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Security

Pakistani Shiites face 'sectarian cleansing': experts

As Pakistan's Shiite Muslims prepare for their biggest annual religious congregation on Sunday, commemorating the 'martyrdom' of Imam Hussein, their lives in the predominantly Sunni state are more unsafe than ever.

A string of attacks on Pakistan's Shiite Muslims in different parts of the country has killed at least 25 people.

One of the attacks on an Imambargah – a Shiite place of worship - in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, killed at least 23 people and wounded 62 on Wednesday. It was the deadliest attack on Pakistan's Shiites since February 17 when a suicide bomber killed 31 people in the restive northwestern Kurram region, one of the seven semi-governed tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan.

Another two Shiites were killed on Wednesday in two bomb attacks in the southern port city of Karachi.

Pakistani police said the Rawalpindi attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, who struck a procession of Shiite Muslims observing Muharram - the Shiite holy month. Muharram marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala where the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammad and his family members were killed.

Pakistani Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves with knifes during a Muharram procession in Lahore, Pakistan
(Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

A number of Shiite extremist organizations are also operating in Pakistan

The attacks were carried out as Pakistan hosts a high-profile D-8 (Developing Eight) summit in Islamabad. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are among the summit guests.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan - a Sunni-Wahhabi militant group - claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks. Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told the media that the Shiites were "defiling the Prophet (of Islam)." He said that the Taliban would launch more attacks on them in coming days.

Pakistan's Sunni militant extremists with links to al Qaeda have intensified their attacks on minority Shiites, whom they do not recognize as Muslims.

Pakistani media reported that a number of Shiites had received death threats via text messages on cell phones ahead of the biggest Muharram procession on Sunday.

Thousands of Shiites, who make up around 20 percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, are expected to march through the streets of many Pakistani cities on Sunday amid heavy security

The Shiite massacre

2012 has been one of the deadliest years for Pakistan's Shiites. Human rights groups say that more than 300 Shiites have been killed in Pakistan so far this year in sectarian conflict.

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan
(Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud, File/AP/dapd)

The Taliban want to control the Shia Gilgit region

In August, several gunmen, who were in the guise of Pakistani security officials, stopped a bus traveling from Rawalpindi to the northwestern Gilgit region and dragged the passengers off the bus. The gunmen asked the passengers to show their identity cards, after which they brutally killed 22 of them at point blank range, making sure that they belonged to the minority Shiite community. The Taliban claimed responsibility of the attack.

It was the third such incident in six months. Pakistani experts say that although Shiite Muslims are also murdered in other parts of Pakistan, those living in the northwestern Gilgit-Baltistan region, a predominantly Shiite area, face a systematic onslaught by the Taliban and other militant groups. Some experts have gone so far as to call it a "sectarian cleansing" of Shiites.

"What is happening to the Shiite Muslims in Pakistan is unimaginable," Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi, a Shiite activist in Karachi, told DW. "I can't go to work, can't pick up and drop my daughter off at school, and can't go to areas where the Shiites are in the minority. Our social life has almost ended." Zaidi also said that it had become impossible for Shiites in Pakistan to publicly express their views about religion and politics.

Pakistani human rights groups accuse the country's security agencies of backing Sunni militants and failing to protect the minority groups of the country.

"The killings are doubtless the work of those who want to destroy Pakistan, but a failure to nab and punish the killers is also contributing to the same end ... the Taliban are nobody's friends and those who created this monster have taken Pakistan down the road to annihilation," said Pakistan's non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement, directly holding the Taliban and state agencies responsible for the Shiite killings.

Failure of the state

Ali K. Chishti, a security and political analyst, told DW that the state had failed to protect not just the Shiites but most of its citizens. "What we are facing today is the result of Pakistan's decades-old security doctrine and foreign policy (vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India), which, in my opinion, has totally failed."

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
(Photo: AP/dapd)

President Asif Ali Zardari's government has failed to rein in sectarian violence, observers say

Chishti said that Pakistan was headed in a completely wrong direction and faced an existential threat due to its policies.

Many Pakistani analysts trace the origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan to the Afghan War of the 1980s. They say that Pakistan's former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq made it a state policy to fund and arm extremist Wahhabi groups in the 1980s, using these organizations against the Shiites to kill Iran's support in Pakistan and to increase its influence in Afghanistan.

London-based Pakistani intellectual Amin Mughal said that the policy of supporting groups like the Taliban had backfired and that the Pakistani state was no longer in a position to control the situation.

"It is a logical consequence of state policies which are based on religion," Mughal told DW, adding that the only way out of the crisis was for "true secular parties" to come to power and change the course of state affairs.

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