Shedding Light on Pakistan’s Rising Violence Against Shia Muslims

shia muslims

Photo Credit: Afreen/Twitter

Although Shia Muslims make up 20 percent of the population in Pakistan, they have been victims of extreme sectarian violence in the past few decades. Between 2001 and 2018, more than 7,000 Shia Muslims have been killed due to their faith. Tensions have risen exponentially in the country since the past month. Since August, multiple religious processions were attacked, dozens of Shia clerics were detained, and rallies declaring Shias infidels were carried out in the major cities. There are also reports of numerous men and women being targeted due to their faith and killed in broad daylight.

Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country that adopted the name “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan” in 1956, nine years after the conception of the country. Out of its 210 million population, 96 percent of the population is Muslim. Among Muslims, there are two different sects that the people are divided into — Sunni and Shia. While both groups believe in one God and the finality of Prophet Muhammad, they differ on who was the true successor of the Prophet. According to Sunnis, the true successors were democratically elected, while according to the Shia jurisprudence, their appointment was through divine intervention.

[Read Related: Faith and Solidarity: The Importance of Uniting Against Islamophobia]

This year, the sectarian wave of tensions began on the day of Ashura. Shia Muslims commemorate Ashura as the day when Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet, was brutally killed in Karbala in 680 A.D. When the special prayer for the day of Ashura was telecasted live, which condemns the killers of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, blasphemy charges were filed against the reciter of the prayer, who was subsequently arrested. According to hardline Sunnis, the people who are mentioned in the prayer as killers were Sahaba (companions) of the Prophet.

Multiple rallies were arranged with tens of thousands of people in attendance in Karachi and Islamabad, the two major cities of the country. In these rallies, there were several pockets of people who carried flags of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a banned extremist outfit responsible for anti-Shia violence in the country. These pockets also reportedly threw stones and desecrated an Imambargah in Lines area — Shia Muslims’s place of worship — while chanting “Kafir Kafir Shia Kafir” (translating to Shia Muslims are infidels).

https://twitter.com/Afreenrz/status/1304497570849456128

The leaders of the hardline Islamist parties took stage at the rallies and announced that insulting the companions and wishing God’s wrath upon them is a grave sin and will not be tolerated. They also threatened Shia Muslims openly, claiming that Sunni people can “get their heads cut off, but can also behead other people.”

Since then, over 40 FIRs for blasphemy have been registered against Shia Muslims in the country. The Blasphemy law is a very conservative one in Pakistan and can lead to a death sentence. In numerous incidents, the accused have been killed by lynch mobs even before they could be prosecuted by law. Yet, it is one of the many charges that is used freely against the minorities in the country. The country’s independent Human Rights Commission also took note of this rise in blasphemy cases against Shia Muslims and urged the government to uphold the “citizen’s right to freedom” and demanded that the police refrain from filing these FIRs without investigation due to the law’s sensitive nature.

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Apart from targeting Shia Muslims legally, extrajudicial killings and blocking religious processions have also become a new norm. While the state crackdown of these terrorists lulled the violence after 2015, the sectarian tensions have once again increased this month. The incidents are not reported in the mainstream news, however, social media has been abuzz about such incidents. A license holder of a religious procession was killed on his way to the morning prayers on Sept. 13. Days later on Sept. 17, a bank manager in the capital city of the country was gunned down in broad daylight because he identified as a Shia Muslim. In Kohat, a Shia majority city, at least 3 men have been killed due to their faith this month.

Sectarian violence has been one of the major issues in the country since the 1970s. However, Khalid Ahmed, a scholar on sectarian violence in Pakistan, claims that the country is not a “truly sectarian country” instead it is a “relocated battlefield for Sunni Shia conflict of the Middle East.” It is a common consensus among different scholars that like Syria and Yemen, Pakistan is a victim of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, resulting in rising in anti-Shia violence.

By Zainab Nayani

Zainab is an aspiring journalist from Karachi, Pakistan who recently moved to Houston, TX. Working in an underdeveloped country in … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular


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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).