HOW PAKISTAN DIFFERENTIATES ITS SHIA POPULATION

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By Manzoor Ahmed
That Pakistan discriminates against its Shia minority whose places of worship are frequently targeted, the latest being at Parachinar, killing 22 and injuring 57, is well-known. Projected subtly and less known, however, is the fact that these places of worship are called “imambargah” and not mosques.
One difference is that while a mosque is used for Namaz, Imambargah is for preaching Islam. The ‘purity’ of a mosque is retained by restricting entry by women and small children. But every Shia can go to Imambargah. Friday congregations are most important, when families participate. This explains why all the attacks on Shia Muslims have been targeted during Friday sermons at mosques.

Fo the record, the Shia population in Pakistan is estimated as being between five to 20 percent of the country’s total population that itself is under revision with the census operations on after 17 years.

Pakistan is said to have a Shia population of at least 16 million. However, Shia leader Vali Nasr claims the Shia population to be as high as 30 million.

The Shia-Sunni issue became divisive even before the birth of Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam, the founder of the state of Pakistan, was born into a Shia family. However, his relatives and associates later testified in court that Jinnah became a firm Sunni Muslim by the end of his life.

Pakistani media exclusively refer to Shia worshiping at ‘Imambargahs’. Although Shia live in larger numbers in Iran and Iraq, for the purpose of Muharram celebrations mainly, but in general the places of worship are referred to simply as ‘masjid’. In Pakistan however, the media portrays an Imambargah as a center of Shia religious activity. This is apparently a bid to differentiate it from Sunni ‘masjid’.

This Shia-Sunni distinction itself is divisive when events like Eid-prayers are mentioned. Secondly, it just misleads the public at large about Shia rituals. The word masjid has almost become reserved for Sunni-controlled mosques, while Imambargah has become a politically correct (adopted by both well-meaning and ill-meaning sunnis) word for mosques run by the shia.

As for the blast at Parachinar on March 30, 2017, the entire news was flashed by mentioning the Imambargah and no reference was made at all to the victims being Shia. A parliamentarian from Parachinar, Sajid Hussain, also made no reference to the Shia community when he dwelt on the casualties and the cause of the blast.

He told Reuters it was a suicide attack and was preceded by gunfire. “The attack took place in a busy area and a women’s mosque appears to be the target,” he said.
On being asked, he said Shia were ‘apparently’ the target. A banned outfit Jamat-ul-Ahrar through a video message claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack was reminiscent of a bombing at a market place early this year, which resulted in the death of over at least 25 people.

The January attack was claimed by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami along with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter Shehryar Mehsud. All these are Sunni extremist outfits that have at some time or the other enjoyed state support.

Parachinar is 250 kilometres west of Peshawar and has a population of 50,000. In the wake of sectarian clashes in 2007 army and paramilitary forces set up several checkpoints on roads leading to the town.

Kurram, the tribal region of which Parachinar is the main town, the only part of Pakistan’s border region that has a significant Shia population, has been racked by sectarian violence.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack and said the government would keep up efforts to “eliminate the menace of terrorism”.

“The network of terrorists has already been broken and it is our national duty to continue this war until the complete annihilation of the scourge of terrorism from our soil,” he said in a statement.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan took to twitter to condemn the blast. “(I) strongly condemn (the) blast in Parachinar, targeting innocent people,” he said on twitter.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister must ensure availability of all medical facilities on emergency basis, he added.

Taking an in-depth look, an editorial in Dawn newspaper (April 1, 2017) noted that this was the second market bombing in Parachinar this year and the fourth since 2013.

Unlike the newspaper reports, the editorial referred to the victims being Shia. “The long war against militancy, longer in the Parachinar region than most parts of the country, looks set to grind on, undermining the gains made elsewhere,” it said, decrying efforts in the recent months by “senior government officials openly and at odds with the facts tried to downplay the sectarian underpinnings of militancy.”

It stressed on the “need for an unequivocal, firm and determined message — that Pakistan is and will remain an inclusive state and society — remains as strong as ever. What the message must be is clear; whether the state has the will or ability to carry it forward until it becomes uncontested and undeniable across the country is unclear.”

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