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The State's Role in Pakistan's Ethnic Violence

Violence against minority groups has become a staple of life in Pakistan these days - a crisis that country's government has been complicit in impelling. The most recent attacks against Shias, the minority Muslim group in the country of 180 million, occurred Sunday evening in Karachi, when two explosions went off outside a prominent Shia Mosque, killing at least 45 people and injuring around 150. Sunday's attacks follow similarly lethal strikes in January and February, which killed close to 200. While the Shia community may be the latest group to be targeted for their religious beliefs, their persecution follows a similar pattern in Pakistan, as terrorist groups, unhindered by the state, have antagonized Hindus, Christians, and other minorities for years.

A hostile environment for minorities did not come about in a vacuum, but has instead been harnessed through deliberate politics and inaction on behalf of Pakistan's government. A signature moment in pushing the country into this downward spiral of ethnic and religious violence occurred following the 1977 military coup that instilled General Zia ul-Haq as Pakistan's military dictator. Following General Zia's overthrow of the democratically elected government, he sought the Islamization of Pakistan, establishing a governing structure that was rooted in strict Islamic dogma. While Pakistan had always formally been an Islamic Republic, it was founded on the vision of creating a pluralistic country that was open and welcoming to other cultures and religions, and largely had been up to this point in its history. Zia's policies were a reversal of this vision.

The Ahmadi community in particular was singled out by this move towards Islamization. Zia created an ordinance to specify that Ahmadis, who consider themselves followers of Islam, would no longer be classified as Muslims, and were subject to incarceration if they claimed to be. As of 1984, when the amendment was passed, the state sanctioned judgment of what Islam looks like, who can consider themselves followers of Islam, and what is dogmatically acceptable.

Such narrow, antagonistic judgment is at the heart of the terrorist attacks that have devastated the Shia community in Pakistan today. Militant groups, such as the Lakshar-e-Jhangvi, have unilaterally decided who is worthy to be considered a true believer, and who deserves to be persecuted and attacked, just as the Pakistani state did 30 years ago. And while the consequences of not following a specific sect of Islam are much more fatal when dealing with militant groups, the concept remains the same.

Perhaps equally alarming is that the Pakistani government has been disturbingly absent in protecting persecuted minority groups, whether it is the Ahmadis decades ago, or Shias, Christians, and Hindus today - the state seems completely unable or unwilling to safeguard its citizens. The lack of consideration from the government has drawn widespread protests throughout Pakistan, as thousands of individuals have taken to the streets to demand justice and protection, and in some instances, families of terrorist victims have refused to bury their dead until the government acts out against these terrorist groups. The Hazaras in particular, a group of Shia Muslims who are recognizable by their distinct facial features, have grown especially frustrated from a lack of government support. Last week, the Hazara community, who has been especially victimized by anti-Shia violence, vowed to take up arms on their own to protect themselves, since the government has been unwilling.

Pakistan been politically unstable for the majority of its history, but these past few years have been especially trying. Political uncertainty compounded with economic turmoil, a war with insurgents, a butchered relationship with the United States, as well as the ever-pervasive threat of conflict with India has left the country tattered. But the nation's political leaders cannot afford to continue to marginalize segments of their own population. The Pakistani state was instrumental in creating an environment that promoted religious and ethnic discrimination, and it is now guilty of inaction - allowing for persecution and violence to exist without putting up any resistance. This is immoral and unacceptable of any elected government, and the world should take notice. For their part, Pakistani citizens should continue to demand justice and protection from their government, continue their protests, and continue to take to the streets. If this current government cannot fulfill its obligation of security to all Pakistanis, then Pakistanis should demand a new, more capable government in elections later this year.