Rallies targeting the Shia Muslims of Pakistan were orchestrated on successive days in Karachi over the past weekend. Demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands — at least 30,000 according to security officials — descended on the city’s major highways, MA Jinnah Road and Saeed Manzil Road, chanting anti-Shia slogans, declaring the community “heretics.”
Among those leading the demonstrations was Muneeb-ur-Rehman, the chairman of the government affiliated Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, which decrees the moon sighting for the Islamic calendar. While Rehman claimed that the rallies only “upheld the sanctity” of the Sahaba (Prophet Muhammad’s companions) and “didn’t target any sect,” the unabated echoes of “Shia kafir” (Shia infidels) among the demonstrators suggested otherwise. The Ruet-e-Hilal Committee chairman’s own position was further clarified by his demand that sects be declared in the next census and his threats that the participants could “turn to negative activities” if their religious sentiments were hurt.
Abid Mubara, the Karachi chief of the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was more brazen in his threats when he said that Sunnis could “behead people” who blasphemed against their revered personalities. After successfully partaking in weaponizing “love for Prophet Muhammad,” the TLP is now expanding its ambit to target others.
While the apostatizing slogans and banners of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — a proscribed terror group that has the genocide of Shia as its declared manifesto — would suffice to illustrate their intentions, the Sunni Islamists leading the demonstrations took care not to mention the word Shia in their own speeches. Their rhetoric, demanding expansion of the already murderous blasphemy law, was in line with the systematic growth in anti-Shia hysteria in recent months.
In July, the Punjab Assembly passed the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam (Protection of Foundation of Islam) Bill, which upheld the Sunni interpretation as the only acceptable version of Islam in Pakistan. This sparked uproar among the Shia clergy who reiterated that the sweeping implementation of the bill’s clauses — making it mandatory for all Pakistanis to identically revere esteemed Sunni figures — was contrary to Shia beliefs. Last month, in a case that further illuminates the inertia that propels the blasphemy law in Pakistan, it was revealed that many members of the Punjab Assembly hadn’t even read the draft that they voted in favor of.
The blasphemy cases overlap with the Islamic month of Muharram, which is commemorated by Muslims over events of the Battle of Karbala, but carries special significance in the Shia faith with Ashura marking the mourning for Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain. The battle at Karbala in 680 AD, according to Islamic traditions, is marked as the splitting point between the Sunnis and Shias, with the two sects varying in their narration of events before the split and interpretation of certain Islamic beliefs and rituals.
The almost 1,400-year-old sectarian divide provided grounds for a Saudi-Iran rivalry to explode in the 1970s amidst newfound oil wealth and other geopolitical rivalries. With up to 20 percent of Pakistan’s Muslim population being Shia, the country became a battleground for Sunni-Shia proxy wars under rule of Islamist military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. With state-backed groups like SSP popping up, the proxy warfare almost immediately metamorphosed into anti-Shia pogroms. From altering the Ismaili-Shia led demographics of Gilgit-Baltistan through jihadist massacres in the 1980s to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Islamic State (IS) carrying out mass Hazara killings in the 2010s, the Pakistani state has been a bystander, at best, and an accomplice, at worst, in the Shia cleansing.
While the military is directly linked to jihadist organizations in the region, political parties have formed alliances with Islamist groups to expand their own clout. The ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has allied itself with the Taliban, and the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has been working in tandem with the LeJ and its political wing Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to fulfill political ambitions in Punjab.
Even so, while different parties have affiliations with them, the Islamist groups are almost entirely controlled by the army. Therefore, questions have been raised whether providing increasing political space to the anti-Shia groups is part of the mainstreaming of the jihadist elements by the military.
When in opposition, Imran Khan spoke of the military deliberately flaring up sectarian tensions through the likes of the SSP. In light of the recent spike in anti-Shia sentiment, prominent Shia scholar Mohsin Najafi has said that the most contentious Muharram sermons — given by an imam that many Shia leaders have distanced themselves from — were preplanned, implying a deliberate fanning of sectarian flames. On the military’s part this would mean providing opportunity for Islamist groups to flex their recently shackled muscles.
However, even as strategy of the military, the timing makes little sense, coming at a time the country is battling to avoid the black list of the counterterror Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watchdog and much of the state discourse is centered around highlighting religious discrimination in India. Furthermore, Pakistan is no longer subservient to Saudi Arabia, where much of the country’s anti-Shia policymaking has originated. And if the Islamist power-show spirals out of control, this would also concern China, with Beijing having largely handed over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and its security, to the army.
“The sectarian tensions have been flared by social media, proxy groups and the government’s incompetence. Once things have come under control, why are you allowing such demonstrations?” says Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).
The systematic calls for outlawing Shia beliefs, if not the community just yet, bear an uncanny resemblance to the apostatizing of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect in 1974, which the Shia clergy was complicit in. That excommunication became a veritable religious apartheid a decade later under Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization. And many find Pakistan’s paradoxical upholding of Islamic laws, despite calling itself a democracy, as being the root of the state’s inevitable onslaught against the minority Islamic sects.
“A state can either be democratic or religious. Pakistan’s constitution making it a religious state has resulted in the creation of a religious might that influences all governments against taking the necessary decisions. As long as religion is mixed in politics things will remain as such,” says Mehdi Hasan, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The recent spate in anti-Shia bigotry is likely to be attributed to “sections of the establishment.” The use of “sections,” implying that the Islamist prop-up isn’t actually the official policy, has been seen in description of military’s links to — if not orchestration of — many jihadist maneuvers. These include high profile events like the Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hiding place or the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Even when consoling the Shia Hazara protestors in 2018, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa conceded that jihadist mindset had marred the military and hence it was possible a few senior officers might have been complicit in terror attacks.
While the current regime has looked to rein in groups like the TLP, letting the Islamist groups carry out large scale anti-Shia demonstrations can no longer be attributed to a fringe group within the government or establishment. The state has either acquiesced to anti-Shia hysteria or is wholeheartedly backing it. The reaction to the demonstrators, and the fate of the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam legislation, will clarify the state’s position.