Editors Note : We are cross posting this Guardian article by Sumaira Schakle with the caveat that the groups terrorizing the Shia of Pakistan are a tiny minority of radicalized Deobandi/Salafi/Wahhabi/Ahle-Hadeeth terrorists. The Sunni comprise 80 percent of Pakistani Population of which three quarters are very peaceful Shia friendly Brelvi/Sufi. The terrorists belong to a small subset of the remaining minority. Unfortunately they are supported by Pakistan Army and Saudi Arabia for strategic reasons. This is what makes self confessed murderers walk from courts.
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and the holiest month after Ramadan, which started on the evening of 15 November and runs until 13 December. But here in Karachi, the advent of the new Islamic year, AH 1434, was marked not by religious reverence, but a suspension of all mobile phone networks and a total ban on motorcycles. Similar bans were imposed in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, aimed at reducing the risk of suicide attacks.
Muharram is one of four sacred months in the Islamic calendar where fighting is prohibited. It should be a peaceful time, but sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shias and a high risk of militant attacks has cast a shadow.
For Shia Muslims, Muharram is a month of mourning for the martyrdom ofHussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Ashura, which takes place on the 10th of Muharram, is the day he was killed in thebattle of Karbala in 680 AD. It is marked by processions of tens of thousands, which are characterised by the Shia ritual of self-flagellation.
The scale of the event makes getting around in Pakistan’s major cities on the ninth and 10th of Muharram a challenge. But in recent years, the lockdown has been intensified by the high risk of terrorist attacks by Sunni militant groups. Last year’s procession in Karachi was marred by a suicide bomb, while a major explosion in the city in 2009 killed more than 40 people, seriously injured scores more, and caused billions of rupees worth of damage.
Shia Muslims are a sizeable minority in this predominantly Sunni nation, making up around 20% of the population. Sunni-Shia tension is seen across the Muslim world, and has long been a problem in Pakistan. But in recent years, as militancy spread, it has worsened. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 320 Shias have been killed so far this year. Balochistan alone has seen the slaughter of more than 100 Shias of Hazara ethnicity.
The incidents speak for themselves. On 16 August, around 25 Shia passengers on their way home for Eid were pulled out of three buses in the hills of Babusar Top, around 100 miles north of Islamabad, and shot. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility. It was the third such attack in six months. On 3 April, a mob in Chilas, a town 60 miles south of Gilgit, another northern area, dragged nine Shias from buses and shot them dead. And on 28 February, gunmen hauled 18 Shia Muslim men off buses travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit and killed them one by one.
The horrors do not stop there. On 1 September, armed men on motorbikes shot dead seven Hazara Shias in Quetta. Three were shot in the southern city on the same day at the Babusar massacre. Sadly, such attacks against the Shia population have become common place, particularly in Balochistan, Karachi, Gilgit Baltistan, and the tribal areas.
Most attacks are carried out by Sunni militant organisations with ties to al-Qaida – the TTP or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. These groups operate with near-impunity, which is partly a symptom of the military and intelligence establishment’s ambivalent relationship to extremism, and partly to do with the poor law and order situation.
The authorities have done little to hold those responsible for the murders of Shias to account. Since 2008, dozens of suspects have been arrested for these attacks – but very few have been charged. In a rare positive move, Malik Ishaq, the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was arrested on 31 August for inciting violence against the Shia community. However, given that he was said to have masterminded terrorist attacks during a 14-year jail sentence that ended last year, it remains to be seen how much difference it will make.
Tight security looks set to continue for the next 10 days, with further bans on mobile phones being considered for the ninth and 10th of Muharram. If it helps this religious festival to pass without violence, it will be worth it. But what happens after that?
Sadly, it looks as if Pakistan’s Shias will be left, once again, to fend for themselves.