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A problem of perception

Published Jan 16, 2013 12:10am


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IT was the worst massacre in Quetta in over a decade and even in such a city, stalked by death and haunted by terror, it marks a new standard.

This past Muharram, while the mourning rites of the month were commemorated on city streets, bombers struck five times, killing around 50 people and injuring hundreds. The days after were hardly peaceful, two and three killed every day or so, a deadly bombing in Mastung killing several pilgrims on December 30 — everything led up to January 10, when five more bomb blasts left over a hundred dead, mainly of the Hazara community, their burials delayed by stunned mourners with no recourse.

It is this question of recourse that is the difficult one. In the days since the Quetta massacre, a robust dose of analysis has emerged. The failed state, the largely apathetic population, the military and the frightened followers of other groups have all been apportioned doses of blame. These are the local coordinates of the problem: how the rhetoric of sectarianism managed to penetrate a country and divide into death and silence.

But carnage and killing have never just been a local issue; the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the annihilation of other similarly situated minorities in other parts of the world has, at least in numerous if not all cases, the attention of the world. In turn, international attention has galvanised local actors, made leaders shameful and produced some small succour for the suffering.

In the case of the killings of Shia Muslims in Pakistan, which according to news reports number over 600 in 2012 alone, the lack of international attention points to the issue of framing the deaths as a sectarian versus a human rights issue.

Within Pakistan, the targeted killings of Shia people are largely framed within the public sphere as an issue of anti-extremism. According to this framing, the killing is wrong based on loosely identified principles of national unity, constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and a vague but repeatedly avowed history of religious tolerance based on a peaceful interpretation of Islam.

All of this goes up against a vitriolic and violent set of religious edicts propagated in a variety of religious seminaries and mosques that have penetrated Pakistan’s side streets, slum alleys and snazzy suburbs alike. Within the Shia community, the efforts to stop the killings are framed within a religeo-theological framework, with the intent of mobilising Shia from all around Pakistan to defend those such as the Hazara that are directly facing the onslaught of violence.

The problem is that they have failed, as a whole, to create enough of an imperative for the non-Shia Pakistani — who may or may not ascribe to the virulent ideology — to do anything to stop the violence or even vociferously condemn it with mass mobilisation or action, barring the recent mass protests over the weekend.

In the international realm, the problem does not belong to Pakistan alone. The categorisation of Shia-Sunni violence resulting from a theological schism hundreds of years ago is something that appears more inaccessible to human rights activists as compared to other human rights conflicts, be they between two religious groups, a dictatorial government against an unarmed population or small tribes fighting international corporations. The origins of the Shia-Sunni schism, the details of the theological interpretations, the groups and subgroups, all represent vexing complexities that can’t easily be reduced to the black and white moral dimensions that underpin human rights advocacy.

Another reason, perhaps, is the long-standing scepticism among secular human rights activists of meddling in intra-theological debates. Since the centrality of human rights discourse is based on the core dignity of the individual human, how then to deal with the theological complications of right and wrong that are based primarily on religious belief?

A third conundrum stems from the detritus of ‘Islamophobia’ littered all over the world in the aftermath of a long decade of war. Through this lens, the internal problems of Muslims should be the prerogative of Muslims themselves. This goes up against simple bad timing; in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan the dominant thrust of human rights advocacy is focusing on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Muslim countries. Given this, advocating international action against Muslims seems like a project too meddlesome, messy and close to asking for precisely the sort of intervention that has turned out so terribly.

In post-invasion Iraq, it was the Sunni-Shia schism that exposed the ghastly mistakes of the American nation-building project and marked various projects of awakenings and revivals that again perpetuated human rights abuses. The cumulative effect on human rights advocacy groups has been to leave them less likely to prioritise anti-Shia violence as a human rights issue worthy of the world’s attention.

The consequence of all this is, of course, most tragic for the Shia community in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan. With local actors, political or military, largely untouched by the violence unleashed on groups such as the Hazara or even Shia Muslims at large, there is little motivation to act — with even untouched Shias perhaps understating their identity on the basis of self-interest and fear.

When you add to this the absence of apolitical advocacy on anti-Shia violence that is locally relevant to the ordinary Pakistani, the result is a hopelessness that seems insurmountable despite the alarming escalation in violence. The final nail in the coffins of the Shia who have died is the curse of poor timing and complex dynamics which have prevented the framing of anti-Shia violence on the international level as a human rights issue, leaving it to languish as an internal problem between Muslims and affecting Muslims but unlikely to ever be solved by Muslims.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

Sam Jan 16, 2013 08:57am
stop seeing everything from muslim vs world glasses. a terrorist pakistani has killed pakistani civilians. catch the guy/his organization/those providing funding/ideology. the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it. otherwise we are just acting like an ostrich.
Wali Jamali Jan 16, 2013 03:37pm
No positivity in Pakistan, Dear Umesh. Its all about flimsy attitudes and Hidden desires of promoting menace.
umesh bhagwat Jan 16, 2013 11:32am
I would suggest someone should write about the positive things happening in Pakistan!
Nisha Rai Jan 16, 2013 12:22pm
So basically lie!
Chaman Jan 16, 2013 01:09pm
Why not you. Self help is the best help.
h.mani Jan 16, 2013 05:49pm
Because,of the hatred for Islam,they think more the better,one less trouble maker,their reasoning is shia joined with sunni to oppress Ahmediyas,christian and Hindu,so it just desert,but that is a wrong logic,no one should be oppressed,but logic,reasoning and rational thinking is rare commodity,so killing will go on,some muslims will even deny,muslims even kill muslims,it is done by Hindus,jews and USA and Europeans,who really cares.
Akil Akhtar Jan 16, 2013 10:31pm
Did not expect anythign better from someone from across the border. The hatred is in you that is why all you can see is negative Jan 16, 2013 07:54am
When a muslim kills a muslim, the world does'nt mind.
Naeem Malik Jan 16, 2013 02:06pm
It would be a mistake to view what Pakistan faces today as an ideological or a religious issue. As with all problems, perceptions can be misleading and in some cases even downright counter productive. The problems we face are contextual, ie they relate to a context ie the present geo-political reality Pakistan finds itself in. We need to address how we can escape that reality which has been imposed upon us over several decades if we are to resolve our problems. We need to ask why are these things happening today? Those who are opposed to Islamists in one context are quite happy to support those emanating from the same Islamist ideology in another context, ie in Syria.. What is going on? Honesty requires us to do analytical and not be driven by perceptions which those with vested interests would want us to do. Also if analysts get distracted by perceptions and do not see the realities behind those perceptions they add to the problem and not help solve it.