TERRORISM: Mass-murder campaign against minority Shiites in Pakistan somehow overshadowed

JONATHAN KAY
POSTMEDIA NEWS

Shiite activists

Political activists protest against governor rule and termination of the provincial government in Quetta, Pakistan, on Jan. 20, 2013. Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

It says a lot about how violent and dysfunctional Pakistan has become that the ongoing campaign of slaughter against the country’s Shiite Muslim minority barely rates a mention in the Western media. Observers have become so focused on Pakistan’s role in encouraging the Taliban insurgency across the border in Afghanistan (while also fighting its own confused on-again, off-again campaign against Pakistani Taliban on the southern side of the Durand line), that few have noticed the several thousand Shiites who have been exterminated by Sunni terrorists (including about 400 last year alone) for no other crime than that of embracing a branch of Islam at variance with fundamentalist Sunni orthodoxy.

In one horrible 2012 incident, for instance, Taliban wearing Pakistani army uniforms stopped a passenger bus in the country’s scenic Naran valley, checked identity papers to determine who was Shia, then tied up the 19 Shiites on the roadside and massacred them. In a widely-circulated video of the incident, the killers can be heard joyously shouting Shia Kafir (“Shia infidel”).

This month featured a particularly horrible mass murder: about 100 killed in a twin bombing of a billiards hall in the Baluchistan capital of Quetta (a city near the Afghan border that has become well-known as a Taliban leadership hub, under the blind eye of Pakistan’s military and intelligence). In response to this outrage, local Shiite leaders took the extraordinary step of blocking traffic with coffins containing the remains of the victims – a lurid gesture aimed at shaming the Pakistani army into providing local Shiites with security. There also have been protests in Islamabad and Karachi. In response, Pakistan’s government has fired Balochistan’s chief minister, and dismissed his provincial administration, for its failure to act against anti-Shiite fanatics.

At one point, the bodies reportedly were laid out on the street – in defiant breach of the Muslim requirement that the dead receive immediate burial. With the exception of Palestinians in Gaza, who habitually make a parade of dead children after Israeli air strikes, it is hard to think of any large-scale precedent for this. But the Shiites are desperate to publicize their plight in any way they can.

Sunni jihadis’ campaign against Shiites shows just how inhumanly puritanical Salafist ideology has become. The terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which claimed responsibility for last week’s attack, is allied with the Taliban, and shares its dream of a pure Islamic state covering the entire region. Yet the Shiites they target are no fringe “infidel” cult, nor a marginalized offshoot of Islam (such as, say the Ahmadis, who also have been the target of violence, and actually were explicitly banished from the category of Islam by Pakistani constitutional decree in the 1970s).

Differences between Shiites and Sunnis originate in a disagreement about the identity of Muhammad’s rightful successors 14 centuries ago. But in general, mainstream Shiite and Sunni Muslims agree on the major precepts of their monotheistic faith, and Muhammad’s role as its Prophet.

Shiites, largely from the Hazara ethnic group, constitute a 10-20 per cent minority in Pakistan (roughly mirroring Shiites’ proportion within Islam as a whole). And until the last decade or so, they got on well with the national Sunni majority, notwithstanding some obscure localized disputes and tit-for-tat violent spasms. In some parts of the country, the two groups even prayed at the same mosques. (There are even claims that the country’s army commander, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, descends from Shiite roots, though his precise genealogy is unclear.)

Sunnis and Shiites have been at blows in Iraq for a decade – and the slaughter there certainly has eclipsed the Sunni-on-Shiite sectarian killings in Pakistan. Yet the two cannot really be compared: In Iraq (which is majority Shiite), the Sunni and Shiite communities both have spawned political parties and militias that are locked in a very real struggle for control of the country. Thanks to the legacy of Saddam Hussein and his totalitarian Baathist cult, the country still has a winner-take-all political mentality, with the possibility of the losers being slaughtered on masse always lurking in the background. Pakistan, on the other hand, has no such history in regard to Sunni and Shiites: There is no risk of a Shiite takeover of the country, and the slaughter has no meaningful political dimension. It is simply the slaughter of people who happen to worship in a different manner for slaughter’s own sake.

Pakistan was created as a South Asian homeland for all Muslims. But the Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, and the other jihad-sponsoring financiers of the smaller Persian Gulf nations, are Sunnis. The groups they began bankrolling in the 1980s now have agendas that have metastasized far beyond their original purpose of pushing back Soviet, American and Indian influence in the region.

But the Arabs cannot take all the blame. As Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi has pointed out, the demonization of Shiites is in keeping with policies implemented domestically by Pakistan President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq during the Reagan era. “The latest Pew poll indicates that nearly half the Sunni population thinks that Shias are not Muslim,” Rumi wrote last year. “The accuracy of this poll is debatable, but even if the numbers were lower, the Wahabisation project initiated by General [Zia-ul-Haq] is now becoming an existential danger. And this radicalisation has not been imposed by anyone, despite the Saudi influence, but a cynical and disastrous choice by Pakistan’s military junta in the 1980s and later. Political parties will need another decade of hard core reform consensus to fix the education system and other drivers of extremist ideology.”

From Sri Lanka to Iraq to Syria, this is part of a well-observed aspect of terrorism and the ideologies that promote it: Once it becomes seen as acceptable to use mass murder as a political tactic against one set of enemies, the tactic always becomes adopted as “legitimate” for use against all targets. Pakistan is a case study: A nominally democratic nation, it now is a place where a bewildering array of factions, sects, clans, criminal networks and separatist groups all feel that political expression is best accomplished by body count.

In other parts of the world, the assertion of Shiite rights often is reported as a worrying development. The rise of Hezbollah, for instance, is (correctly) seen as an Iranian-sponsored push to create a militant “Shiite Crescent” from Iran through southern Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon, and to the Mediterranean coast. But in other parts of the Muslim world, including not only Pakistan, but also the eastern oil-rich areas of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Shiites are being repressed by often brutal Sunni rulers.

It’s hard to say where those mixed Arab societies are heading, but it would not be surprising if the Sunni-on-Shiite carnage of South Asia migrates back to the nations whose theocrats financed the spread of this death cult in the first place.

- Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.





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