“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.