While the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s population is roughly 20% Shi’a Muslim, Shi’as have faced persecution and violence for decades; over the last year, almost 400 Shi’as were killed in an orgy of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks, launched by Sunni extremists groups often linked to the Taliban. However, the connection between this violence and Afghanistan does not end with the Taliban. One of the most heavily persecuted groups in Pakistan has its cultural and geographic roots in Afghanistan: the Hazara people.
The Hazara are the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They are concentrated in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, with significant populations in its major cities and towns. A large Hazara diaspora exists, concentrated in Iran and Pakistan, where Hazara tribes immigrated during the colonial period. The Hazarajat is mountainous and snowbound for parts of the year, as well as impoverished and resource-poor. Hazaras also primarily speak Persian, follow Twelver Shi’ism, and appear ethnically Mongolian or Uighur, instead of broadly South Asian or Turkic. Because of this, along with their probable origin from settled soldiers of conquering Turko-Mongol armies, Hazara people are traditionally socially isolated in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, this social isolation has resulted in continuous marginalization, with periodic waves of persecution and terror. This pattern dates back to the conquest of Afghanistan by the Mughals, and extends into the modern day. While Hazara fighters participated along with other ethnic groups in resisting to the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, their fellow mujahedeen often distrusted them. The Pashtun-dominated, Sunni fundamentalist Taliban government, religiously and ethnically hostile towards the Hazara, launched campaigns of repression against Hazara groups, including the notorious Yakawlang massacre. Since the 2001 American invasion and the emergence of a new government, the Hazara, strongly anti-Taliban, have seen their fortunes rise. However, Taliban militants have often targeted Hazaras in their insurgent campaigns, and as the United States draws down from its commitments in Afghanistan, violence risks returning with a vengeance.
In Pakistan, Hazaras are a much newer arrival. Many came to Pakistan in the 1840s, as labourers, building roads in the mountainous areas of the Khyber Pass and working as farmers in Sindh. Many eventually settled in the western region of Balochistan. Hazaras integrated into Pakistan largely well, acculturating to a broader Pakistani society, especially to the melting pot of Quetta, a trading port and Balochistan’s capital city. The community furnished Pakistan with a number of important figures, including Muhammad Musa, who served as Army commander-in-chief from 1958-1966.
Yet, Quetta has been the site of substantial ethnic violence against Hazaras since the 1990s. This has both an ethnic and sectarian component. Pakistan, with its overwhelming Sunni majority, has seen a rise in tension with Shi’a minorities due to an increasingly religious and Islamized population. The sparse and still somewhat marginalized Hazaras are an easy target for attacks by violent extremist groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. These groups, which reject Shi’a Muslims as heretics, launch attacks during Shi’a holidays, assaulting religious processions and prayers with suicide and car bombs. Additionally, the alliance of Afghani Hazaras with the United States in the War on Terror and the Afghan government has made Pakistani Hazaras a prime target for Taliban-linked militants. Violence against Hazaras has become so atrocious in the past decade that a section of Quetta’s Hazara cemetery is reserved strictly for victims of sectarian and ethnic violence.
With this rising tide of violence towards such a vulnerable group, the West ought to try and help them. The Hazara have been a force for moderation and stability in Afghanistan, as Hazara politicians are attempting to build a multiethnic and non-sectarian alliance to resist the Taliban. In Pakistan, Hazaras are extremely vulnerable to further attacks, especially as Islamist radicals push to re-designate Shi’as as “non-Muslim”, affording them many fewer rights and protections in what is a highly religious country. Western aid, a significant portion of Pakistan’s government budget, should be used as leverage to push Pakistan to better protect its minorities, including Hazaras. In Afghanistan, NATO and the United States should facilitate coalition building between the Hazaras and other pro-Western actors. They should also consider pushing for a restructuring of Afghanistan’s political system to increase the autonomy of certain regions and minority groups. Hazaras should also be offered asylum in the West, along the lines of other ethnic minorities like the Hmong, persecuted following Western withdrawal from a foreign intervention. Without protection and assistance, Hazaras will see only more violence and depredation, and, among others, their blood risks being on the hands of the West.
– Alex Langer
(Photos: balazsgardi, Creative Commons, Flickr)