The right to practice religion is a universal one that extends to every inhabitant of the world. In Pakistan, however, this right is frequently violated, as Shia face suicide attack and online hate speech on a daily basis.
Pakistan is home to 220 million people, almost all of whom are Muslim. It is also home to one of the largest Shia populations in the world, as an estimated 20 percent of Muslims there are Shia.
Shias in Pakistan are geographically spread across the country. The highest numbers are found in the Gilgit-Baltistan province in the northern region, where they form the majority. Cities in Pakistan like Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Multan are also home to large Shia communities. In recent decades extremists have increasingly targeted them with hate propaganda and terrorism.
There are numerous Shia mosques and dargahs, or shrines, located across Pakistan. Shia ‘ulama’ have been at the forefront of communal activism in Pakistan since 1949.
In August 2020, Pakistan witnessed a surge in anti-Shia politics. At least six huge anti-Shia rallies were carried out by different Sunni groups in five different cities, including the capital of the country. In recent decades extremists have increasingly targeted them with hate propaganda and terrorism.
Over the years, the Shias of Pakistan have been specifically targeted and killed by machine guns and suicide bombers. They have been killed inside mosques and shopping markets, while on pilgrimage to Iran and even at funerals. Hazaras have been the victims when extremists have gunned down buses packed with pilgrims heading to Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border at Baluchistan.
In 2011, extremist organisations in Quetta sent an open letter to the Shia Hazara people stating: “All Shias are worthy of killing and the intention is to make Pakistan their graveyard.”
Attacks on Shias escalate during the month of Muharram, when Shias mourn the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet by taking out street processions in the thousands. During Muharram in 2012, 30 Shias were killed and more than 200 injured in attacks. In November 2013, on the 10th day of Muharram, a suicide bomber killed eight people and left 30 injured in a Shia procession in Rawalpindi.
In January 2014, a suicide attack on a bus with Shia pilgrims left at least 22 dead.
The rise in online hate speech was also alarming. Between August and September 2020, the Minority Rights Group reported that a sentiment algorithm documented an increase in negative tweets about Shias, which “collectively reached millions of social media users in Pakistan.” Fully 46 percent of social media mentions of Shias examined during that period were negative. The most frequent word used to refer to the community was the Urdu word for “infidel.”
The increase in illegal detentions is a worrying sign is that there is a section within the state that still views Shias as a security threat.
The Pakistan Hate Speech Monitor documented a massive wave of anti-Shi’a hate speech online specifically between the 26th of August and the 20th of September 2020. On a sentiment algorithm, the overall conversation was negative at 46 per cent, far higher than the positive conversation (10 per cent).
There were three major spikes in hate speech, the first being the week of the 2nd of September with 48 mentions, the second from the 12th of September with 234 mentions and the third visible in the week starting from the 18th of September with 43 mentions. The Urdu word for ‘infidel’ was particularly prevalent. All three spikes collectively reached millions of social media users in Pakistan, with the top influencer’s reach exceeding 500,000, Minority rights mentioned.
For Shias, the negative perceptions make them a target not only for extremists but for the security forces. In May 2018, estimates for the number of forcibly “disappeared” Shias ranged from 140 to around 300. In April 2019, the Shia community, led by the Joint-Action Committee for Shia Missing Persons, held a two-week-long sit-in outside the President’s House in Karachi.
With their safety at stake, Pakistan’s beleaguered Shia community is seeking justice from the country’s founder. The Shia community, has come to the realization that government institutions are either apathetic or incapable of addressing their plight.