Protests spread in Pakistan over Shiite killings

Minority leaders and even mainstream politicians are growing more bold in calling on the country's military to crack down on anti-Shiite militants.  

Mani Rana/Reuters
Shiite Muslims gather to protest against last Thursday's twin bomb attack in Quetta, in Lahore January 13. Protests against attacks on Shi'ites spread across Pakistan on Sunday as the prime minister flew to the western city of Quetta to meet mourners who refused to bury their dead until the government promised them better protection from Sunni militants.

With at least 86 coffins lying next to them on the road, people from the Hazara community in Pakistan are refusing to bury their dead in Quetta or to negotiate with the Prime Minister who rushed to the city following a deadly twin bombing there that killed more than 100 people on Thursday. 

The Hazara sit-in stretched into its third day today on a main road in the capital of the restive province of Balochistan. The protesters are demanding that the government take action against a Sunni militant group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has claimed responsibility for the bombing. Most Hazaras are Shiite.

Targeted killings of Shiites have been going on for years in Pakistan and picking up pace. But the breadth of the public outcry is unprecedented, as people across Sunni-majority Pakistan have come out in support of the Shiite minority community. Demonstrators entered onto roads in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad to express solidarity. On social media, hashtags like #ShiaGenocide have been trending here for the past few days.

The protests are also receiving support from beyond the elite who tweet and take up civil society causes. Populist politician Imran Khan also traveled to Quetta, addressed the families of the victims, and demanded action to be taken against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – something that politicians in Pakistan are often scared of doing for fear of reprisal attacks or angering the military establishment that many say backs the group.

“Military dictator Zia [ul-Haq] created Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the '80s to counter the rising influence of Shiites in Pakistan and the group continues to enjoy that support," says Ayesha Siddiqa, who has authored two books on the Pakistani military. "Now the military is backing them in Balochistan so that it can weaken the Baloch nationalist movement and create differences among local communities like the Hazaras and the Baloch to suppress the insurgency.” 

Ms. Siddiqa says the fact that Malik Ishaq, one of the leaders of the Jhangvi group named by the Hazara community to be arrested, held a public gathering in Karachi following the Thursday attack where he spoke against Shiites proves how the militant group operates freely in the country.

The military has denied ongoing support for the group. But Pakistani leaders are growing more bold in challenging that narrative.

Maulana Amin Shaheedi, who heads a national council of Shiite organizations, told a news conference in Quetta on Friday, "I ask the Army chief: What have you done with these extra three years you got [in office]? What did you give us except more death?" 

Hazara protesters are now demanding that the Army formally take charge of Balochistan province, so that the military can formally be blamed when Hazaras are not protected. The confrontation has emerged after the deadliest year on record for Shiites in Pakistan, with more than 400 killed in attacks in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch

According to local media, the Prime Minister is considering different options to diffuse the situation, including dismissing the provincial government and imposing a state of emergency in the province. 

At a protest in Islamabad, slogans against the Army like "Behind this terrorism is the uniform" could be heard.

“Such widespread outrage is new. We are seeing the Pakistani civil society taking up the Shia genocide as a humanitarian issue now, which in the past was thought to be a sectarian issue,” says Ali Irtiza, a Hazara attending the Islamabad protest.

Mr. Irtiza lost his brother in an attack in 2010 in Quetta. He now lives in Islamabad and says it is too dangerous for his family to go back.

Irtiza explains that the demand by his community back home for the military to take over the province is because many believe that the military already rules the province secretly. “By asking it to take over, they want to expose them, so that tomorrow the blame does not lie with the civilian government,” Irtiza adds, saying the civilian government is helpless in front of the military control.

The Pakistani military has been trying for decades to suppress a Baloch nationalist movement that argues the resource-rich province has fared poorly as part of Pakistan and should be independent. The separatists emphasize Baloch ethnic identity; the Army has historically drawn on Islamic identity to unify Pakistan and discredit ethnic nationalist movements.  

Against that backdrop, the Hazara community has become a target in Balochistan by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group that believes Shiites are heretics. The Hazaras have a different racial profile than other groups in the province, making them identifiable as likely Shiites. 

Although social media is buzzing with the protests and blame of the military, the mainstream Urdu media in Pakistan has left unexplored any possible linkages to the military and even to the religious differences behind the killings. Instead, most outlets describe the violence as local ethnic tensions unrelated to either Baloch nationalism or to Islamic identity.

“The Pakistani media is self-censoring and takes cue from the military establishment,” says Dr. Mohammad Taqi, who has written extensively on minority issues in the country. By identifying the issue as ethnic, the logic of Pakistan as an Islamic state remains as a unifying force, he explains. “Another factor that keeps media from clearly identifying the victims as Shiites is because a fear of reprisal from jihadists." 

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