The first month of 2014 has shown a bloody preview of what to expect for Shias and religious minorities in Pakistan. The past few weeks saw the targeted killing of Shia lawyers, doctors, and other professionals in Lahore, Karachi and various cities.
Many Shias I grew up with or have known for a very long time now fear for the well-being of their families. They have the same sense of belonging as any of us but have unfortunately reached a stage where they just don't feel safe anymore. The recent high-profile killings of professionals in broad daylight have engendered an increasing sense of insecurity. A recent attack that shook the nation and government alike took place outside Quetta, when a bus full of pilgrims returning from Iran was attacked, killing 22 people, including children.
The Sunni-Shia conflict is not new. Shias make up about 20 percent the national population of 180 million, according to the Pew Research Center. The roots of this sectarian violence are found in the '80s, when it escalated during General Zia's time. During that decade, Pakistan and Iran, which is predominantly Shia, began to develop a tense relationship. At that time, Saudi Arabia was supporting Pakistan and people started perceiving Shias as non-Muslim.
We would read about these attacks in far-off areas such as Balochistan, some cities vaguely familiar, some not at all. But now the attacks have moved closer to home. A Shia friend who recently mourned a friend's death caused by a targeted attack at a busy intersection just 15 minutes from his own residence in Lahore has been hit hard. He said he feels security measures always have loopholes and there is no foolproof way to fend off the threats of an assailant. "They can always catch you off guard, even if you have security personnel with you at all times, since you can't latch on to them perpetually," he mused.
In a country where even Sunni Muslims who do not conform to the majority's interpretation of Islam can be reckoned as minorities, Shias, Hindus, etc. face constant disparagement and persecution. Christians and other minorities are often fraudulently victimized and charged with the country's flawed blasphemy laws. While some have already left the country, others are feeling increasingly insecure living in a country that was created to guard Muslims from any discrimination.
The media have been highlighting these situations, but certain media houses have been targeted because of their radical stance on the Taliban and have consequently buckled under pressure and have hence adopted tacit policies of not writing against the Taliban. The Taliban, on the other hand, have succeeded in stifling the voices that give a counternarrative and challenge their draconian ideology.
We have exhausted all options of talks and negotiations, and a military option seems like the only step to curb elements that destabilize the country. But the government seems to be getting wobbly, and after deciding on conducting military operations, they seem to be whirling in confusion by giving talks "another chance." In the long term, the government should aim to support efforts to promote interfaith harmony and generate dialogue that can find a middle ground on ideological divisions.
Pakistan is not just facing a string of attacks on minorities; it is facing defeat from elements that have successfully destabilized the country and continue to do so. People feel terrorized and are wondering whether they will be next, deliberating whether they should have an exit plan prepared. The future of Shias and other vulnerable minorities looks bleak in a country that is religiously sensitive and combustible to variance in ideologies. The terrorists have now succeeded in spreading terror, and the state has failed to perform its primary duty of protecting its citizens. Meanwhile, the minorities remain in fear and fight for survival.