In the shadow of violence, Quetta’s divides multiply
Persecution can bring people together. It can also prise them apart.
In Pakistan, so many minorities are threatened by homicidal extremists that travelling the country can feel like hopping across an archipelago of communities under varying degrees of siege.
A wave of killings unleashed on the Hazara community has left its 500,000 members afraid to venture out of their enclaves in the east and west of the city. At least 100 have been killed in Quetta and its environs since January. Nobody has been prosecuted.
Hazaras blame Lashkar-e-Jhangvi , a Sunni militant group, for the killings. The group has stepped up its campaign against Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority this year, spreading fear from hamlets in the foothills of the Himalayas to the backstreets of Karachi. The Hazaras of Quetta, who are Shi’ites, have suffered the heaviest losses.
From one perspective, the persecution has undoubtedly reinforced a sense of Hazara unity by distributing a shared burden of grief. On another level, the pressure appears to have cracked fault-lines that long pre-date the start of the killings in 1999.
In broad terms, the division is between what might be termed Hazara “nationalists”, who draw strength primarily from their ethnic identity, and those for whom their Shi’ite faith is primary.
As is often the case in Pakistan, mutterings about a foreign hand are never far from the discussion. In the eyes of Hazara nationalists, the escalating campaign of violence has bolstered the position of clerics who turn for guidance to Iran, the spiritual centre of Shi’ite Islam. Religious groups say concerns about Iranian influence are wildly exaggerated and point out that their members are as staunchly patriotic as any Pakistanis.
Though examining the Hazara sub-division might sound like an unusually pedantic exercise, it is worth placing under the microscope because it mirrors a broader trend. A creeping sense of insecurity engulfing much of Pakistan has spurred a proliferation of ethnic, sectarian or regionally-oriented groups. Such organisations offer their members a greater sense of belonging than the state, which in many places provides little in the way of protection, jobs or even reliable electricity.
The story is not new: Pakistan’s elite has struggled to rally a consensus around a shared set of values since the country’s creation as a Muslim homeland in 1947. But these days, the void seems more dangerous than ever. Pakistan seems to lose a little more cohesion with each new sectarian or politically-instigated murder.
In Quetta, the splintering is stark. Hazaras emigrated to Baluchistan to escape a previous round of persecution in Afghanistan in the 19th century. They pride themselves on their record of building businesses, performing in the civil service and military and running well-appointed schools. Now, they are not only facing a new bout of victimisation, but struggling with internal rifts.
It is difficult to gauge the true extent of Iranian influence in Quetta, but Hazara nationalists are sure it is slowly growing. For example, the nationalists say that Iranian-inspired Quds Day rallies, held to protest Israel’s annexation and occupation of east Jerusalem, have become more prominent. A few years ago, a new sign was put up at a Hazara cemetery bearing the name Behesht-e-Zainab after Zainab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad, one of the most revered figures in Shi’ite Islam. The name is reminiscent of the Behesht-e-Zahra, a well-known graveyard in Tehran.
One source said that clerics at Ashura festivals, one of the holiest events in the Shi’ite calendar, have increasingly offered Hazaras solace by emphasising a transnational sense of Shi’ite identity – an implicit appeal to solidarity with Iran.
A legal battle over the name of a mosque in Quetta symbolises the divide. In September, more nationalist-oriented Hazaras filed a law suit demanding the word “Hazara” be included in the name. The mosque is run by the Shia Conference, a Shi’ite group which manages dozens of mosques in Baluchistan. The dispute turns on whether the word “Hazara” is part of the rightful title.
The Shia Conference is contesting the case. Although its leaders say most of the group’s members are Hazaras, they argue that the word “Hazara” was not included in the name when the mosque was founded in 1922. They stoutly deny the nationalists’ contention that Iran is seeking to influence their activities, stressing that loving your religion is perfectly compatible with loving your country.
(This is by no means the only controversy over nomenclature in Quetta. Even the name of the Hazara enclave on the eastern edge of the city is contested. Some Hazaras have taken to referring to the area as Mehrabad. The term rankles with ethnic Baloch in the city, who say the area should retain its existing name of Mariabad, after the Marri, a Baloch tribe who once predominated in the district).
The question of Iranian influence – whether real or imagined – is not an academic one for Hazaras. Conversations with several serving or former Pakistani military officers suggest that there are elements within the security forces who view all Shi’ites with suspicion, questioning their loyalty to the state. Hazaras fear that this hostility may make it easier for the uniformed forces of law and order to turn a blind eye when Sunni extremists such as LeJ add a few more Hazaras to their hit list. Certainly, the military has failed to stop LeJ’s rampage in Quetta. Hazaras are certain that this is because the officers are not really trying.
The remedy, of course, would be for Pakistan’s leaders to foster a greater sense of shared nationhood. The body count in Quetta shows they need to work harder.