Pakistan’s Newest Martyrs: Why Anti-Shi‘ite Violence May Be the Country’s Biggest Problem

Last year, over 400 Shi‘ite were killed across Pakistan, double the number killed in 2011. A significant minority in majority Sunni Pakistan, Shi‘ites comprise roughly a quarter of the country's population

  • Share
  • Read Later
Naseer Ahmed / REUTERS

Bodies of Shi‘te victims who were killed by twin explosions are laid in a mosque in the Pakistani town of Quetta on Jan. 11, 2013

For days, they refused to bury their dead. On a main road in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, hundreds of mourners from the local Hazara community, adherents of Shi‘ite Islam, watched over the nearly 90 coffins in below freezing temperatures. The victims of an increasingly bloody wave of terror were no longer willing to inter the corpses of their loved ones for the world to forget about them.

Among the dead was Irfan Ali, a brave and much liked young activist who had to abandon his education because of the appalling security situation in the province of Baluchistan, where Quetta is the capital, yet devoted much of his time telling the world about the suffering of his people. Last Thursday, Ali felt he had cheated death the first time. He tweeted that he had narrowly escaped a bombing in Quetta. When he went to tend to the victims, a second deadlier blast struck the billiards hall in Quetta, raising the death toll to nearly 100. It was the greatest single tragedy to visit the community.

The tragedy jolted many Pakistanis, bringing tens of thousands around the country out onto the cold streets. Protests and candlelight vigils sprouted in many cities. Ali, the slain activist, was a familiar face at such protests. In recent photographs, he was seen holding up the image of a Pashtun politician, who was assassinated by the Taliban last month. This time, many protesters held aloft portraits of Ali’s smiling face, some adorned with words from his Twitter bio: “I am born to fight for human rights and peace. My religion is respect and love all the religions.”

The protests were eventually heard. Some of the largest crowds had gathered in Karachi, outside the private residence of President Asif Ali Zardari. On Monday, the government dispatched Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to Quetta to meet with the victims. Chief Minister of Baluchistan Nawab Aslam Raisani, a figure of clownish incompetence with a taste for the good life, was told there was no job waiting for him when he returned from his latest foreign jaunt. The provincial government was sacked, having forfeited its mandate. And a form of emergency rule imposed under the province’s more stolid governor.

(MORE: War in Mali: France Can Bomb Militants, but Not Arms Routes)

It was enough to persuade the families of the Hazara victims to bury their dead, but more will need to be done to stop others from being sent to an early grave. Last year, over 400 Shi‘ites were killed across Pakistan, double the number killed in 2011. A significant minority in majority Sunni Pakistan, Shi‘ites comprise roughly a quarter of the country’s population. At least a quarter of the recent death toll belongs to the Hazara community in Baluchistan, who migrated there over a century ago from neighboring Afghanistan. Seeking safety, many have been making journeys onward. Last Thursday’s attacks, though deadlier than previous ones, were depressingly familiar.

In recent years, Shi‘ite pilgrims from the Hazara community have been hauled off buses bound for pilgrimages in Iran to be lined up and summarily shot. In other parts of the country, as far apart as Karachi in the south, Lahore to the east, the northern hills of Gilgit, Parachinar near the Afghan border, and Dera Ismail Khan in the northwest, Shi‘ite worshippers have seen their processions routinely attacked.

On each of these occasions, Shi‘ite worshippers had gathered in the streets, as they have done for centuries, to mourn the memories of their ancient martyrs. They left having to mourn the loss of new ones. The seventh century massacre of their most revered saint, Imam Hussein, and his followers, becomes not just a retelling of the foundation of their faith. It is relived as a parable for the present, the story of a vulnerable minority brutally slaughtered for its beliefs.

The responsibility for these attacks has often been claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), probably the most dangerous group operating in Pakistan today, and its militant allies. LeJ began life as an even more vicious offshoot of the banned anti-Shi‘ite organization, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). A decade ago, the group found common doctrinal ground with newcomers from al-Qaeda and proffered its deep and pervasive network. Al-Qaeda maintained operational control, LeJ supplied the foot soldiers. The lethal combine has been blamed for attacks such as the 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott and the 2009 Lahore attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team.

The failure to stop these militants is the collective failure of Pakistan’s power elites: the politicians, the army and the judiciary. Less than 24 hours after the Quetta attacks, Malik Ishaq, a notorious LeJ leader, was in Karachi inciting further anti-Shi‘ite hatred. “I don’t have fun making speeches,” the self-confessed killer of Shi’ites told his supporters. “You know what I have fun doing.”

Ishaq was shockingly released from prison in 2011 after the courts said they didn’t have enough evidence to convict him. As is often the case, witnesses are not protected and are either eliminated or reduced to a terrified silence. The prosecution and the police fail to marshal the evidence necessary to support a conviction. There are also questions that analysts raise about Islamabad’s intelligence agencies’ links to sectarian groups like the LeJ and its parent organization, the SSP.

Ishaq has barely been prevented from roaming around freely. He was briefly taken into custody once only to be released again. He and his cohorts are also the beneficiaries of sordid deals with Pakistan’s power elites. When the army’s headquarters were under siege in 2009, Ishaq was reportedly flown from prison to help negotiate a stand-down. The Punjab government, lead by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, has courted votes alongside leaders of the anti-Shi‘ite SSP.

The failure of Pakistani authorities to protect the Shi‘ite population and act against their killers is eroding faith in the state and its institutions. Their failures amount, as Human Rights Watch has said, to complicity. It also raises troubling questions about Pakistan’s identity. In 1947, after the partition of the subcontinent, Pakistan was founded ostensibly as a state for the region’s Muslims — and the minorities that live there. The founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was himself a secular man of a Shi‘ite background.

Over the decades, various minorities have found themselves under siege. Prejudiced laws against the Ahmadi Muslim sect have seen the group’s leadership take exile as its followers have either abandoned the country, fall foul of its blasphemy laws or lose the loved ones in terrorist attacks by the same groups that have targeted the Shi‘ites. The beleaguered Christian community fares no better, similarly trapped between militant violence and laws that make them vulnerable to persecution. The old Parsi community has dwindled sharply, with an estimated three times as many living in Toronto as do in Karachi.

For the Shi‘ites, it was supposed to be different. They have long lived peacefully alongside the majority Sufi-inspired Sunni community, marching together at the same annual Muharram processions. There were always levels of prejudice, with bigots comparing Shi‘ites to “cockroaches” and hard-line Deobandis — adherents of a puritanical South Asian strain of Sunni Islam — declaring them heretical. But the Pakistani mainstream never considered them a separate minority. In public, for example, Shi‘ite politicians are not identified by sect.

If, however, Shi‘ites are not going to feel safe in Pakistan, it will have grave consequences not just for the country but also the wider region. Pakistan’s Shi‘ite population is second only to neighboring Iran, where Shi‘ites are the majority and Shi‘ite Islam is embedded in the heart of the country’s politics. In the long term, it could be the most destabilizing of all of Pakistan’s problems — with the violence not restricted to a remote borderland, but tearing into the country’s very fabric.

MORE: TIME Exclusive: Q&A with Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar


It was Zafrullakhan who pleaded Kashmir's case in international fora.He was Ahamadiya.Ahamadiyas served their country in many capacities.They are as much patriotic as any islamic sect in Pakistan.They were declared non-muslims and subjected to great indignities.The life of Shias is no less tragic.The Christians cannot live in peace and dignity.Intolerance will only weaken Pakistani state.Fanatic goons have a narrow vision.


Until Muslims become more tolerant and accepting within their own faith, there is no hope.Outside of intra-faith squabbles and hatred, women especially need a voice--and full equal rights that rival men's!

I recently published a novel (available at Amazon and on Kindle), "The Prophetess of Islam." It is *fiction* but it is favorable and encouraging to Muslim women! Unfortunately, some Muslims have taken issue with the fact my main character is woman (and lesbian). They also are shocked a woman has been approached in person, by Allah via the angel Gabriel and Prophet Muhammad, to change (i.e. improve) the way Islam treats women. My heroine proclaims modern Islam is not what Allah intended when it was founded millennia ago. Sadly, I have received hate comments from a video I created for the book (

All Muslims need to get along--among themselves and with the world. Finally, I hope Pakistan's young Malala  Yousufzai receives the Nobel Peace Prize! Getting shot in the head (Taliban) for daring to expect girls should get an equal education? That is barbaric. Internationally, the whole Muslim whole should be crying out against the Taliban and other tribal area backward thinking.


Please! Without realizing the facts, do not crush the reality. This is media tried its best to create a situation of law and order. The Shuhadas were Shi'its but not the Pakistani Shi'its, let me tell some about them.
Hazara tribe in Baluchistan, Pakistan are from the chain of Mangolians, the entered Pakistan being refuegies, but they were not, because they aquire a land for their tribe near Quetta, dug their own water wells, open their schools, start farming for teir eatables, the ratio of education in Baluchistan is in maximum with Hazra tribers, after their schooling they use to go Quetta for further education, now the situation is: They people are the most educated community, they have honoured government jobs due to their qualifications, sincerety and hardworking.
They were not killed in terrorist attack (if I guess) but some other tribe(s) planned it, and who want to kill someone didn't get permission from the goverment, so I don't think it has been done by the involvement of government. But I am very much surprised to read former cheif minister's press release that in a sympathy he was ready to send them a truck of tissue papers for their eye droops, government of Pakistan and the cheif justice Ch: Iftikhar must take a rapid notice of his fun making press release.
Although the reporter reported in the end that they were from Hazara tribe, but who cares to read the full news, and please note it IN PAKISTAN THE SECTARIAN CLASHES ARE NOT IN SUCH KIND AS IN BETWEEN IRSH AND ENGLISH PEOPLE, PROTESTENTS & CATHOLICS, AND PLEASE MIND YOU THIS KILLING WAS NOT BY ANY OTHER SECT.



Pakistan is a disaster meant to unfold. A State created out of alienation with people who they all descended from(Hindus), any notion of a secular Pakistan, espoused by its founding father,Jinnah, was doomed to failure. Enter Zia Ul Haq, who created a Arab-style Islamic Country, with bountyfull petro-dollars and this has made Pakistan a Sunni dominated, Wahabi influenced nation with intense hatred for all those who don not belong! The Shias are the obvious target of this bigotry and the Military, which was so systematically indoctrinated by Zia's thoughts, actively supports Jihadis like the LeJ and LtE. The bigger conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia for domination of the Arab World is also playing out in Pakistan. Open Civil War in Pakistan and infact the entire Islamic world between Shias and Sunnis has shown deadly results in Syria. There is more to follow!


@sridhar.sid Thank for telling that Pakistani Nation has no mind and thinking, they are same as cattles that on which direction their government push them they move and every government is crazy of dollars and gold. Thank you for the great information for us Pakistanis which only based upon electronic & print media.

makhdoomh 2 Like

when people speak of European racism, they also mention European anti-semitism. Why? Because while the racist European goverments and societies were responsible for massive genocides across the world (example: Tazmania) these were all different in one crucial way than the european hatred of jews. You see, while the European was extremely racist, hateful, and dangerous towards coloured peoples and non-Christians, his hatred for Jews had a particular 'flavour'. It was total. Absolute. Merciless. The European never sought to civilize the Jews, but rather to kill the Jew, to hunt the Jew down and wipe him out. The Holocaust was the logical outcome of centuries of Europeans developing hate and methods of killing. 

Now, when we talk about Wahabis, deboandis, Salafis, and salafi leaning Sunnis we must recognize that they patently do not respect others faiths. Indeed, they are intolerant of other faiths. Yet, the notion of 'dhimmi' helps to stave of the worst excesses of their violence against non-muslims. Rather than wiping out Christians, they mistreat them and kill some of them. However, the Salafi hatred of the Shia has a particular 'flavour'. Just like European anti-semitism, the Salafi and often some Sunni hatred of Shia is total, complete, absolute. It seeks to wipe the Shia out, to hunt them down, to eradicate them. This has been attempted several times, and the logical outcome will be a Holocuast of the Shia people that will span from the tip of West Africa to the western border of India. 

In this way, the Jew is to the European as the Shia is to the Salafi or sunni leaning Salafi. They will not be statisfied until the Shia are wiped out of the middle east, north africa, india, pakistan, and central asia. 

Shia are facing an existential threat exactly similar to that faced by Jews while in Europe. 

Hindu 1 Like

Times has missed on one of the most oppressed religions in Pakistan, a religion which at the time of the Country's birth was more than 20% of the population and is less than 1% at 2011. HINDUs dont count for much looks like...

bahloldana121 3 Like

Most of the Shia killing in Pakistan is done LeJ, and SSP. But where do they get the money and support? Well its Saudi Arabia. The biggest sponsor of Terrorism is Saudi Arabia. They are responsible for killing Shia's in Bahrain, Iraq , Pakistan and Saudi Arabia itself. This enmity has been around for ages and God only knows if and when this will go away.


why are we fighting against one another, be it shia or sunni we are supposed to be one ,one islam one quraan , why the difference, we have lost our focus and forget the real enemy. killing another muslim because he disagrees with your views is haraam, not shaheed.  


in my point of  view pakistani is the great nation all around the world inspite of many crisis the people of pakistan are hopeful  and fight againt the terorisom  andd have been facing blew  the belt situation. they have been sacrificing their lives  and peace just for the world .

HamaadKhan 1 Like

Seriously one sided and narrow focussed brief for this report.

One thing the article fails to mention is that though the media is very quick to highlight Shia murders, when the Sunnis are murdered by terrorists (proportionality speaking that is), their religious affiliation is not mentioned. The fact remains there are many issues Pakistan is facing and none more so than a completely defunct and inefficient government who cannot deliver at all. Also, with discussing the government, the author fails to mention that the President [Zardari] and the ruling members of the Peoples Party ARE Shia (!!)

What we're facing in Pakistan are alien forces spreading terror and fear amongst the populace and the media (local and foreign) sensationalising the incidents. The media highlights when certain Baloch 'go missing', yet fails to mention that many more non-Baloch in Balochistan have been killed. These are but two examples, countless more exist...

Finally, again which the author failed to mention, was the fact that the mourners wanted the military to take over the province of Balochistan; scrapping the 'elected' parliament. Unfortunately, that would not suit the advocates of democracy but ask those who have to live this nightmare which seems to elect the same blood sucking, pathetic, incompetent feudals who care not for their 'subjects' but for the lavish lifestyle they enjoy (at Pakistan's expense!!) in the UK or US!

Finally, I 'safety' is a very relative expression. How safe do Mexicans feel in Reysona? How safe do Kashmiris feel in their own home in India? How safe do school kids in US feel, considering all schools are now being armed? The point is, EVERY country has problems - we should look to find solutions, not create more. 

The short sighted views of some extreme jingoistic geo-strategists will find a situation which they haven't calculated in the formulation of any of their policies.

bahloldana121 3 Like

@HamaadKhan so can you say with a straight face that Shia Doctors, Lawyers , Judges , Business men etc have NOT been targeted for being a Shia. What did Malik Ishaq say he enjoys doing??? Why are people being taken off buses in Gilgit , identified by their ID as being Shia and mercilessly killed , all the while people are chanting 'Kafir Kafir Shia Kafir'. 

Yes I agree other people are being killed in some form or fashion in Pakistan, however if you were to look at the numbers of people killed in Pakistan, why is it that the Shia people are primarily coming out on the top, when they are a minority in the country and most are not so economically well off. 

Its people like you who have their heads in the sand and dont want to acknowledge the problem , leads people like Ishaq continue their brutal way of killing innocent people.

makhdoomh 2 Like

@bahloldana121 @HamaadKhan Well said. And what's more, the genocide, pograms, mass imprisonment, apartheid, and suppression against shias is over 1000 years old. Since the days of ali ibn abi talib, Shia have been the target of sunni muslim violence. Yet not once have our sunni brothers and sisters made an effort to recognize the virualent anti-shia sentiment amongst their ranks. 

Shia should push for genocide-acknolwedgement in which the major sunni shiekhs, governments, and institutions finally acknowledge that shia have been the target of systematic state-wide or government-wide repression and killing


Pakistan has many problems. Yet, the ossified nature of its dominant religion, Islam, is its greatest burden. 

makhdoomh 1 Like

@AmericanMuse Blaming 'Islam' is so very western of you. Perhaps you ought to blame Euro and N.America since they have destroyed, carved up, occupied, invaded, and ethnically cleansed throughout the last three centuries. 

You blame Islam? Really? Well, it certainly wasn't Islam who carved up the Middle East and Africa, who settled the whole world and colonized all its coloured peoples, who wiped out entire tribes like in the region of Tazmania, or who put Jews and Gypsies in ovens. You wanna know who is to blame? 

Westerns are so typically blind to their own history. The greatest burden on humanity is Europe and North America, followed by the Gulf Monarchies, the Chinese government, and the Russian gangster-politicians, followed by the African war-lords, South American drug-lords, and Pakistani feudal lords.

Sitting atop the tallest heap of skulls is a Westerner. 


Its High Time Pakistan Realized That Religious Hate Mongers Are Not Good For The Stability Of Pakistan Or World Peace.!!

MaudoodBhatti 1 Like

Pakistan is probably the only country in the world where its own citizens are unsafe as it has transformed itself into an extremist entity.

dilip.p.joshi 3 Like

Pakistan (the Land of the Pure) comprises four competing but largely impure power blocks:  (1) the Political Ruling Class, (2) the Judiciary (3) the Army and (4) the Terrorists. The recent killing of about 90 Hazaras in Quetta, Baluchistan, was an act of terrorism. Almost all acts of terrorism in Pakistan are not investigated. Therefore nobody gets any punishment. So in this particular case, why was the Chief Minister of Baluchistan summarily sacked? -- The answer lies in the power equation between these four blocks. The Political Ruling Class is too weak to act against the other three blocks. But it had to appear to act. The Hazaras with their agitation for justice were making life difficult for the political class. So they sacked one of their own -- the Chief Minister of Baluchistan. Actually, he is no worse than any other in the Political Class of Pakistan. But he makes an excellent scapegoat. Unfortunately, in all this play between the four Pakistani Power Blocks, the ordinary Pakistanis suffer.