Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pakistan bus massacre underscores sectarian nightmare

On Wednesday morning as some 60 people, all members of Pakistan’s Ismaili Shia community, packed into a bus in Karachi, six gunmen boarded the bus and within minutes sprayed dozens of bullets into the passengers. At the end of 20 minutes of shooting, 45 people were dead – they were shot at point-blank range – and a dozen others injured.

At least three groups have claimed responsibility for the Karachi massacre so far. These include the Pakistan Taliban, the Islamic State (IS) and the Jundullah, an outfit that split from the Pakistan Taliban last year and claimed links with the IS.  The attack is the second deadliest in Pakistan this year. In January, 62 people were killed in a suicide bombing in a Shia mosque in Sind province.

Sectarian violence is routine in Pakistan and accounts for most of the bloodletting.  Places of worship and religious processions are often targeted by extremist outfits.  The Pakistani state cannot escape responsibility for this sectarian bloodshed.  Its emergence as a state that favors the Sunni Muslim majority alienated the minorities. Gen Zia ul Haq’s Islamization campaign not only provided momentum for Pakistan’s Sunnization but also he set up Sunni militias. This prompted Shias to set up their own paramilitary outfits. Shia-Sunni violence and counter-violence has wracked Pakistan since.

While Shias account for the bulk of Pakistan’s sectarian casualties, it is the Ahmadiyas who suffer the worst persecution. Both Sunnis and Shias regard them as non-Muslim. Street protests by religious hardliners resulted in the Ahmadiyas being declared ‘non-Muslim’ under the 1974 Constitution. It is illegal for an Ahmadiya to call himself a Muslim or his place of worship a mosque and he could find himself in jail for using the Muslim greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’. The word ‘Muslim’ was erased from the gravestone of Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Nobel laureate, who was an Ahmadi.

Ahmadiyas have been at the receiving end of countless attacks, whether in the form of abuse, beatings, killing or jailing. In May 2010, for instance, 94 of them were killed and over 120 injured in near-simultaneous attacks on two Ahmadiya mosques in Lahore.

Ismailis fear that they could end up like the Ahmadiyas.

A small Islamic sect, Ismailis are led by the Aga Khan. They regard the Koran as their religious text but Sunnis and Shias alike detest them. They could be described as a Shia sub-sect as like the Shias, they believe that Ali is Prophet Mohammed’s successor. This draws the ire of Sunni hardliners.

However, they broke away from Shias centuries ago when they adopted Ismail and not his younger brother as their seventh Imam. And unlike the Shias for whom Moharram, which marks the battle of Karbala and the death of Hussein, is the most important event of the year, Ismaili Shias give more attention to celebrating the Aga Khan’s birthday and the anniversary of his inauguration.

Sunni and Shia hardliners abhor the ‘unIslamic’ practices and ‘modern’ lifestyle of the Ismailis. It is likely that it is the secularizing impact of Ismailis on Pakistan’s society, especially its education that is bothering the country’s Islamic radicals and jihadi outfits. Schools run by Ismailis are co-educational and the curriculum is secular. Like the much-reviled Christians in Pakistan, Ismailis are looked upon as western stooges.

Ismailis have been targets of violence in the past as well. In 1982, for instance, in the Chitral area of northwestern Pakistan, about 60 Ismailis were killed and their community buildings burned down. In 2004, there were violent clashes between Sunnis and Ismailis in Gilgit. Targeting of Ismailis has increased over the past decade; an Ismaili scholar-spiritual leader was assassinated and employees working on the Aga Khan Foundation’s development projects have been attacked. The slaughter of Ismaili bus passengers in Karachi on Wednesday takes this violence to a new worrying level.

The violence together with the growing clamor for declaring Ismailis as non-Muslims is worrying. Secular-minded Pakistanis must speak up in their defense.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.


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