By Asad Gokal
As the Islamic month of Muharram approaches, the Shias of Pakistan have begun their preparations for the Holy month. The places of worship are being renovated, the routes of processions are being levelled, and the black outfits are taken out from the closets. Along with these traditional customs, arrangements of precautionary measures against COVID19 are being made. One of the rooms in almost every Shia house is being converted into a makeshift Imambargah (a place for Muharram rituals and gatherings) for elders and children to carry out their rituals. Meanwhile, imambargahs are being sanitized, and safe distance spots are being marked. However, COVID19 is not the only challenge that Shias of Pakistan would have to face in this Muharram; there are bigger obstacles in the way.
Instead of cracking down the groups involved in the attacks on the sect, such as the defunct terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), the state has often been observed backing them and rather lodging FIRs on the members of the sect as well as allegedly abducting some of its men and keeping them hidden for years.
As Pakistan carries out COVID-19 vaccinations during the fourth wave of the deadly virus, it is only logical for all kinds of large gatherings to be completely avoided as per the medical advice. As much common sense as it appears to be for the Shias of the country to abandon their mourning rituals at this time, a deeper analysis of the situation highlights the dilemma they are facing.
The sect has faced systematic persecution in this country for decades by the hands of the state as well as extremists. The persecution includes targeted killings of its notables as well as bomb explosions in their religious gatherings, which has resulted in thousands losing their lives. Instead of cracking down the groups involved in the attacks on the sect, such as the defunct terrorist outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), the state has often been observed backing them and rather lodging FIRs on the members of the sect as well as allegedly abducting some of its men and keeping them hidden for years. The anti-Shia forces in the country have been pushing hard for a ban on their rituals, especially in recent past years.
In such circumstances, holding their annual religious gatherings has become more of a necessity for the sect to fight back against the shrinking space in the country. The members of the sect feel that if they themselves restrict their gatherings given the current situation, it will become nearly impossible for them to regain the space to practice their religious freedom. Thus, they have decided to put their lives at stake from the virus but not let suffer from further discrimination at the hands of the state and anti-Shia groups.
The members of the sect feel that if they themselves restrict their gatherings given the current situation, it will become nearly impossible for them to regain the space to practice their religious freedom.
A recap of last year’s Muharram
Last year, during the first Muharram after the COVID-19 outbreak, a huge anti-Shia wave in the country turned it into one of the most difficult ones they had experienced in recent times. The sect experienced a surge in absurd blasphemy allegations on its clerics, permit holders of the processions, and the general public. Members of the sect were booked on holding religious gatherings even at their personal residences as well as on proclaiming their faith on social media. Back-to-back rallies were held in Karachi and Islamabad for days where anti-Shia slogans were raised; the sect was labelled as ‘heretics,’ citizens were asked to observe ‘social boycott of Shias and ban on their religious gatherings was demanded. The sect’s places of worship were stoned and four of its men were murdered.
Rise of Taliban
The recent uprising of the Taliban in Afghanistan poses yet another threat to the Shias living in Pakistan. The resurgence of the Afghan Taliban has resulted in a surge in pro-Taliban activities at this side of the border. A rally in support of the Taliban was taken out in Quetta last week, whereas Taliban flags were spotted in the capital too. Social media in Pakistan observed #TalibanOurGuardian trending on top on Twitter in the last week. Such activities, especially in Quetta, where thousands of Shia Hazaras have been mercilessly murdered in the last few decades, pose serious security threats to the Hazaras in the upcoming month of Muharram.
In the past, the Pakistani Taliban (known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) and its splinter groups such as Lashkar e Jhangvi have accepted the responsibilities of various deadly terrorist attacks targeting Shias. However, the recent escalation across the border might push like-minded groups to reunite and reactivate terror in Pakistan.
A shaky start
As the Muharram starts, the marginalization of the sect has resumed from where it had paused last year. Two FIRs have already been lodged on individuals this month under section 298-A for putting up WhatsApp statuses that have resulted in ‘sentiments being hurt.’
On 6th August 2021, the central imambargah in Bahawalnagar was struck with a hand grenade blast. Though no lives were lost in the attack, the walls of the imambargah were badly damaged. A week before, a charged mob attacked an imambargah in Rahim Yar Khan before proceeding to vandalize a nearby temple too, after an eight-year-old Hindu boy alleged of urinating in a local seminary was granted bail.
While citizens wish for peace to prevail in the upcoming Islamic month, it would be noteworthy to observe if the state of Pakistan protects the sect comprising 20 per cent of its population or fails them yet again.