The world's largest population of Shia Muslims outside Iran is found in neighbouring Pakistan where they account for an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Although a sizeable minority in the country's four provinces and major cities, they are the majority in the northernmost autonomous region of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Relations between Pakistani Shia and the larger Sunni community have been largely harmonious since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 after the partition of India. Sectarianism was never really at the forefront of identity politics at the time and the country's secular founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who hailed from an Ismaili Shia family, envisioned that the country would be progressive, democratic and tolerant of minorities, even as a Muslim-majority country.
However, by the late 1970s, it became apparent that Jinnah's idea of Pakistan was eroding when the country underwent a fateful period of Islamisation under military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. The year 1979 in particular was pivotal, as it saw the emergence of a Shia theocracy in Iran and the start of the Soviet-Afghan war which lasted into the next decade and in which Pakistan got involved following stronger ties with Saudi Arabia and the US. These developments had negative consequences for Pakistan's Shia citizens who faced systematic persecution from the 1980s onwards at the hands of militant anti-Shia organisations. A minority of Shia groups turned to violence in order to defend the community against attack, albeit relatively restrained by comparison.
Of the two main sub-sects among Pakistan's dominant Hanafi-Sunni population, the Barelvis are the largest (50 to 60 per cent), which is a similar position to that in India. They are very much Sufi-inclined and moderate in their religious views, and arguably closer to the Shia when compared with the Deobandis who account for around 20 per cent and control most of the country's madrassas (religious schools). The Taliban in Afghanistan follow this Hanafi sub-sect. There are also the Ahle-Hadeeth, otherwise known as Salafis, who have a more modest but growing following.
Deobandis and Ahle-Hadeeth are closer ideologically to Saudi Arabia's puritanical interpretation of Islam sometimes referred to as Wahhabism. From the time of Zia ul-Haq money started flooding in from the Gulf, especially from Saudi Arabia, to fund the Deobandi-affiliated madrassas and mosques. This coincided with the decline of state-funded education in Pakistan and an uptick in violent sectarianism.
Some of these foreign funds went onto supporting sectarian jihadist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in an effort to counter and contain Shia revolutionary influence from Iran. They were also sponsored by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and were only designated as terrorist groups in 2002 by former President Pervez Musharraf in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US. Nevertheless, they are still active and in many ways the state tolerates their existence.
11 Sep 1948: the day when QA Muhammad Ali Jinnah passed away. His funeral was held in the shadow of Alam as he was a Twelver Shia
11 Sep 2020: Terrorist banned outfit ASWJ SSP LeJ taking a rally out on a busy road of Karachi , chanting "Kafir Kafir Shia Kafir". pic.twitter.com/s5SdP5ij6X
— Gul Zehra Rizvi (@GulZehraRizvi1) September 11, 2020
Decades of terrorist attacks on Shia religious processions, mosques, neighbourhoods and pilgrims returning from Iran, in addition to targeted killings, disappearances and forced migrations, have prompted activists and human rights organisations to describe the plight of Pakistan's Shia as an ongoing genocide. Moreover, it is said to be one in which the state has not only been ineffective and failed to provide security for its Shia citizens, but has also, in effect, colluded with the perpetrators through the free space afforded to supposedly outlawed groups who continue to evade prosecution.
Legislation has also played a part in facilitating the persecution of Shia and other religious minorities such as Christians and the Ahmadis. Between 1987 and 2019, for example, hundreds of blasphemy cases were reported across various religions and sects in Pakistan.
The SSP is said to have introduced the Namus-i-Sahabah (Honour of the Companions of the Prophet) Bill in the National Assembly, which sought to add the names of the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs to the list of those covered by the Blasphemy Law. It has also been argued that the 1980 amendment which added the companions to the blasphemy law — Section 295A — was probably a symbolic gesture by Zia-ul-Haq's government to show its "Islamic credentials" and win over the hardliners. Nevertheless, it was obvious that the Shia community would be affected disproportionately by the amendment when its members do not share the same historic reading or hold the same opinions about certain individuals held dear by the Sunnis.
In July, the Punjab Assembly, the largest provincial legislature in Pakistan, ruled in favour of a bill which seeks even more stringent blasphemy laws for "protecting Islam". This led to widespread criticism with fears that the country will witness further sectarianism and extremism as a result.
— Himalayan Girl (@ChaoNmh) September 13, 2020
According to a press release issued earlier this month by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, it was reported that there had already been some 40 reported cases of extremism in the previous month. In fact since the passing of the bill, there have been numerous arrests of Shia clerics and eulogists during the month of Muharram over long-established supplications recited to mark the Day of Ashura.
"Life will never be easy for my followers" ~ Imam Ali a's.
Rally led by Mufti Muneeb chanted "Long Live Yazid" forgetting that every human irrespective of religion & sect hate & curse Yazid. These hate mongers are sold, playing for enemies of Pakistan 🇵🇰, Govt must take notice. pic.twitter.com/gmvUXiP6aJ
— Riaz Ali Turi (@RiazToori) September 14, 2020
Days later there were huge rallies by tens of thousands of people in Karachi, which included the participation of the SSP, LeJ and other extremist groups publically denouncing Shia as Kaafirs (non-believers). Unsurprisingly, there followed more targeted killings of Pakistani Shia citizens, several of which have been publicised widely on social media. One notable incident involved Shia shopkeeper Qasim Imran; CCTV footage shows him being shot multiple times at point blank range by his assailants who then fled the scene.
The developments are a cause of great concern for Pakistan's Shia, especially when the government has failed to protect them and basically look the other way as the extremist voices become louder and the violence more brazen.
With few options left for their very survival, the Shia of Pakistan may find that they have little choice but to turn to Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Corps has a track record of training and arming the likes of Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, both of which emerged either due to the marginalisation of the Shia or the incompetence of the state in protecting them. The IRGC has already trained Afghan and Pakistani brigades. Some argue that they are simply refugees who are being exploited and sent to fight primarily in Syria. As the persecution of Shia citizens in Pakistan intensifies, the need to defend themselves may lead to the so-called Zainebiyoun Brigades shifting the focus from Syria back to Pakistan, although the faction is still in its early years of development.
In an ironic twist of fate, therefore, it would seem that the policy of Saudi Arabia and Zia-ul-Haq intended to curtailing Iranian influence in Pakistan through promoting extremist Sunni groups could eventually usher it back in.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.