Why framing Shia genocide as a sectarian conflict only trivialises the problem

Published: May 21, 2017

A Pakistani Shia Muslim girl holds placard during a protest against the twin bombings in Quetta, in Karachi, Pakistan on January 13, 2013. PHOTO: AFP

One of the most important factors which determine the way an issue is understood, debated and addressed is the way it is framed in the media. Framing becomes extremely important as it affects the discourse, narrative, and ultimately the kind of solutions which are brought to the table. Knowing its importance, supporters and opponents of a contentious issue often try to frame it to their advantage.

For example, in the US, the debate around abortion is often framed as pro-life by Conservatives. This is a very powerful and effective construct as it creates the impression that those who choose abortion are anti-life and hence some kind of murderers. Unfortunately, this framing has been successful and many, including a substantial percentage of women, have ended up assuming that abortion is some sort of a sin. By framing it as pro-life, conservatives in the US have bagged a moral advantage which they exploit as well.

Framing is not always deliberate, since sometimes an issue gets framed by the media inadvertently also. Once an issue is successfully framed in a particular way, either deliberately or unintentionally, the entire discourse is shaped by it. One key issue in Pakistan, which in my opinion is affected strongly by framing, is the widespread killing of Shias.

Currently, the issue is often framed as an inter-communal conflict between Shias and Sunnis supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some also say that Pakistan is another battle ground of the ongoing proxy war between the two countries.

I believe this framing is seriously flawed as it trivialises what in reality is actually a slow-moving Shia genocide. The scale of violence is alarming. According to data compiled by the South Asian Terrorism Portal over the last 15 years, violence against Shias has resulted in more than 7,000 deaths and injuries. This is not a sectarian conflict, because a conflict would involve active participation of both sides. In Pakistan, Shias are overwhelmingly the recipient of violence and do not have the capacity to respond, and in fact, they hardly respond in the same manner.

Pakistan is a different case from countries like Syria and Iraq, where Shias and Sunnis are vying for territorial control as well as political power. Even their militant groups are backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is taking place there can be termed as proxy wars, but in Pakistan, Shias are not vying for any sort of territorial control as they are thinly dispersed throughout the country.

Violence against Shias in Pakistan is not communal but ideological and is perpetuated by religious fringe organisations who consider them as apostates. Let’s not forget that Pakistan has witnessed target killings of Shia religious scholarsdoctors, lawyers and other professionals. There have also been incidents where buses were stopped and Shia passengers were killed after confirmation of their religious affiliation.

The basic impetus for killing of Shias springs from the Takfiri obsession about who is a true Muslim and who is not. Even though actual violence is conducted and perpetuated by militant organisations, according to me, the general mind-set of the population is also a contributing factor. Let’s not forget that as a society, we are obsessed with veracity of religious beliefs. Unfortunately “kafir kafir Shia kafir” (Shias are infidels) is a slogan which is quite pervasive and not just restricted to militant groups.

As mentioned before, the current framing of the issue seriously obfuscates and in fact trivialises the nature and the scale of the problem. Instead of looking at growing ideological extremism and the spread of hate-filled literature, we start looking at the issue in terms of global power play.

Moreover, this framing also creates a misconception that this is a two-way conflict which has active Iran-backed Shia involvement in it. While this may be true in Syria and Iraq, the reality is that in Pakistan, there is no conflict, only unidirectional violence against a minority. Of course, Saudi Arabia’s funding is playing a role in Pakistan, but the outcome is not a conflict, rather genocide.

Although I am a Sunni, about 70% of my maternal family is Shia. I have seen them become increasingly terrified in recent years with some choosing immigration. Right now, there is a lot of fear in the Shia community and we need to address it immediately. The first step in addressing any problem is recognising its true essence. Let’s recognise the real problem here and not get obfuscated by faulty framing of the issue.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

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

  • Patwari

    Agree with the author 100% on his assessment of a Shia genocide
    in progress in the Land of the Pure. [Ongoing since Zia ul Haq, the
    scourge of Pakland, came into power. And perpetuated ever since.]
    The topic is not new. Fact is, nobody wants to address the issue. Least
    of all the govt. which has it’s voter base in Punjab. The province of Punjab,
    where 90% of all the sectarian, extremist, terrorist outfits in Pakland have
    their bases. And a free rein. You wonder why they don’t want a Rangers
    operation in Punjab! You can walk down a Lahore street/boulevard and see
    their slogans on the walls. And their ‘chanda’ donation boxes. securely chained
    and present in every bazaar. Dutifully emptied every week.
    Jundullah, Le Taiba, Jaish e Mohammad, Le Jhangvi, Le Omar, Ahrar ul Hind,
    are just a few of the outfits who call Punjab their home.
    Majority of the Sunni population looks the other way. and does nothing when it
    comes to the slaughter of Shias. A few tsk tsk, then back to eating their nihari.
    What else would you expect from a majority population that votes to keep a
    very corrupt leader in power? A leader, whose second home is in Saudia, which
    a stronghold of Wahhabism.Recommend

  • Furrukh Rao

    The only solution is to follow SaudiArabia or Iran both are good and progressive states recently purchase of 800$ Million Defense Equipment’s by Iran from Russia plus Hundred of thousands of Iranians in US (Double than Pakistani Americans) including further more Iranian Immigrants to Europe and Rich Western countries will make Iran more business friendly in future while on the other Hand Saudi Arabia with thir enormous wealth is acquiring mountains of Minerals and other business in the world. Pakistan is very confused state we need to choose our way wisely and for this we must stop these Sectarian Gatherings and Display of Sect in our country.Recommend

  • Striver

    South Asian Terrorism Portal: How do they collect the data? How do they decide what is terror-related incident. The author should have asked himself at least these two basic questions before quote the portal.

    Many Pakistanis have Shia relatives, the author is not alone. The article is tending towards exaggeration of the issue. The problem does exist.Recommend

  • Rahul

    Pakistan was created based on the ideology that one community cannot live with another. The process of identifying and eliminating minorities is an ongoing one. Sikhs and Hindus were the first victims followed by Christians, Ahmedis and Bohras. Shias are the latest in this iteration. There will be others that follow Shias because the ideology demands that.Recommend

  • Raj – USA

    “Pakistan is a different case from countries like Syria and Iraq, where Shias and Sunnis are vying for territorial control as well as political power.”

    In one TV discussion in a Pakistani TV channel, some sunni religious leaders in the panel were blaming shias for the sectarian violences and acts of terrorism. Amin Shahidi asked them very politely, “How many shias suicide bombers has ever been caught in Pakistan or if any shia has ever been involved in any suicide bombing?” No one had an answer.

    Not just in Pakistan, but also in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan no shia has ever been involved in suicide bombing anywhere. They may fight and kill, but have never been involved in any suicide bombing or mass killings as we saw in the case where 152 children were slaughtered in the Army Public School terror attacks in Pakistan.Recommend

  • iEagle

    Nicely presented the case.Recommend

  • Rohan

    Pakistan sold itself to Saudi Arabia and now we are seeing the fruits Recommend

  • Taha Hanif

    I totally disagree with the writer. Shia’s community are very strong hold as compare to Sunni. One of best examples are 9th and 10th Moharram.Recommend

  • RHR

    Did you read the article at all?Recommend

  • Patwari

    Wrong Rahul. As usual. In your perpetually stupefying Hindutva zeal.
    The ‘Partition’ took place because in Hindustan, a hindu majority nation,
    Muslims will never be treated equally. They will always be second class
    citizens in Bharat. Which is happening now. In spades. As predicted.
    It is the Khawariji, Takfiri, Wahhabi “interpretation” of Islam, perpetuated
    and financed, vehemently, by Saudia that is causing these genocides,
    killings and exterminations all over the Muslim world. Since 1960’s oil
    boom and riches of the Petro dollars. Shias never do suicide bombings.
    Hindustan in it’s current religious extremism and nationalistic fervor is
    more worried about protecting cows than women ! Muslims are hung
    from the nearest trees at the slightest pretext. Take a good, long, look in
    the mirror at yourself.
    By the way, Bohras are Shias. Ethnically, they are Gujratis. From the
    greater Indian Gujrat and Bombay area.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Agree with you 100%. You are absolutely right. In this case.
    Very true. Shias do not do suicide bombings. Because they
    believe if you kill yourself with your own hands, which suicide
    bombers agree to do, you are going straight to hell. Destined
    for it. You will NOT be consider a “shaheed” or “martyr” according
    to their beliefs and their interpretations. As simple as that.Recommend

  • sulthan

    did u ever studied or knew history of suicide bombing. how shia terrorist heizboullah attacked the american camp in lebonanRecommend

  • Patwari

    Well, see, er…hmm,..if there are Christians, celebrating Easter Sunday,
    in a community park in Lahore and a suicide bomber goes among them
    and blows himself up,…that would be an act of terrorism.
    if 73 Shias are blown up and killed, inside an Imambargah, in Shikarpur,
    by a suicide bomber….that would be an act of terrorism.
    If a Christian Church is blown up during Sunday services, in Peshawar,
    by suicide bombers, killing 192 people and injuring hundreds of others,
    that would be an act of terrorism.
    if 36 Shias are blown up in Qissa Khwani Bazaar, near an Imambargah
    in Peshawar,…that would be an act of terrorism.
    If 207 Hazara Shias are killed in a community gathering, by a suicide
    bomber in Quetta,…that would be an act of terrorism.
    if more than 200 people are slaughtered in one day in Model Town, Lahore
    and their homes burnt to the ground, that would be an act of terrorism.
    If a truck, laden with explosives, is blown up in a Shia neighborhood in
    Karachi, killing more than 200,..that would be an act of terrorism.
    Are you able to see how data is collected, now? Or how it can be determined
    it’s a terror related incident? Do you follow? They can draw pictures for you.
    Hope this puts your mind at ease on how data is collected by..South Asian Terrorism Portal.Recommend

  • Syed

    This article shows lack of research because the writer may be don’t have access to the other side of story he only sees it as a genocide where it is not 100 % true, because in most cases people often got killed for personal reasons, in he name of conflict or genocide people are setting personal differences, and when someone got killed in personal conflict its easy for police to name it Sectarian killing and closed the case, and then radical religious leaders of both sides used it for political gains. yes people got killed in the name of Religion but not every time. Shias and sunnis both got killed in the name of religion may be the ratio is 8 and 2.Recommend

  • Akram Sawleh

    A case well presented Raza. I appreciate particularly the opening lines as to ‘ how an issue is framed’ mistakenly or deliberately however I have some reservations with respect to framing of such issues and in my view there certainly some ill intentions are involved. Particularly when you constantly see the perpetrators of such crimes wining and dining with the people who matter.Recommend

  • Rahul

    Muslim population in India has gone from 12 % at partition to 14.5 % now, while minority religion population in Pakistan has declined from 25 % at partition to 2 % now. Isolated incidents in India are highlighted in Pakistani press. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religions all live peacefully under our secular constitution. If there is communal violence, be sure that the guilt is established and the guilty punished. BJP may be a hindu party but they all have to work under the constitution and the law, which is secular.Recommend

  • Rd px

    The shias also have militant wings and it used to be tit for tat in the 80s and 90s.Now its different as sunni militancy has massively increased. It would also be wrong to say that Iran has no role in the regimentation and extremism of pakistani shia community. Its an unfortunate fact that the Saudi-iran conflict has destroyed the generally peaceful coexistance we had before the iranian revolution and saudi oil wealth.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    I agree with the gist of the article but are you aware that our Shia community in Pakistan began drifting towards a sectarian identity before the Sunnis started taking Sunni-ism seriously? Following the Iranian revolution, centered around strict Shia practices, Tehrik e Jafaria was organized in Pakistan in the late seventies. Tehrik e Jafaria was/is backed by Iran.

    Sipah Sahaba formed in 1985, Lashkar e Jhangwi is an off-shoot of the same group. I am not for that group but if you talk to their leaders, they will tell you that they began organizing after seeing the rising influence of Shia’ism in Pakistan. Rising extremism in one group leads to rising counter-extremism in an opposing group. This is what has happened in Pakistan.Recommend

  • wb

    Clearly, the writer is unfamilia with the histoy of Islam. Shia and Sunni Muslims have killed each other from DAY 1. On the day the prophet of Islam died the followers of Rashidun and the followers of Hazrat Ali started killing eaach othe. This is not a phenomenon of the 21st century.

    I agee that Shia Muslims are largely liberal and pogressive compaed to Sunni and have been at the receiving end of Sunni Muslims.

    This is why Shias of India support BJP in India.

    Sorry for all the spelling eors. My keyboad suffers from occasional lisps.Recommend

  • wb

    WRong Patwari, as always. In your perpetually ignorant Islamist brain, you have never made an attempt to get out of the brainwashing that your parents, teachers, friends and Mullahs have given you.

    Partition happened as a natural consequence of Islam spreading. Islam has spread through a simple rule: Attack, conquer, occupy, commit genocide, expel/part.

    Let me enlighten your ignorant brain that 1500 years ago, thee was not a single Muslim. Not in India. Not in Islamabad. Not in Maccah. Not in Madinah.

    This is an irrefutable fact, my dear.Recommend

  • Tariq Jameel

    In 1979 Iranian backed groups attacked the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. Shias do not think of the hurt and pain they cause. I do not support these attacks on shias but how much can sunnis tolerate when shias do such things.Recommend

  • Juan

    True. Directed at American soldiers stationed in Lebanon back in 1982 I think. Like over 3 decades ago.

    Since then Sunni Islamist terrorist groups all over the whole world have apparently learnt from it, taken it to heart and monopolized it against all types of populations including women and children.Recommend

  • Juan

    Other side of the story? Or your made up alternative facts to deny the reality of sectarianism and violent sectarian cleansing in Pakistan? It’s not both sides, this is a false equivalence narrative some majority Sunni members like to tell themselves to absolve their community from any responsibility.

    Shia Pakistanis get killed at a higher disproportionate rate and ratio in terrorist related attacks overall, since their processions or places of worship are frequent targets of attacks by hardline Sunni militant groups, who have a monopoly over terrorist violence, and while they also target other Sunnis and public installations, they make it a point to target minorities. This also includes a higher likelihood of a Shia being a victim of a target killing, such as in the case of doctors.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    Although I am a Sunni, about 70% of my maternal family is Shia. I have seen them become increasingly terrified in
    recent years with some choosing immigration. Right now, there is a lot
    of fear in the Shia community and we need to address it immediately.

    Indeed you must and not get confused in your usual style, especially after the recent representation of Pakistan Sharif in anti shia conference in the saudi capitol. Either you support the Trumpers crusade against the ummah or the Ummah crusade against the terrorists, in both such cases it is the shias and the muslims mentioned with names who are at the receiving end of the stick. The science also tells us that It is the weaker minority which usualy suffers at the hand of the majority. The choice is very clear, we must remain vigilant against the fake alliances and try to construct the bridges and not the walls and defend the minority without appeasing the majority. There is a lot of evil within us and among us.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Patwari

    The Banarsi Mulla awakens once again. Same gibberish,
    Same Hindutva laced RSS mantras vspewing,…cacophony.

  • Rex Minor

    How many shias suicide bombers has ever been caught in Pakistan or if
    any shia has ever been involved in any suicide bombing?” No one had an

    The Saudi conference against terrorists supposedly organised and assisted by Tehran did not discuss the technical methodology used by the so called terrorists. Besides sunni shia rivalry and violence there from caused on account of local inflamotary preachers is regarded as secterian violence not terrorism.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Patwari

    Rahul, please open your eyes and see what is happening
    around you in Hindu Desh.. There are 64, repeat, 64
    ongoing insurgencies in progress in Hindustan. You have
    a super big “Concentration Camp” called Indian Occupied Kashmir. There are 6 million inmates in it. Men women
    children old men old women. They all throw rocks at you.
    Almost a total of 750,000 Armed forces personnel, police,
    law enforcement agencies, secret police RAW agents are needed to keep these Hindustani citizens under a brutal
    repressive occupational regime….in truth you have
    Martial Law in IOK. Your army uses civilians as human
    shields. The roving rabid extremists and religious fanatics
    kill Muslim at the slightest pretext. They burn Christian churches.
    And you have nerve to say Hindustan is a secular nation
    under a constitution!??! Where people live harmoniously!!
    Please Rahul,…get a life.Recommend

  • Juan

    When you think the anti-Shia prejudiced sectarian conspiracies couldn’t get any dumber. You’ve clearly bought into the bogus sectarian Saudi anti-Iran/anti-Shia propaganda. You’re probably the type that thinks the recent ISIS, a Sunni radical terrorist group, attacks in Saudi Arabia, that included blowing up the Prophet’s tomb, were also by ordinary Shias too (it wasn’t).

    While the siege of Mecca by the religious cult, who were a Sunni/Wahhabi offshoot that joined a Salafi group, with the new revolution in Iran and the Shia protests in Qatif, they were in no way backed by Iran. Khomeini had ironically put the blame on the US and Israel for it, which caused greater protests by Muslims of all stripes globally, including in Pakistan. I’ll leave a link below for you to catch up on the history.

    I don’t know how one can reason with Pakistani Sunnis who seem to be looking for excuses to be intolerant with or without such revisionist beliefs – which is the real hurt and pain. Your generalization is bigoted and offensive. Perhaps it’s fair for me to not differentiate either and ask how non-Muslims or non-Sunnis can tolerate Sunni Muslims when they do so many terrorist attacks globally, with the newest one being a concert in Manchester.


  • Juan

    The extremisms aren’t comparable though. While there was a rise in religo-political Shia activism and fundamentalism which visibly freaked out the Sunni populace and establishment, Sunni conservatives took it to a whole new extremist level with the intolerance, bigotry and violence. The Sunni ideological counter-reaction was a greater over-reaction, as we can see clearly today globally, threatening everyone.Recommend

  • gilgit

    If others are in a way to fight your identity and freedom, you have right to fight. Hinduism isn’t a pious religion as your pious figures and kings had a low moral character and abused local minorities to make them hindus.
    For your kind information islam was never spread in subcontinent by mughals and others; Islam was spread by saints and sufis like Bulay shah, Ajmer Shareef and many others who had nothing to do with worldly matters and geopolitics. Moreover, the architecture and culture which india proudly roars to world is the service and skill of Muslims rulers, who we don’t even consider good people though.
    Think about yourselves first rather than others.
    Globally, your country still exists number one nightmare in terrorism against minorities, women, malnutrition, slum cities, suicide, rape, unemployment, population pressure, pollution, sanitation, religious intolerance, human rights abuses, diseases…and you are still confident…wow..Recommend

  • wb

    By the way Hinduism is not a religion. In fact, there is no word called Hindu in any of the original Indian languages.

    And everything you said about my country, please replace it with “MY”. Another sign that you’re brainwashedRecommend

  • wb

    Yeah yeah yeah, Patwari. Could you please make an attempt to get out of the brainwashing your parents have given you. I don’t think you even realize what a fool you appear to be with so much atrocious TRUTH.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    I agree that Shia fundamentalism was not as violent and militant in nature as the widespread Sunni militarism that took root during the 80’s. My point was that Shia sectarianism was the precursor(?) that caused an increase in Sunni reactionary groups.

    Again, I am not justifying Sunni militarism. Just pointing out how it all started.Recommend

  • Striver

    Their data collection methods need to be looked at. I don’t think they are reliable. If they are using the methods you are suggesting then their figures are exaggerated a bit like your comments. This is not to deny there is a problem. The problem is far bigger in India. We in Pakistan are trying to resolve it whilst in India minority persecution is state supported. This is something the figures fail to identify in their figured for India.Recommend

  • http://www.jobz.pk/ Saba Shahid

    Believe me or not I have seen people commenting from Pakistan when Iran Killed our soldiers on the border many Pakistani shias supported them. I was really shocked to see that. If you look at Iran with their relations growing with India is not just a relation but take it this way that they hate sunnis so much that they allied with a Hindu country that we are being fighting with since 1947. They are killing muslims in kashmir and border. They still keep abusing saudia arab. But the thing is that my friend when Iran open fires on our soldiers it has nothing to do with saudia arabia. When you are supporting India against Pakistan Saudi Arabia is again not there so thing before you put the blame.Recommend

  • RHR

    Rex how are you? What are you smoking these days?Recommend

  • Adeel Najfi

    In my humble opinion, the only way for Muslims and humanity to move towards a better world, one where your rights are respected and you respect others and their beliefs is to actually stop looking for differences amongst us. And look for similarities. Because we as muslims and humans in general have become accustomed to constantly building these false walls around our selves. For example an average Pakistani is firstly Sunni/Shia, next he is a Pakistani, next he is either Punjabi/Sindhi/Pakhtoon or Baloch or any one of the other ethnic minorities. And then they’ll start dividing themselves in tribes and what area they come from, then what neighborhood they come from. I hope that you can see my point here (apologies if its not concise enough). I believe the sectarian divide definitely is the only enemy within muslims. Why can’t we simply call ourselves muslims? I believe to be a Muslim, you need to believe in Tawheed and believe in the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) being his last prophet. That my friends is being a muslim (from what little research i have done). So you are a muslim if you believe in Allah and his prophet. And it is not for me or anyone else to decide who is and who isn’t a Muslim. That is for Allah to decide.

    Now for us as muslims and humans, its our moral duty to safeguard rights of others. And not be part of any oppression and to stand up and speak when someone accuses someone of being an indifel or a non believer. Because after all your faith is yours and no one elses. Because from the little i know, i think we’re to be judged on our “own” actions and not those of “others”. I believe it is okay to have disagreements on our opinions on religion and life. Because after all, we are the “ashraf ul makhlooqat” we have been given the ability ask questions. Asking is a question is an integral part of who we are. What we have to learn is to not get agitated if we do not have the answers, all you to do is look for the answers. And i believe we can find the answers we are looking for in the Quran and the life of his Prophet. And with all due respect to the companions of the prophet and his children and grandchildren. Islam came into existence before their names were written in history. And as important as their lives and their teachings are for us to learn from. Our allegiance is to Allah and his prophet as a muslim.

    And as for the Saudi/Iran divide none of those countries represents either Sunni or Shia islam. As i said your belief or faith is between you and Allah. We do not owe any allegiances to either one of those states, as they certainly don’t owe us any.
    There is an old african proverb “if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm”.
    No ill feelings, i hope i haven’t offended you. If so i do apologize as it was not my intention. Recommend