Editor’s Piece: The Ideological Roots of the Ethnic Cleansing of the Hazara – A Historical Perspective

Sarah Khan – Senior Managerial Editor

In this essay, I view the recent tragedy involving 11 Hazara Shia coal-miners and their families through a historical perspective. I show how extremist intolerance against religious minorities in Pakistan is rooted in an exclusionary ideology of what constitutes the Pakistani ‘nation’.

On January 3rd 2021, 11 coal miners from the Hazara Shia community were kidnapped and barbarically murdered near Mach, Balochistan. The Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K), that maintains a presence in Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. The IS-K is a province of the IS (Islamic State), a jihadist-Salafi militant organization, whose declared objective is to establish a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and the Khorasan (Central Asia and South Asia), and expand its authority globally, over the Muslim ‘Ummah’ (CSIS, 2021). The Salafist movement is a branch within Sunni Islam that subscribes to a purist, literalist interpretation of Islam and calls for a reversion to the traditions of the Salaf – the first generations of Muslims. Part of the Salafists’ guiding ideology is takfir i.e. excommunication (declaring as apostates or infidels) of Muslims that have strayed from ‘true Islam’ – this includes both Shias, and Sunnis with beliefs divergent from Salafism (Kadivar, 2020). The targeting of the Shia by Sunni terrorist organizations is guided by the takfiri ideology to rid Islam of its ‘impure’ elements.

The incident of terrorism in Balochistan– needless to say, a monumental tragedy – did not itself sound alarm bells in the national media. Rather, it was its aftermath, in which the persecuted and hounded Hazara minority staged a sit-in, and refused to bury the slain miners until Prime Minister Khan met them and the terrorists were held to account, that made headlines. A protesting woman lamented that her family had been bereaved of all its men and breadwinners in the attack; there was no one left to shoulder the funeral procession.

“The monumental tragedy in Balochistan did not itself sound alarm bells in the national media. Rather, it was its aftermath, in which the persecuted and hounded Hazara minority staged a sit-in, and refused to bury the slain miners until Prime Minister Khan met them and the terrorists were held to account, that made headlines”

This, however, was not the first incident of terrorism perpetrated against the Hazara Shia in Pakistan. In the past, the Pakistani Hazara have been the target of systematic ethnic cleansing. In Pakistan, the Hazara are scapegoated on three separate counts – being Hazara, identifying as Shia, and belonging to Balochistan.

An exhaustive list of the number of times that the Hazara Shia have been targeted by Sunni extremist militant outfits is not possible here. However, for a rough estimate, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) documented that almost 3000 Hazara have been killed in murders, suicide attacks, and car bombings in only the last 20 years.

Nor is the persecution of the Hazara Shia limited to Pakistan. The Hazara, who belong originally to Hazarajat, Afghanistan, have been subjected to persecution particularly at the hands of the Afghan Taliban in the later 20th century. Escaping this torture, they crossed the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and emigrated elsewhere including to the US and Australia. In Pakistan, the Hazara found no respite, and became the targets of extremist Deobandi[1] outfits operating in the country.

The prime perpetrators of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ) and Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been at the forefront of orchestrating terrorist violence against the Shia. For readers unfamiliar with the operations of these groups – the LeJ , who have perpetrated terrorism particularly against the Hazara Shia, persistently and with indemnity, sprung from the SSP (Sipah e Sahaba Pakistan), which was declared a terrorist organization and banned by Musharraf in 2002. They act as proxies and counterparts of the IS in Pakistan. The TTP emerged in the aftermath of the Afghan War in 2007, and maintains close ties with the Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban (Stanford & CISAC, 2021). The TTP have targeted the Ismaili Shia in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan (Hunzai, 2013). Notably, both TTP and LeJ are Sunni Deobandi outfits.

While the Deobandi are distinct from Salafists, both share in common the objective of the implementation of the Sharia and the snuffing out of ‘apostates’ and ‘infidels’. We shall see later how such extremist outfits became major actors in Pakistan’s political landscape, and over time, strayed into militancy.

One of the declared aims of the LeJ is to “cleanse” Pakistan of the “impure” Shiites all of whom it views as “liable to be killed” and to “rest only upon flying the flag of ‘true Islam’ over the country”. This is expressed in LeJ’s public threat to the Hazara Shia issued in 2011 (HRW, 2014), following the release of their leader, Malik Ishak, from prison, and his acquittal from charges of murder by the Rawalpindi ATC (anti-terrorism court) (Dawn News, 2014). Ishak’s case is only one from a list of 2,000 acquittals by ATCs of Pakistan[2] since 2007.

As Madiha Afzal shows in her book Pakistan Under Siege (2018), the State has maintained an obfuscated narrative with regards to the very existential threat that the terrorist outfits pose to Pakistan. Regarding the groups that were to form the TTP, the State under Musharraf, while engaging with them in successive peace deals (from 2005 – 2007), advanced the narrative that they were “our brothers” who could be contained, to the public (p. 50).

It appears that the Pakistani State adopts a hardline approach only as the last resort, to stifle or counter a direct and urgent threat, or to mollify public outrage. This is evidenced by the Lal Majid crackdown, the Operation Zarb-e-Azab in South Waziristan, and the resumption of the death penalty for Islamist militants following the 2014 APS massacre (Afzal, 2018). Otherwise, it appears that the military – that commands Pakistan’s domestic and foreign security policy – waits for these extremist elements to fall into line. This begs the question of why there is so much tolerance –among State institutions – for such terrorist and extremist outfits that obviously pose an existential threat to Pakistan, and are destabilizing for the State? To answer this, I must make inroads into Pakistan’s complicated entanglement with Islam and the complex politics of national identity.

The problem with the exclusionary ideology of Pakistan

Commonly, the rise of Islamist extremist violence in Pakistan is attributed to General Zia’s regime. However, while being cognizant of the seminal role played by Zia in cultivating a culture of violent, militant Islamism in Pakistan, I want to detract from the view that it was Zia who set this process in motion. I argue that Zia enacted his draconian Islamization in a milieu that emerged as a result of a series of events beginning with the conception of Pakistan as a state for the Muslims of India, imagined as a homogenous community, “a nation, a people” (Jan, 2010, p. 280).

“Zia enacted his draconian Islamization in a milieu that emerged as a result of a series of events beginning with the conception of Pakistan as a state for the Muslims of India, imagined as a homogenous community, “a nation, a people””

The ideology of Pakistan is based on the fictitious idea – rooted in the colonial divide and rule policy – of Muslims and Hindus as two separate civilizations who could not intermingle or coexist in harmony. Jinnah, founder of Pakistan and at the helm of the Muslim League, had fully imbibed this idea[3]. On the basis of this idea, being Muslim became, rather than “a private inner disposition towards the divine”, a “racial identity marker” (Jan, 2010, p.281). It must be noted that the clash of civilizations between the Hindus and the Muslims ignored the various other religious and ethno-linguistic minorities in India.

Importantly however, the Muslims of India, a panoply group composed of different sects, did not conceive of themselves as a unified, undifferentiated mass. As early as 1907, All India Shi‘a Conference had been set up, that challenged the League’s claim of being the sole Muslim representative in India[4]. Muslims Against the Muslim League (2017) provides an excellent account of the critiques of the idea of Pakistan – a political project of the League – by Muslim political actors in India.

The idea of a Muslim nation became imbued with a majoritarian definition of Islam that was only representative of a certain denomination within Islam: Sunnism. The Isna Ashari Shia, Hosseibhoy Laljee, president of the Shi‘a Political Conference, warned in the 1940s, “with an element of prescience” (p.350), that Pakistan would fall under Sunni Sharia fail to offer its Shia citizens freedom of worship or protection from discrimination. This is explored in deeper depth in Justin Jones’ (2017) essay “The Pakistan that is to be Sunnistan”.

Indeed, with the making of Pakistan, a particular (Sunni) interpretation of Islam – masquerading as representative of all Muslims of India– became cemented as the national, official definition, and acquired political and cultural dominance.

My exposition above has shown that Pakistani national identity is anchored in two related and defining variables: a state in opposition to (‘Hindu’) India formed based on Islam. The negative identity, from the very onset, has instilled deep-seated paranoia of India as a threat. It has also given Pakistani nationalism a defensive character that is preoccupied with a search for threatening ‘Others’ against which to defend, and reaffirm, Pakistani identity. The State and national security establishment have turned this to their advantage, and appropriated Islam as a tool for nation-building. However, the state appropriation of a certain definition of Islam as a tool to forge an assimilative national identity has led to its becoming a divisive force. The cry of defending Islam is used to justify war (under the banner of jihad – ‘holy war’), and scapegoat groups and identities – religious ‘Others’ – which do not subscribe to the majoritarian definition of Islam.

“The state appropriation of Islam as a tool to forge an assimilative national identity has led to its becoming a divisive force. The cry of defending Islam is now used to justify war (under the banner of jihad – ‘holy war’), and scapegoat groups and identities – religious ‘Others’ – which do not subscribe to the majoritarian definition of Islam.”

The constitutive role of (Sunni) Islam in Pakistani national identity is what has, at least in part, emboldened Sunni Islamist groups to vie for political power and dictate their will to the State. These elements operational within Pakistan weaponize Islam as an excuse to wage jihad against those they condemn as ‘apostates’ or ‘infidels’. It is noteworthy that these (entirely manufactured) rivalries have further been fanned by the glorification of jihad in national security discourses.

Since the very inception of Pakistan, a tussle for sovereign authority has been underway between the politico-religious elite (Islamist parties)[5] and the State. Most notably, this can be observed in the case of the Jamat e Islami (JI) whose leader Abul Ila Maududi rejected the idea of Pakistan as a modern, secular (la dini) nation-state and envisioned the establishment of an Islamic state in the country (Qasmi, 2017). It makes sense that he, although initially against the Pakistani State, later allied his party with Zia’s Islamist regime.

As Qasmi (2010) points out, successive administrations have practiced their own version of a ‘politics of Islam’ to appease Islamist parties and for the purposes of crafting and solidifying a Pakistani national identity. How this has been done, we shall see in the next section.

The politics of Islam and the Pakistani State

As early as 1949, the State yielded to pressure by Islamist parties to pass the Objectives Resolution that expressly declared Pakistan an Islamic state. The name change of Pakistan was effectively formalized in the 1956 Constitution as the Republic of Pakistan became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Syed & Pio, 2016).

By 1953, Islamist parties had turned Pakistan into a theatre for the enactment of sectarian politics and began to demand the declaration of the Ahmeddiya as heretics. The State clamped down against these elements fomenting identity based hostility and violence. Interestingly, in the Munir Report that probed into the causes of the 1953 disturbance stated that the Ulema (religious scholars representing different schools of thought from within Islam) were asked to provide a definition of Muslim – none could agree (Qasmi, 2010). This shows that in Pakistan, due to the presence and influence of Islamist parties (subscribing to different schools of thought) in political affairs, sectarian hostilities are endemic. By the definition of one, all others will be kafirs (apostates and infidels).

Notably, the movement against the Ahmeddiya community found its culmination in 1973 when the Ahmeddiya were declared non-Muslims in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, passed under Z.A. Bhutto. Bhutto, for political expediency and opportunism parroted and bolstered the discourse of Islamic national identity that forms the core of the Pakistani identity.

As I have mentioned above, the ideology of jihad has been valorized and formed part of national identity and security discourse. In Pakistan’s confrontations with India, in 1947, 1965, and 1971, Islamist militants, or “irregular forces”, have been enlisted by the military to fight alongside them. Their conviction to fight has been animated by an ideology of waging jihad against the enemy. Particularly, the 1965 and 1971 wars  against India have been styled as jihad by the military[6] (Afzal, 2019). Jihad, in fact, also constitutes the Army’s official motto — iman, taqwa, jihad (faith, piety, holy war). The valorization of jihad pervades Pakistani textbooks still that form part of the enterprise of national identity as Madiha Afzal (2018) has shown.

Such was the political terrain in which Zia fully embraced Deobandi ideology, and entered into an enduring tryst with the JI . This included bestowing state patronage on JI members by instituting members in government positions, and consulting the JI on matters of legislation (Ahmed, 2018).

During the Zia years, there was a surge in the number of Deobandi madrassahs (religious seminaries) funded by Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Iraq (Syed & Pio, 2016), towards the end of containing the influence of Shia Iran, by building a “Sunni wall” around Iran (Nasr, 2000). Due to this, Saudi Wahhabism – a puritanical interpretation of Islam – seeped into the Deobandi madrassahs. These religious seminaries became the breeding ground for Islamist militants, particularly those that joined the US sponsored ‘jihad’ against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the Zia regime participated in. It was during this time that the Pakistani Deobandis forged close ties with the Afghan Taliban that were inducted in these Deobandi seminaries[7], and the Al-Qaeda, whose leaders had pledged allegiance to the Taliban[8] (Syed & Pio, 2016). While Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, LeJ militants received training at al-Qaeda-run training camps. As such, both LeJ and the TTP became integrated into the global nexus of Islamist terrorist organizations. (The entry of the ISIS in the web of Islamist terrorist organizations further complicated an already complex arena). Furthermore, with one fell swoop, i.e. the notorious clauses 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, Zia criminalized the questioning of, or debate about, interpretations of Islam. These murderous laws have legalized arbitrary allegations of blasphemy and encouraged violence against anyone accused of having blasphemed.

The consequences of the manipulation of Islam as a national ideology

The version of Islam that is wielded as a tool by the State and national security establishment to forge an assimilative national identity has becomes a divisive force in Pakistan. The centrality accorded to Islam in the construction of a national identity, defined negatively, has allowed extremist elements use the justification of ‘defending’ and ‘protecting’ Islam to persecute minorities and those they consider deviant elements. It must be noted that what constitutes ‘Islam’ as a category is a matter of subjective interpretation. Any attempt to raise a particular interpretation of what Islam really is as the standard must be problematized as this is an exclusionary project and denigrates approaches and interpretations other to itself.

As I have stressed above, while Islamist terrorist outfits operating in Pakistan are distinct in the schools of thought that they subscribe to, they share in common the ideological strain guiding their operations. That is, they are animated by an obsession to eliminate who they consider apostates and infidels and establish the Sharia over geographies in which they operate (including Iraq, Syria, and the region known as referred to as Khorasan). In Pakistan, the extremist ideologies of these groups find fodder in the State and national security establishment’s politics of Islam: educational curricula, laws, and national security rhetoric.

To rid itself of these elements, the State must identify outfits such as LeJ and TTP (who openly and brazenly adopt an anti-State narrative) outright as an existential threat to itself and the possibility of a pluralistic Pakistan. Disappointingly though, Prime Minister Khan’s recent accusation of India’s complicity in the Hazara massacre towed the same stale line of blaming Pakistan’s ills on India’s ‘sinister intentions’. If Pakistan insists on defining itself negatively – that includes its obsession with India – that is the root cause of the festering Islamist extremism in the country, little is likely to change.

“If Pakistan insists on defining itself negatively – that includes its obsession with India – that is the root cause of the festering Islamist extremism in the country, little is likely to change.”

[1] A Sunni school of thought that emerged in late-nineteenth century colonial India, advocates a revivalist sort of Islam.

[2] Only in 2015 was Ishak killed by the Pakistani police.

[3] In 1940, Jinnah opined that “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literatures. They neither intermarry, nor dine together. They belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conception”(Islam, 1981).

[4] It is ironic that Jinnah would be the one to lead the League’s mission for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India as initially, at the time of its formation in 1906, Jinnah opposed the idea of the League as a separate political entity to represent the Muslims.

[5] The Islamist parties operating in Pakistan must not be viewed as a homogenous group and have differences and rivalries among them as well. The main Sunni schools of thought operating in Pakistan are the Deobandis, the Ahl e Hadith, the Barelvis, and the Ahrar, all of whom have at some point browbeaten the State into submitting to their demands.

[6] In both 1965 and 1971, the Pakistani Army enlisted the services of Islamist guerilla type fighters in their wars. Religious tropes inspired the insurrection in both Kashmir and in Bangladesh. For example, the mission in Kashmir was termed Operation Gibraltar, a reference to Gibraltar’s eighth-century conquest by the Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad (Syed & Pio, 2016).

[7] Mullah Omar (d. 2015), the head of the Taliban, was a product of a Deobandi seminary.

[8] Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Al Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar.


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