In the last week or so, dozens of large rallies in cities have been held in Pakistan, all with one thing in common: provocative hate speech against the country’s Shias.
On September 11, 12 and 13, hundreds of thousands of protesters from religious groups and proscribed organisations converged on the streets in Karachi to protest what they perceived as blasphemy committed by Ahle Tasheeh clerics in Karachi and Islamabad.
“We won’t tolerate blasphemies anymore,” said a speaker from the stage in one such rally.
The protestors pelted an imambargah in Karachi’s Lines Area with stones. Videos of the mob were shared on social media in which the men were seen chanting hate speech slogans which roughly translate into calling people from the other sect non-believers.
The protesters belonging to Sunni religious groups, including the proscribed Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, say Shia clerics had made derogatory remarks about the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) Companions during Muharram processions this year. The outlawed ASWJ, another name for the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, appears to be in the driving seat for the ongoing sectarian protests.
The ASWJ has gathered various groups of the Deoband school of thought on a platform called the Ulema Committee. According to the group’s spokesperson, several leaders of other religious organizations, including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Sami), are part of the Ulema Committee.
“We have decided to expand our movement,” Umar Muawiyah, a spokesperson for the ASWJ, told SAMAA Digital. He said that the protest movement is aimed at compelling the government to make strict laws to stop blasphemy.
“We want at least a 10-year jail term for people who commit blasphemy against the Sahaba (Companions of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH),” said Muawiyah.
The ASWJ spokesperson disowned the hate speech chants at the Karachi rally and said from a crowd of thousands anyone could have shouted such a slogan. “This slogan wasn’t chanted from the stage,” he said.
What the ASWJ spokesperson failed to also mention is that the group’s leaders often openly make anti-Shia speeches. The group was banned by Pakistan in 2012.
Making inflammatory and sectarian speeches is a crime in Pakistan but no legal action was taken against the crowds or the organisers of the rallies. “Making sectarian speeches is totally unlawful,” said a senior police official in Karachi. “But do you really expect the police to go after a religious crowd?” He then proceeded to answer his own question: “We can’t afford to do that.”
The police official had requested to speak without being named because of the sensitivity of the matter. He told SAMAA Digital that controlling a political crowd or protesting labourers and teachers is not hard because they listen to the authorities. If they don’t listen, he added, we can use force. “[But] if we fire even one bullet in the air to disperse them, a religiously motivated crowd can get angry and when they get angry they start beating people and burning the city,” he said.
He gave his own example from the time an activist of the Sunni Tehreek was killed in Karachi in 2013 and the party was offering funeral prayers on MA Jinnah Road. “After the funeral prayers, the party workers fired shots in the air after which I received a call from my superior, asking me to act against them,” he said. “I told him, ‘We all should be grateful to them because they haven’t beaten the policemen deployed here.’”
In addition to the rallies, the ASWJ has lodged 150 FIRs or blasphemy cases in Punjab alone in Muharram, according to what leader Ahmad Ludhyanvi told his supporters at an Islamabad rally. The allegations, according to a Shia activist, are an attempt to incite Pakistan’s majority Sunni population against the Ahle Tasheeh.
“Such allegations do not put just one or two lives in danger but they put at stake the lives of entire families,” Rashid Rizvi, a Karachi-based activist told SAMAA Digital.
The Ahle Tasheeh are one of the most persecuted communities in Pakistan. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 2,693 of people from this sect have been killed and 4,847 injured in targeted attacks and bombings in the country from 2001 to 2018.
Rizvi added that people who ascribe to his school of thought have been under attack for decades but this was the first time he had heard such slogans in Muharram. “If one person committed blasphemy, hold them responsible for that,” said Rizvi. “Calling the whole Shia community non-believers over the act of an individual is totally wrong.”
The effect of the public rallies and FIRs has been to create an atmosphere of fear in some households. Messages have been circulating on WhatsApp cautioning Ahle Tasheeh people from wearing black.
The Ahle Tasheeh clerics have, however, not been as reactive. Don’t try to put us under pressure by showing us a big crowd, Shehenshah Hussain Naqvi, a prominent cleric, said while addressing a religious gathering a few days ago. “I request all of you to make it mandatory for yourself to attend the Chehlum,” Naqvi told the gathering. “Break all previous records.”
Security analyst Amir Rana said that the government’s silence over the rallies has been “alarming”. “It appears that the administrations in the cities are allowing them to hold rallies because the government believes that the religious groups will express their anger on the roads and go home,” he said, adding that this approach won’t work.
What disturbs him even more is that new Shia groups have been formed in recent years and their members are trained to fight. “In the 1990s, Sunni militant outfits were more powerful than the other sectarian groups but recently many Shia militant groups came to prominence after the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.” The Shia fighters had returned to Pakistan from Iraq and Syria, he said.
The government’s silence has the effect of tacitly endorsing these actions by proscribed and radical organizations who seek to widen their support base. “The government looks scared of extremist outfits because it thinks that if it acts against them, there would be speeches against government officials and religious decrees,” Rana added.