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Curbing the Persecution of Shias



By Mehr F Husain

6 February 2015

Despite a violent Partition and the unpleasantness that followed in this new land, the Shia community had once enjoyed a peaceful existence in Pakistan free from any form of religious hatred or violence.

Now ‘Shia-hunting’ is fast becoming a sick sport of a kind. And the recent suicide attack on a Shia Imambargah indicated that Shia genocide is also an element of the war on terror that needs to be examined.

Almost always, the blood trail leads to Zia’s Islamisation program. While this largely consisted of introducing controversial laws including the Hudood Ordinances, for the Shia it was the zakaat tax that hit a nerve with them.

Zia’s introduction of the collection of zakaat from bank accounts, irrespective of the source of money, was not in accordance with the jurisprudence of any Islamic school of thought, but the Shia community in particular considered this an attack on their system of religious charity including khoms and zakaat.

Consequently, the Shias decided to hold a peaceful protest as a means of communicating their dissatisfaction, causing them to stage a sit-in in Islamabad which eventually culminated in the creation of the Shia Declaration Form.

Ironically, this peaceful act would be the seed from which anti-Shia sentiment would grow and with Zia's nurturing, flourish.

While the form exempted Shia from paying zakaat from their bank accounts, Zia used it as a means of singling out Shia in all areas including civil, military, government and socially.

As Shias were screened out at the earliest stage possible, there came a time when there were no Shia in the military or bureaucracy.

Soon after the zakaat protest, anti-Shia riots began to take place in areas where this religious minority was the majority, including Gilgit-Baltistan and Parachinar.

In a democratic regime, it is possible some elements of civil society would have moved to support Shias, but after Bhutto and under Zia, the left-wingers and liberals gave priority to the restoration of democracy, which they believed would resolve all problems - including Shia-based discrimination in Pakistan.

But any political movement, irrespective of religion, that took place as a means of expressing discontentment was crushed by Zia. What also added fuel to the fire were geopolitical shifts that typically overshadowed the problems at home, causing Pakistan to become embroiled in the Soviet Afghan war that saw the US and Pakistan come together as allies.

Here again, Zia’s support of the US consisted of recruiting young men as jihadists who were then packed off to Afghanistan and - post-war - morphed into the Taliban.

This Frankenstein would eventually be used against Shias who were being viewed as sympathisers of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

Religion became a political tool and with the assistance of foreign support, religious political parties found themselves in a position where they could generate anti-Shia sentiment via organisational support and distribute literature among the youth, causing them to recruit from institutions including Punjab University and Karachi University.

International funding also enabled madrasas to flourish, causing Zia to mutate a fragile democracy into a one-man show.

Sadly post-Zia, things became worse for Shias. So deeply embedded had the sectarian divide become in the form of books and lectures by hate-mongering preachers, that even a female Shia leader like Benazir Bhutto was left helpless to stop the persecution.

But as more Pakistanis strive for democracy pouring out in the name of cleaner elections and anti-terrorism, maybe those anti-Zia liberals were right.

Post Shikarpur, a group of activists staged a sit in demanding justice for the Shias who died, something that never happened under Zia.

A secular democratic Pakistan free of international meddling could be better for all minorities including Shias.

Mehr F Husain is a columnist based in Lahore