Christians and Hindus. These are only a few examples of faith-based discrimination in Pakistan.

By Jaffer Abbas Mirza for
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COVID-19 Fans Religious Discrimination in Pakistan

Volunteers distribute free food to daily wage workers and others for breaking their fast on the second day of Ramadan, in Islamabad, Pakistan, April 26, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

One would expect a global crisis to unite the whole of humanity, but examples of discrimination around the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic are sadly numerous. In Pakistan, even during a global pandemic, discrimination on the basis of religion continues. From referring to the virus as “the Shia virus” to requiring Christians to recite the kalima to receive aid to denying ration bags to the Hindu community in Lyari after seeing their national identity cards (CNIC) — these are only a few examples of faith-based discrimination in Pakistan, where so far more than 14,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported and over 300 deaths.

When a society is already divided along religious and ethnic lines, ingrained prejudices come into play during times of trouble. Religious discrimination is not new to Pakistan, but it is saddening to see that even during a crisis of global scale, marginalized religious groups continue to be discriminated against. Instead of focusing all their efforts on fighting this virus as a nation, some in Pakistan continue to exhibit their hatred for religious minorities on social media. For example, on April 13 two anti-minority hashtags were top trends on Pakistani Twitter. The first one, #ردِ_قادیانیت_ایمانی_فریضہ (meaning “religious obligation to reject Ahmadiyya belief”), targeted the Ahmadiyya community and called their faith “heretic.” The second was #گستاخوں_کوپھانسی_دو (hang blasphemers), which particularly demanded the hanging of Shia singer Zamin Ali. He had written a devotional poem in which he criticized the enemies of Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom Shia Muslims view as the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

The point of this article is not to establish here that these discriminatory events are occurring widely and frequently, nor to say that there are not any positive cases of interfaith relations. The foremost purpose is to acknowledge these incidents, so the grievances and traumatic experiences of Pakistan’s religious minorities do not go unheard. More importantly, the purpose is to show that even during the outbreak, some are unable to control their inner prejudice against the religious “other.”

“It’s not for Hindus”

On March 28 in Lyari, one of Karachi’s densely populated areas located in the south of the city, members of the Hindu community were denied ration bags. Saylani Welfare Trust (SWT), one of the leading welfare organizations, had installed a camp in Lyari. Vishal Anand, founder and chairman of the Hindu Youth Council, related to The Diplomat: “When they saw our CNIC [identity cards], they refused to give the ration bags, saying it’s not for Hindus.”

SWT did not respond to a request for comment. However, one of their representatives was seen on social media outrightly denying the such an incident event and saying it is not the organization’s policy to discriminate people based on their religion.

Knowing SWT’s work, it is true they do not discriminate; the group offers food to thousands of people of mixed faiths. But the issue here is not an organizational policy per se; people on the ground could have acted completely opposite to the organization’s vision and ideology.

Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), said that “even though Saylani Welfare Trust denied this happening but it was verified from other sources that the volunteers giving out the aid can have such a mindset and tend to make such discriminations.”

Instead of calling an inquiry or sympathizing with the oppressed minority, Saylani decided to counter complaints in different ways.

A Hindu activist, on the condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat that “someone from the Saylani contacted me and asked me to put a post on social media in Saylani’s favor.” This may explain why videos from some members of the Hindu community in favor of the organisation started appearing. Also, the next day after the incident, SWT distributed ration bags among the Hindu community and made videos, which were uploaded on social media later.

There is one important point to make here. One Indian news agency reported that Hindus were denied food rations in Rehri Ghoth. This news was refuted by another reporter; similarly, people I spoke to for this report are also unaware of the incident. The Lyari incident is separate and should not be confused with reports from Rehri Ghoth.

Embrace Islam to Receive Aid

In another incident involving the same organization, Christians were denied food rations. A video circulating on Facebook shows a Muslim man, named Adnan, informing a news reporter that Christians have been barred from receiving food in Karachi’s Korangi area. According to a report, a cleric named Abid Qadri, who ostensibly heads SWT’s operation in Korangi, instructed workers to give rations to Muslims only. In another video, a Christian woman confirmed that an organization, which she didn’t name, refused to give food to Christians until they recite the kalima, a declaration of Islamic faith.

Chaudhry confirmed that “there have been reports of such incidents taking place where minorities, specifically Christians and Hindus, are facing discrimination. At most places where relief is being provided by private foundations and trusts or religious welfare organizations, they often do not give relief to non-Muslims, stating that this fund is from zakat [charitable donations as a religious duty in Islam] so thus only Muslims qualify for it.”

A similar incident occurred in Sandha village in Kasur district of Punjab where an estimated 100 Christian families were denied food due to their religious identity. Later, however, a Muslim man arranged to distribute food among the community.

There seems to be a pattern in which some religious figures are enforcing their prejudiced views on welfare organizations. For example, a cleric, Sheikh Abdul Haleem Hamid, instructed volunteers that the food rations were only for Muslims. Naumana Sulema​n, the Pakistan programs lead for Minority Rights Group International, said that “the food was organized by the local mosque through announcements to help poor people in need, but later the ration was distributed to the Muslims only.”

There are some cases that have not yet been reported on. Chaudhry apprised that in some food distributions drive in the Mian Mir area of Lahore, there were boards that discouraged non-Muslims from coming to receive the rations. “When relief was being given, there was a notice up at the camp stating that non-Muslim should refrain from coming here for aid, as this is for the Muslims.” Unfortunately, the person who reported the notice, which was later removed, was afraid to take a picture of the notice among the crowded.

An important factor that helps to explain the discrimination against the religious minorities during a relief drive is the rising presence of religious hardliners or intolerant groups in philanthropic organizations like SWT, which are often religious-based but operationally pluralistic. Both in Karachi and Kasur, one common element of discrimination was the dominant role of local religious clerics who influenced volunteers and differentiated on the religious grounds.

“Beware of Hazaras!” 

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Hazara Shias were the first victims to be directly discriminated against and targeted by the officials. On March 12, the inspector general (IG) of police in Balochistan issued a notification in which he put people belonging to the Hazara community on leave. On March 13, the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA), a public department, issued a similar notification in which Hazaras living in Marriabad and Hazara Town, two majority areas for the Shia-majority ethinc group, were categorically asked to stay in their areas. On March 25, the chief secretary of Balochistan, the highest executive position in the province, held a press conference in which he announced that Hazara areas will be secluded from the rest of Quetta city, province’s capital. The reasoning was that Shia-majority Iran was a hotspot for COVID-19 at the time, therefore Shia-majority Hazaras must be quarantined.

I have written elsewhere about this issue, but there were some cases of discrimination that were not even reported. For example, in public institutions like the Civil Hospital and the State Bank of Pakistan, employees belonging to the Hazara community were unofficially asked not to come to the office.

Muhammad Aman, an activist and writer from the Hazara community, explained why Hazaras were singled out: simply put, it’s easy to blame them. “They are like the punching bags for the authorities, someone whom [authorities] can put the blame on when something goes wrong.”

Sajjad Changezi, a prominent activist and academic from Quetta, see more than sectarian prejudice at play. He also pointed out the issue of misplaced officers, who come mostly from Punjab and have “an inherent disadvantage in understanding the cultural and political realities of Balochistan.” He wondered, “if officers are struggling to understand Balochistan, how can we expect them to understand Shia Hazara, a minority within a minority with whom they are least likely to have normal interactions?”

Hazaras were treated as if their community is solely to blame for the spread of COVID-19. Interestingly, Hazaras constituted only a tiny proportion of returnees from Iran. Besides, not every returnee from Iran, such as non-Hazara businessmen and tourists, was quarantined. Both Changezi and Aman agreed that underlying marginalization and hatred for the community played a key role against the racial profiling of the Hazaras.

The racial profiling of Hazaras followed a targeted campaign against the wider Shia community. Two government ministers, Zulfikar Bukhari and Ali Zaidi, both Shias, were singled out and blamed for the spread of the virus in Pakistan. A coordinated campaign on Twitter was trending between April 1 and 2 where people such as Ahmad Ludhyanvi, chairman of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, an anti-Shia organization, were calling COVID-19 the “Shia virus.”

What these continuing trends suggest that the hatred for minorities has become entrenched. Some find cursing and targeting minorities more important than contemplating the devastation Pakistan is likely to face due to the virus.

Will the Stigma Pass With the Virus?

A question needs to be answered. Will these incidents do lasting damage to aggravate the plight of these religious minority groups, such as the Hazaras, who were publicly vilified well before the crisis? One optimistic view is that the long-term effects will not be as bad as a few foresee, due to several underlying factors. For example, Changezi argued that “a big proportion of Balochistan’s Sunni ethnic groups [the Baloch and Pashtun tribes] do not subscribe to sectarian extremist ideologies in practice.”

But some have raised concerns that COVID-19 might have a lasting impact for the Hazara community. Particularly, when the situation will normalizes and Hazaras resume their work in different sectors, they may still bear the brunt of the effects of racial profiling. Aman fears that “they will be seen as aliens because everyone will think that they were the ones who brought COVID-19 to the province. The discrimination and prejudice will continue for years to come.”

Jaffer A. Mirza is a researcher and columnist. He tweets at @jafferamirza.