“Is there any Shia here?”

Published: November 28, 2015
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A woman holds a sign while chanting slogans with others to condemn of an explosion in a Shia mosque in Shikarpur located in Pakistan's Sindh province in late January. PHOTO: REUTERS

Being a minority and living amidst a majority that is largely ignorant of your beliefs, you tend to become used to living around whispers. You pretend to not hear them sometimes and sometimes you speak up. But they haunt your consciousness, always.

“Did you know she’s Shia?”

“Shias aren’t really Muslims.”

“Why are Shias into self-harm?”

“Did you know they say bad things about Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA)?”

In a gathering, when an ignorant question is flung into the air like a loose arrow, when the tongue waggles without restraint or understanding, caution fills the air and a problematic question follows,

“Oops. Are there any Shias here?”

The questioner assumes an embarrassing demeanour and brushes off whatever has been said if someone from the Shia community is present. In their efforts to not be offensive, they end up doing a lot worse.

Shias are deliberately removed from amateur discussions about their beliefs, because the majority feels more comfortable engaging in a debate that is heavily one-sided and completely devoid of notions that could uproot their ignorant understanding. They discuss amongst themselves to seek larger validation. What this does is that it reaffirms the questioner’s position in the majority and decidedly ‘otherises’ the minority community.

People mark you as something different, someone who is distinctly separate from you.

I grew up around these misguided conversations and I am sure every Shia in Pakistan has heard and experienced these at some point in their lives too.

It is a continuous test of nerves, patience and stamina which Shias have to grapple with from the time they step into schools as children.

The fact is that within educational institutions and other controlled environments, we’re so careful to not step on any toes that we end up excluding the party under discussion from the discourse altogether. Because of this, an atmosphere of unease settles in, and stereotypes and ignorance thrive.

We speak of the extremism of the Taliban and their misguided radical ways, yet we fail to identify extremist elements within our own regular, every day discourse.

We speak of how we wholeheartedly accept the Shia community, but when was the last time any of us protested against Shia killings? When was the last time any of us put up a Facebook status to protest against Shia killings or tweeted against anti-Shia violence? For how long will we blame the Taliban for extremism and Ziaul Haq for sectarianism?

It’s been years since Zia’s death, but he continues to live on in all of us.

Growing up as a Shia, there were countless occasions when I heard offensive things being said about Shias and as a child I became familiar with emotions that are intricately intertwined with adulthood – anger, confusion, torture and frustration.

Fortunately, I had spent all my adolescence in one school, so I grew up with the same friends who understood my beliefs. However, when I moved to college, things became a little more complicated.

I remember I was taking notes in class one day and I heard a girl say something about Shias. She then paused and cautiously asked,

“Is there any Shia here?”

There was a time when I would’ve ignored that question and kept on doing whatever I was doing. That fateful day, however, I refused to be excised from a conversation about my beliefs.

I turned around and said yes.

I was naïve to think that the girl would engage in a discussion. She merely said,

“Oh, that’s good, because I was just asking something. Nothing special.”

And then the teacher entered so the conversation stopped there.

Throughout class, I could not hear a single word my teacher said. My mind kept wondering what the girl was about to say and what she would have said had I not revealed my Shia identity.

In Pakistan, religious discourse in informal settings is largely unheard of. People tend to stay away from engaging in constructive dialogue in fear of offending the other. They have no qualms about talking behind people’s backs. Conversations that are inherently ‘exclusive’ in nature breed extremist narratives and allow us to internalise those narratives, so much so that we stop questioning those problematic assertions. Today, the people in Pakistan are chastising India for its extremist policies. Not only does that irritate me, it disappoints me. Pakistanis are elbow-deep in their own sea of extremist narratives, yet the head that is above the surface is yelling about a shark that is in another ocean.

I urge all Pakistanis to look within themselves, search long and hard for questions and ideas that might seem innocent enough but are dyed in colours of intolerance.

Once you find questions that lead you to extremist conclusions, engage in dialogue, not just with the people of your faith, but people from all kinds of religious backgrounds.

Read religious texts. Don’t strain your eyes looking for differences that would bolster your hard-line stance. Look for similarities, look for meaning. And most of all, learn to empathise. Open yourself up to the experience of others.

Take a walk in Shia shoes. Layer yourself up with an Ahmadi vest and a Hindu hat. Open yourself up to the experience of humanity. And you will never have to ask,

“Oops. Is there any minority here?”

Asma Bangash

Asma Bangash

The writer is a peace activist and a law graduate from Khyber Law College, Peshawar. She has been a fellow at Swedish Institute Stockholm Sweden and is also a Fellow at Social Justice Institute of Case western Reserve University Ohio USA.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • whatever

    actually pakistanis are happy seeing smoke coming out of Indians while forgetting their own houses in red flameRecommend

  • Ali

    I am a shia myself but come on…….I have never faced any mistreatment in y whole-life in Karachi, even it’s been a perk to be a Shia in Pakistan. But try not to be blown up :)Recommend

  • Red-Taz

    This statement sums up the majority of the religious extremists in Pakistan: “The majority feels more comfortable engaging in a debate that is
    heavily one-sided and completely devoid of notions that could uproot
    their ignorant understanding. They discuss amongst themselves to seek
    larger validation.”
    Instead of indulging in a religious debate with anyone, why not paint your own picture of the other side, by doing your own research? Any educated individual can always agree to disagree, which apparently is the entire purpose of education.Recommend

  • Milind A

    Meanwhile in India a certain Shia – Amir Khan shivers at the thought of ‘intolerance’….Recommend

  • baji jee

    I am sure all shias growing up in Pakistan can relate to the experiences of this writer. Unfortunately majority of people will never accept how they intentionally or unintentionally hurt feels of other fellow Muslims. It;s time to realise the difference and diversity based on sect or faith and respect it at the same time. PeaceRecommend

  • Aman

    Sunni believe follower concern about either shia people really use wrong language against the Prophet SAW companion. Usual response from Shia they don’t use bad language. but my question is if they really dont use bad word against Abu Bakr RA then why Shia people never name there children Abu Bakr ????Recommend

  • Feroz

    Hard hitting article but as a Pakistani you are very lucky not to be born a Christian, Hindu or Ahmadi. Take care of yourself.Recommend

  • common people

    every picture have two sides and when writing such a topic you should have seen the other side. thier exist extremist believes in shias but because of being minority they can’t show it up every time….Recommend

  • stevenson

    What does your comment have to do with the fact there is violence among sects in all Muslim countries? Look at Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran or elsewhere; overall there is fighting between Shia and Sunni but in Pakistan it is confined only to small groups of extremists. The author does not understand the meaning of genocide which is mass slaughter organized by authorities to kill a group. She is trying to be sensationalistic. In India there is conflict among religions and castes which is worse.Recommend

  • Qasim57

    We aren’t happy seeing smoke come out of Indians.

    It is worrying, because if India has extremista&terrorists in government, it is alarming for both nuclear-armed countries. Three wars, and if there’s a 4th nuclear one, both countries would be totally destroyed.

    What worries me is that Indian ruler’s disdain for the Indian masses(who are scorned due to the caste system, and their massive population is considered a burden and expendable), Indian rulers like Modi might opt for one more war(nuclear) anyways.

    It would “solve” India’s population problem(they blame the hated “lower-castes” esp. in vast numbers in rural areas) and get rid of pesky Pakistan for good. They were developing “safe” bunkers and installations in the Nicobar&Andaman Islands furthest from Pakistan(in the Bay of Bengal, out of range of Pak missiles) for leadership to survive in the event of a nuclear war. Pak demonstrated the Shaheen-III missile because of this, and it’s range can reach India’s bases in the Bay of Bengal. Now India is testing “ballistic missile defence” systems in the Bay of Bengal region. Worrisome that they’re vying to protect safe-areas for leaders, and false-confidence may result in foolhardy decisions.

    Long story short: both Pakistan&India should solve problems(share Kashmir waters&not flood/aridify each other). Otherwise both will suffer.Recommend

  • Hussain

    ahh finally someone has written, being shia i often faced these question, I still remember the first time some one asked about my religion when i was in 8th standard and he was my school teacher i got scared and went to my cousin he said you will face these question your whole life, and gave me some books to read. Questioning isn’t bad but here they question only to make you wrong if someone gave them reference from their books they will never look in the book but will ask other question and after few months they will repeat the same question you gave the answer with reference. And forget about that pakistani will raise voice against terrorist from their own society here people knows that whose son brother got killed by armed forces who is involved in terrorism and still they will blame it on foreign agency.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Your anguish came through strong….but apart from that you failed to say a single word about Saudi Arabia’s injected ideology that keeps proliferating through a huge network of religious schools, their money that buys them the right to spread intolerance and our leaders weakness and greed that allows this to happen.
    Simply alluding to Zia’s policies with ‘ ……and he continues to live on in all of us ‘ is not enough, one has to shout if you want to be heard.Recommend

  • Naiem Naqvi

    Asma, very beautifully expressed, It’s like someone has spoken my own feelings and every person belonging to minority…Recommend

  • https://www.facebook.com/ ather khan

    i grew upon in a sunni family, as a practicing muslim. i was a fan of zakir naik. i heard many bad things about shias and how they are not muslims. then i decided to study about it. and to my rather surprise i found nothing that contradicts islam. after that i continued my comparative study of both sects. and now i find myself more close to shia ideology of loving the ahle bayat than sunni ideology of defending the wrong doing of yezid and his predecessors. i don’t know. if it makes me a kafir, then i am.Recommend

  • Asad

    is not every Indian on this website doing the same ? yes they are.Recommend

  • Gullu

    There is ongoing Shia genocide in Pakland. Home of the Pure.
    With the collusion of the Sunni govt. aiding and abetting their
    proxies. Like Jundullah in Balochistan. ASWJ in Karachi.
    Le Jhangvi in Punjab and Northern areas. So yes, there is genocide.
    It is YOU who is an apologist, for these extremists/terrorists perpetuating this mass sectarian cleansing. With lame excuses.
    [Since 2012] Kohistan Massacre. 193 Hazaras killed in one bomb
    blast. Month later 92 killed in another attack. 254 Shias blown up in
    a neighborhood.Truck full of explosives left there. 34 Shia pilgrims coming back from Iran blown up in a hotel in Quetta. 64 Shias blown
    up in Shikarpur. 37 Shias blown up in Qissa Khawani Bazaar, Peshawar. They were eating in a restaurant, next to an Imambargah. 24 Shias pulled off a bus and shot dead in Chilas, northern Pakland. 45 Ismaili Shias shot dead in a bus in Safoora Goth, Karachi. So there is no genocide? The author is not seeking sensationalism. These are cold brutal facts.
    Get a life.Recommend

  • Fatima

    Very well written and factualRecommend

  • bigsaf

    Religious extremist militants have claimed thousands of lives in sectarian violence, particularly of the Pakistani Shia minority, in Pakistan since the 80’s, and got really bad in the last decade, such as with the Hazaras. It’s hardly ‘confined’ for the overall minority community, and sadly not a surprising viewpoint held by some disassociated Pakistani majority Sunnis, despite some recent experiences with terrorism there’s denial, deflection and delusion about it, like on admitting who the culprits are.

    The author didn’t use the word genocide. That’s a protester holding up a sign that says so in the picture. I personally would use ‘sectarian cleansing’ or ‘pogrom’ to describe the program of mass slaughter organized by one group (in this case ‘small groups’ of extremists) to kill another. Do not care about India, but I’m sure they don’t have this unique sectarian violence as Pakistan.Recommend

  • Sane

    This is sheer exaggeration with ulterior motives to write this blog post. Shias are everywhere in this society and not maltreated or singled out in any way. They study, business and work together with other sects including Sunni and do not face any discrimination on the basis of sect. Individual incidents should not be generalized. The whole blog post is written on the basis of assumptions.Recommend

  • bigsaf

    Simply because they don’t look at those figures revered by Sunnis as favourably to name after.Recommend

  • stevenson

    Tell you what. There is a simple way to settle this. See if some Pakistani Shias can try to claim refugee status or asylum in Europe on the basis of “shia genocide” and state collusion in their killing. This would prove your point but the fact is that such a refugee claim would be turned down. You can’t understand the difference of a small group of extremists killing minority people with the majority who do not support such violence. Only you believe that the government is supporting killing of minorities because statistics show decline in all terrorism related violence since the last few years.Recommend

  • bigsaf

    Just a point on refugee claims, which don’t get turned down. There are a lot of settled Shia asylum seekers from the 90’s in North America I know of. If you Google Shia asylum seekers, you get a lot of links to such, including from 2000 to 2015.

    Hazaras today make up a chunk of Shia Pakistani asylum seekers, though there are other ethnic Pakistani Shias. Accepting refugees globally has become tougher like Australia, but overall have been accepted.

    As far as govt collusion is concerned, Shias see it as having spawned extremists in the first place, making alliances with such groups either militarily or politically and viewing the overall society as being apathetic, this over decades, not just recently after the APS attack which finally got the nation moving.Recommend

  • steven

    Perhaps you should check again, I work with some immigration agents and you CANNOT get asylum on the basis of being Shia from Pakistan in any Western country. In the past, people would make up bogus claims on the basis of anything ( Political party, ethnicity, sect, religion, sexuality ) but western officials have become a lot more critical of false claims made by people. Hazaras who do suffer from violence in Baluchistan have the strongest claim but even they are denied now on the basis of being Shia – check Australia’s system now and why Australian authorities are taking out adverts. I think you know that there are many people at risk there including Urdu speakers, Punjabis or Pashtuns – anyone who is not Baluch too. The elected government may not be perfect but accusing it of supporting Shia genocide is just absurd which is why Western countries no longer consider Shia asylum seekers.Recommend

  • bigsaf

    I did check. All it takes is a Google search and reading the links. Of course the asylum seeker has to point out the level of threat from the extremists and there are still Shia asylum seekers who’ve successfully settled in the 2000’s and Western governments are indeed considering them like in Canada.

    Like I said, I know some from the 90’s (I know of bogus claims too, but not all of them) and know of current trends in Pak where the sectarian violence got bad recently that many had to flee. Don’t know what immigration agents you’re working with, the reports and statistics are all there if you look it up.

    Hazaras have been denied due to tougher restrictions (not bogus claims), however many have been resettled, including in Australia (one case apparently a Hazara challenged them in court on his case and won), this you’re ignoring, besides their resettlement to North America and Europe. I don’t doubt other persecutions to other groups of people, as I know political/ethnic asylum seekers too. I mentioned earlier I wouldn’t put the word genocide on the government or military. However, given its history (it does have a sectarian history unfortunately) and its failure to address the sectarian cleansing deserves serious scorn and it’s this threat that forms the basis for Shia asylum seekers who are still considered in the West.Recommend

  • Quantum

    Zakir Naik is a self proclaimed muslim scholar. He is a salafi extremist. People who listen to him are delusional. Recommend

  • siesmann

    Nicely put.
    Unfortunately Mullahism lives on difference.For them more than 99.99 % commonality doesn’t mean anything.-difference is paramount.They can even manufacture one if there is none or of no significance.And then it trickles down through their sermons to a common man, with a dose of violence added.There is no differentiation between a doctrinal difference,and practical difference.Recommend

  • siesmann

    What does a refugee status have to with the daily killing of Shias?Your kind of attitude perpetuate the genocide.Recommend

  • siesmann

    because you people push them into a corner.There is only so much one can take.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Boy!so a common man is to do the research,when Mullahs are involved in manufacturing killers.Recommend