From the late 1970s, sectarian violence targeted Pakistani Shiites, due to both domestic and international factors.
by Massimo Introvigne
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There is a solid historical consensus that Shiites were largely tolerated in Mogul and British India, and there were no major conflicts where the Sunni majority of Muslims targeted the Shi’a minority. The father of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), was a Shiite by birth. The official Pakistani version is that he became a Sunni in later life. Although the story was supported by his relatives, some historians doubt that the conversion, which was first mentioned after his death, ever happened.
Be it as it may be, Jinnah made efforts to have Shiites, including Hazaras, in his political movement. One of the founders of Jinnah’s All India Muslim League was Qazi Muhammad Isa (1914–1976), a Hazara from Quetta.
Hazaras were drawn to Jinnah’s movement by his promise of a non-sectarian Pakistan where all faiths would peacefully coexist. That promises would not be kept became apparent to the Pakistani Hazaras, however, when their attempts to be recognized as a “local tribe” (rather than as immigrants) in the province of Balochistan, where most of them lived, repeatedly failed. Only in 1962 were they recognized as “a local tribe of Quetta.”
Some instances of discrimination notwithstanding, the first decades of Pakistan were the most peaceful years for the Hazaras. One of them, General Muhammad Musa Khan (1908–1991) served as Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani Army between 1958 and 1966.
On the other hand, most Pakistani Muslims are Sunni, and most belong to one of three movements, the Barelvi, the Deobandi, and the Ahl-i-Hadith. Between 60% and 80% of all Pakistani Muslims are Barelvi. Deobandi are between 15% and 25%, and Ahl-i-Hadith between 5% and 10%. While radicalism emerged recently among the Sufi Barelvi, and also targeted the Shiites, Deobandi and Ahl-i-Hadith always denounced Shi’a Islam as heretics, and tried to define Pakistan as a Sunni state.
While some anti-Shiite and anti-Hazara riots occurred even before, the attack on the Shiites is a product of the late 1970s, and the result of the interaction of four different factors.
The first was the passing of laws that, since 1974, declared members of the Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslims and subjected them to discrimination in several ways. Ahmadis are not Shiite, and indeed some Pakistani Shiite leaders applauded their persecution. They overlooked a key fact, that the anti-Ahmadi laws repudiated Jinnah’s secular ideal and established the principle that Pakistani citizens may be discriminated because of their interpretation of Islam. Obviously, this principle could be applied against Shiites as well.
The second was the rise of militant Shi’a in Iran and the Iranian revolution of 1979. The unexpected events in Iran created waves of shock throughout the Sunni world, and spread the fear of armed Shi’a uprisings against Sunni governments.
The third was the coup of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1924–1988). As President of Pakistan, Zia tried to govern by forging alliances with radical Sunni Muslim movements, particularly of Deobandi origin. Zia promoted an Islamization of the country, which was also due to his alliance with Saudi Arabia, which he believed was a strategic need to counter Iran’s expansionism.
The fourth factor was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan of 1979, which had two unfortunate consequences for the Shiites in Pakistan. The first was that Taliban and other radical Muslim (and anti-Shi’a) opponents of the Soviets crossed border often and established bases in Pakistan, supported by Deobandi devotees who shared their theological roots. The second was that the unrest in Afghanistan led to a new influx of Hazara refugees, particularly in some areas of Balochistan. Fueled by radical Sunni militants, a concern grew that Hazaras’ numbers may eventually overcome those of non-Hazara residents, creating economic problems and taking over the local administrations.
These factors led to a crucial event for the Hazara and Shi’a communities in Pakistan, General Zia’s “Zakat and Ushr Ordinance” of 1980, which established that all Muslims in Pakistan would have their Islamic alms (zakat) automatically included in their taxes. Shiites both objected that zakat in their jurisprudence can only be voluntary, and suspected that their zakat would be used to support Sunni institutions. They answered with massive street protests, followed by violent police repression.
This was a battle the Shiites won, as Zia eventually exempted them from mandatory zakat, but their victory came at a high price. Antipathy towards the Shiites was fueled by the fact that wealthy secular Pakistanis of Sunni heritage declared themselves followers of the Shi’a just to escape the mandatory zakat.
Although possibly its intervention was exaggerated by Sunni sources for their own purposes, the government of Iran did ask Pakistan to accommodate the Shiite requests, which gave to many Pakistanis the impression that Iran was meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Some even believed that Iran controlled Tehreek Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafariya Pakistan, the Pakistan Movement to Establish Jafari Jurisprudence, founded in 1979 and led by Shi’a (but non-Hazara) clerics Jafar Hussain (1914–1983) and Arif Hussain al-Hussaini (1946–1988) to oppose Zia’s anti-Shiite measures.
The name of the organization in itself caused concerns. While its leaders claimed that they wanted that the Shi’a Jafari jurisprudence would regulate the life of Pakistani Shiites only, their opponents suspected that the movement wanted to impose Jafarite principles on all Pakistani citizens, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989) did in Iran. Although nicknamed “the Pakistani Khomeini,” al-Hussaini denied that his organization was a tool for the Iranian interests in Pakistan. However, portraits of Khomeini did appear in its rallies.
Among those who did not believe him were the Saudis. They were mightily concerned that Iran may attract Pakistan into its sphere of influence, and poured billions of dollars into supporting anti-Shia propaganda, mostly through Deobandi clerics. One of these clerics, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi (1952–1990), a member of the Deobandi political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, founded in 1985 Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the Pakistani Guardians of the Prophet’s Companions, as a radical anti-Shi’a organization that eventually became responsible for the murders of thousands of Shiites.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Hazaras were less targeted than other Shiites by anti-Shi’a terror, because they were a force to be reckoned with in Balochistan, a province where Deobandi radical organizations were less strong than in other parts of the country. As we will see, anti-Shiite violence eventually reached them as well.