The attack on one of three Shia mosques in Peshawar is yet another atrocity perpetrated on the Shia people who live in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attack, claimed by the ISKP this time, is probably the deadliest in Peshawar since over 140 schoolchildren died in the Army Public School in 2014. That was claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Persecution of the Shia community of this region dates back to over a hundred years. But it has evolved into genocide over the last few decades. Attacks on the Hazara Shia in Afghanistan, and Shia people – whether they are Hazara in Balochistan, various Shia tribes of Kurram, or the Shia of Peshawar in Pakistan – are all interlinked. The Pashtun ruler of Afghanistan, Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, attacked Hazarajat in the late nineteenth century to bring it under his rule and brutally murdered and enslaved the Hazara Shia and pillaged their homes.
Not Limited to the Hazara
Over the years, many fled to Pakistan’s Balochistan, and Mashad in Iran. But as stated earlier, the more recent persecution and genocide of the Shia in Pakistan is not limited to the Hazaras. It has turned from an ethnic into an intensely sectarian conflict, largely inflicted on the Shia by the various Sunni militant groups that have proliferated in the region as a result of Afghanistan’s invasion first by the Soviet, and later by Americans.
Sunni jihadist groups, whether in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, have repeatedly targeted the Shia during and between the two wars in Afghanistan.
The Shias of this region are now an endangered religious minority. Peshawar’s Shia are particularly imperilled, not just because there are no more perhaps than 50,000 of them left in the city but because they are also a linguistic minority, as they are largely Hindko- and Persian-speaking.
Of the over 60 people killed in the Peshawar attack, close to half were non-Pashtuns. Their purge has been ongoing for over 30 years. They will not be politically active or organised, unlike the Shia of Kurram, or the Shia Hazara of Quetta. The Hazara in their area and the Kurram tribes are able to at least protest given their sheer numbers (at least in their own respective areas).
The Peshawarite Shia have emerged as one of the most vulnerable even amongst the Shia in Pakistan as they have been made a minority in their ancient city. The Farsiwaan, the Shia quarter of Peshawar that this attack was perpetrated upon, predates even the Afghan Empire; it’s from before the time of Ahmad Shah Abdali.
The first attack on Peshawarite Shia was carried out by the Sipah-e-Sahaba in 1992. Ever since then, they have been targeted because these attacks instil fear in everyone, and nobody is willing to do anything about it. The Pakistani state just turns its face the other way. Worse, the state and its trolls exhort everyone to ignore who is being targeted and for what. The mantra is “Pakistanis were killed”. The state does not want anyone to highlight or understand that the Shia are under attack.
How Taliban's Rise Has Emboldened Extremist Groups
After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021, human rights abuses have been on the rise not just in Afghanistan but also along the western border regions of Pakistan. The TTP has been emboldened, and the ISKP, too, has found space to exert itself. Some say that the ISKP is the new TTP, Pakistan’s new bogey to milk the West with. Though both these groups are at daggers drawn with each other over ideological and territorial detail, they are both virulently anti-Shia.
Further, Pakistan’s support of and collusion with Sunni jihadi outfits of all stripes, while ostensibly fighting with them, is now bearing the bitter “fruit” of escalating terrorism in the country.
Pakistan’s support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, by extension, the soft corner for the ISKP for future use, is now manifesting itself in the blowback that every person with an ounce of sense was predicting.
The beleaguered Shia, of course, have become the first, foremost, and softest target once more. The Shia are literally collateral damage. It is a well-known fact that in Balochistan, Laskar-e-Jhangvi has had a free run for decades and has targeted the Shia as the pound of flesh it extracts from the Pakistani state for eliminating secular nationalists.
But the wickedest tragedy is that Pakistan is not ready to acknowledge this tragedy unfolding on its soil. It is at pains to deny it.
While the state of Afghanistan has barely existed since the late 1970s, apart from the 20-year interlude of American occupation between 2001 and 2021, Pakistan has at least had a strong state structure and army by comparison. Hence, while Afghanistan may not have succeeded in protecting its Shia community because of never-ending wars, the Pakistani state has been apathetic at best – and actively complicit at worst – in the persecution and genocide of her Shia population.
Shia Have Always Been 'Expendable' for Pakistan
The tragic reality today is that even the so-called ‘progressive’ Pashtuns in Pakistan tried painting this attack on the Shia as an attack on Pashtuns, just because it happened in Peshawar. It would be worth noting here that the state of Pakistan has never tried to erase the Pashtun identity but to change its political identity.
With the Shia, the state is helping obliterate their identity into oblivion. Sadly, with this incident, an internal fault line has burst open, exposing the Pashtun nationalists’ lack of sympathy for the Shia and their identity. But this was nothing new; it has become public only now.
None of the Pashtun political parties or their leaders has sympathised with the Shia within their own ethnicity in the past in time of need.
For years – at least 30 years – the Shia of Kurram were under attack. But not a single leader of any Pashtun nationalist party, be it the Awami National Party (ANP) or the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Pary (PkMA), ever visited them or acknowledged their state of being under siege. It was always shoved under the rug, never highlighted.
The worst part is that the Shia have always been expendable for the Pakistani state, though they have historically been the staunchest supporters of the state. A man who died in this attack was a cheerleader of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan last year.
Such is the tragedy, with no resolution in sight. The Shia continue to die, and the world and its great games look away.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)