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A problem of perception

It was the worst massacre in Quetta in over a decade and even in such a city, stalked by death and haunted by terror, it marks a new standard.

This past Muharram, while the mourning rites of the month were commemorated on city streets, bombers struck five times, killing around 50 people and injuring hundreds. The days after were hardly peaceful, two and three killed every day or so, a deadly bombing in Mastung killing several pilgrims on December 30 — everything led up to January 10, when five more bomb blasts left over a hundred dead, mainly of the Hazara community, their burials delayed by stunned mourners with no recourse.

It is this question of recourse that is the difficult one. In the days since the Quetta massacre, a robust dose of analysis has emerged. The failed state, the largely apathetic population, the military and the frightened followers of other groups have all been apportioned doses of blame. These are the local coordinates of the problem: how the rhetoric of sectarianism managed to penetrate a country and divide into death and silence.

But carnage and killing have never just been a local issue; the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the annihilation of other similarly situated minorities in other parts of the world has, at least in numerous if not all cases, the attention of the world. In turn, international attention has galvanised local actors, made leaders shameful and produced some small succour for the suffering.

In the case of the killings of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, which according to news reports number over 600 in 2012 alone, the lack of international attention points to the issue of framing the deaths as a sectarian versus a human rights issue.

Within Pakistan, the targeted killings of Shia people are largely framed within the public sphere as an issue of anti-extremism. According to this framing, the killing is wrong based on loosely identified principles of national unity, constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and a vague but repeatedly avowed history of religious tolerance based on a peaceful interpretation of Islam.

All of this goes up against a vitriolic and violent set of religious edicts propagated in a variety of religious seminaries and mosques that have penetrated Pakistan’s side streets, slum alleys and snazzy suburbs alike. Within the Shia community, the efforts to stop the killings are framed within a religeo-theological framework, with the intent of mobilising Shia from all around Pakistan to defend those such as the Hazara that are directly facing the onslaught of violence.

The problem is that they have failed, as a whole, to create enough of an imperative for the non-Shia Pakistani — who may or may not ascribe to the virulent ideology — to do anything to stop the violence or even vociferously condemn it with mass mobilisation or action, barring the recent mass protests over the weekend.

In the international realm, the problem does not belong to Pakistan alone. The categorisation of Shia-Sunni violence resulting from a theological schism hundreds of years ago is something that appears more inaccessible to human rights activists as compared to other human rights conflicts, be they between two religious groups, a dictatorial government against an unarmed population or small tribes fighting international corporations. The origins of the Shia-Sunni schism, the details of the theological interpretations, the groups and subgroups, all represent vexing complexities that can’t easily be reduced to the black and white moral dimensions that underpin human rights advocacy.

Another reason, perhaps, is the long-standing scepticism among secular human rights activists of meddling in intra-theological debates. Since the centrality of human rights discourse is based on the core dignity of the individual human, how then to deal with the theological complications of right and wrong that are based primarily on religious belief?

A third conundrum stems from the detritus of ‘Islamophobia’ littered all over the world in the aftermath of a long decade of war. Through this lens, the internal problems of Muslims should be the prerogative of Muslims themselves. This goes up against simple bad timing; in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan the dominant thrust of human rights advocacy is focusing on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Muslim countries. Given this, advocating international action against Muslims seems like a project too meddlesome, messy and close to asking for precisely the sort of intervention that has turned out so terribly.

In post-invasion Iraq, it was the Sunni-Shia schism that exposed the ghastly mistakes of the American nation-building project and marked various projects of awakenings and revivals that again perpetuated human rights abuses. The cumulative effect on human rights advocacy groups has been to leave them less likely to prioritise anti-Shia violence as a human rights issue worthy of the world’s attention.

The consequence of all this is, of course, most tragic for the Shia community in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan. With local actors, political or military, largely untouched by the violence unleashed on groups such as the Hazara or even Shia Muslims at large, there is little motivation to act — with even untouched Shias perhaps understating their identity on the basis of self-interest and fear.

When you add to this the absence of apolitical advocacy on anti-Shia violence that is locally relevant to the ordinary Pakistani, the result is a hopelessness that seems insurmountable despite the alarming escalation in violence. The final nail in the coffins of the Shia who have died is the curse of poor timing and complex dynamics which have prevented the framing of anti-Shia violence on the international level as a human rights issue, leaving it to languish as an internal problem between Muslims and affecting Muslims but unlikely to ever be solved by Muslims.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Rafia Zakaria, "A problem of perception," Dawn. 2013-01-16.