Shias: Heretics in a Sunni Pakistan

A suicide blast inside a Shia Mosque took place at Peshawar’s Koocha Risaldar area on March 4, with hospital officials saying that at least 57 people were killed while 194 were injured. Mohammad Asim, a spokesperson for Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), confirmed the casualties, adding that some of the injured were in critical condition. KP government Spokesman Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif said the explosion was a suicide bombing. He added that two terrorists were involved in the attack. Barrister Saif said security was provided to mosques as a “general rule”. He added that the administration had adopted security measures at this mosque as well, adding that such measures were always ensured during congregation prayers on Fridays.

Though, the previous year is marked ‘peaceful’ in terms of attacks on Shia, still two distinct violent incidents took place. On August 19, 2021, explosion happened in Ashura procession of Shia community in Bahawalnagar of Punjab province of Pakistan. In this attack, three people were killed and about 50 people were injured. Prior to this, on January 2, 2021, 11 Shia coalminers were kidnapped and subsequently killed by Islamic State militants in Mach town of Balochistan.

Pakistan is home to more than 200 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 in Pakistan are Shia. But, unfortunately, the members of Shia community are endangered to various forms of violence and so far, many thousands have lost their lives in target killings and explosions. Many go missing, never to come back, in acts of abduction. The past two decades of Pakistan’s history have been beset by the menace of violent religious extremism. Protracted dogmatic religious intolerance has led to a sharp increase in sectarian violence in Pakistan, predominantly between Shia and Sunni sects.

Historically, the Shia community has rarely been considered a minority in Pakistan (at least in treatment, if not in number). Shias being targeted in the same way as other religious minorities is a relatively recent phenomenon in Pakistan. Though, the Pakistan government does not officially support discrimination against Shias, it is waning to proficiently counter the influence of extremists and bring an end to viciousness and hatred against the community. The Shia population is spread all over Pakistan. While they do not constitute a majority in any of Pakistan’s four provinces, Shia do form a majority in the Pakistani-controlled autonomous region of Gilgit Baltistan. Significant numbers of Shia live in Peshawar, Hangu, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan, Orakzai and Kurram areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; in and around Quetta and the Makran coastline in Balochistan; in parts of southern and central Punjab; and throughout Sindh. Large Shi’a communities live in urban centres in Pakistan, including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Jhang, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Multan and Sargodha.

The Hazara community within the Shia sect also suffer violence due to their religious practice, not conforming with the Sunni majority, and also due to the fact of being ethnically ‘divergent’. Among the religious minorities of the country, one can easily say that the greatest burden of sectarianism is borne by the Shia Hazara community. Hazaras have consistently been targeted by terrorists and religious fanatics since 1999 through suicide bombings and targeted killings, with more than 2,000 having reportedly been killed in the last 14 years. A large concentration of Hazaras is in Balochistan, especially in the provincial capital of Quetta. With a population of whom about 600,000 in Quetta, the community, whose physical features make them easy targets, has been targeted in a sustained campaign of murders and bombings that has claimed at least 509 lives since 2013, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR). In addition, Hazaras are denied access to education and health facilities or to transportation in Quetta. Hazaras often try to conceal their identity by covering their heads when traveling outside the enclave’s groups, and terror outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), continue to organise public and free-spoken anti-Shia rallies, particularly against the Hazara community. Apparently, LeJ uses madrasa (Islamic Seminary) cells to run its extremist militancy against the Hazaras. The LeJ has claimed responsibility for various mass-casualty attacks against the Shia community in Pakistan. According to US Department of State’s Country Report on Terrorism, 2020, in July, 2020, Pakistani police arrested three LeJ operatives who were allegedly planning to carry out an attack in the Gujranwala, Pakistan. Explosive materials, detonators, and a safety fuse were recovered during the arrest.

Apart from direct forms of violence, members of Shia sect also suffer from random blasphemy cases, charged against them. Blasphemy, which is demarcated as the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, has always been distorted by religious fundamentalists and fanatics in Pakistan, who have sustained discrimination against the religious minorities of the country. Freedom House reported in its 2021 Country Report for Pakistan: “Members of the Shia sect, Christians, and other religious minorities remain at risk of blasphemy accusations that can arise from trivial disputes and escalate to criminal prosecution and mob violence”. Moreover, the International Religious Freedom Report 2020 noted, “Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community”. There were 82 persons imprisoned on blasphemy charges as at 2019, adding that NGOs reported an increase in blasphemy charges in 2020 – at least 199 persons were charged, the highest number of cases seen in a single year, according to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ). Of those, 70 per cent of cases were against Shia Muslims.

The practice of enforced disappearances is a horrible practice followed in Pakistan, regularly pointing ethnic minorities such as Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi, and Muhajir. However, in case of missing Shias, it is not clear why and on what grounds they ‘disappear’. According to UK government report of July 2021, at least 34 recorded cases had been missing for 2 or more years. Sources indicated that disappearances continue to occur. The report further stated that, in May 2018, estimates for the number of forcibly “disappeared” Shias ranged from 140 to around 300. The abductors, seemingly the security agencies, claim that the missing persons were involved in sectarian violence within Pakistan. The security agencies ‘fear’ that Shias who returned from Syria pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability. Under this excuse, the security agencies pick up Shias who return from Syria. Police and the paramilitary forces recurrently search Shia homes and tell the families that their loved ones will be sent back once the investigation is done. But the people are moved to hidden locations, with no information given to their families, hardly ever come back.

The government under Imran Khan need to protect the rights of Shia citizens by prosecuting those who carry out violence or provoke viciousness against the Shia or any other religious community. The government needs to act to safeguard that Shias, like those of all other faiths or no faith, continue to have the ability to live their lives without threat or fear of abduction and attack.

Sanchita Bhattacharya
Sanchita Bhattacharya
Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya, is Research Fellow in New Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management. Her core area of research is Madrasa Education in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. She works on terrorism and socio-political issues of Pakistan. She also has an avid interest in the Af-Pak region. Her articles and commentaries have been published in East Asia Forum, The Kabul Times, The Outlook, The Pioneer, South Asia Monitor etc. She has written research papers in national and international journals and also contributed chapters in various edited volumes. She can be reached at sanchita.bhat83[at]