On the morning of February 18th, Dr. Syed Ali Haider, a forty-six-year-old eye surgeon in Lahore, was driving with his eleven-year-old son, Mustafa Haider from their home in upper-middle class Gulberg, a quiet area of mansions on tree-lined avenues, to Aitcheson College, a high school established by the British, which has groomed a few generations of Lahore élite. As Dr. Haider stopped at a traffic light, armed militants on motorbikes surrounded his car, opened fire, and sped away. His driver, who was in the back seat, escaped unhurt and called the police. The doctor had been shot six times in the head and was dead when help arrived; his son, who had been shot once in the head, died later in a hospital.
Dr. Haider came from a much-regarded Lahore family; his relatives were renowned doctors and members of the judiciary. Nobody claimed responsibility for his killing, but everyone in Lahore suspected the Sunni Deobandi extremist militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ, currently operating as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat ASWJ), which has been involved in numerous attacks on Pakistan’s Shia minority. “This is a sectarian killing. Ali had no personal enmity,” Justice Syed Fazal Haider, his uncle and a retired High Court Judge, told the Pakistani press.
A few days after the murders, I met Professor Osama Siddique, who had returned to teach at Lahore University of Management Sciences after getting his doctorate at Harvard Law School. Siddique’s son goes to the same school as the slain boy, and told him, “I knew Mustafa. I used to teach him how to play cricket at school.” Lahore had largely been unaffected by the frequent violence in Pakistan, but the new wave of attacks on the Shia minority, which constitutes around twenty per cent of Pakistan’s population of a hundred and eighty million, had left the city stunned.
A sense of siege and hopelessness is engulfing the Shias of Pakistan. I travelled from Lahore to Pakistan’s financial capital Karachi, where the graffiti seemed to foretell coming murders. Even in the commercial center, where sultry models advertised designer apparel on billboards, the letters “S.S.P.” were painted on walls in red—for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the Army of the Companions of the Prophet Pakistan, the mothership of sectarian militancy in Pakistan. On my second morning in the city, the newspapers reported a “targeted attack” on Lieutenant Commander Syed Azeem Haider Kazmi of Pakistan Navy, a Shia. Kazmi was driving to work in the morning when assassins fired at him; he died a week later. Earlier, another Shia naval officer was injured after an improvised explosive device exploded beneath his car.
The sectarian war in Pakistan has grown in tandem with the wider radicalization of its society. The country’s Shias and Sunnis largely lived together peacefully till the nineteen-eighties. The downward slide began during the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, who ruled Pakistan between 1979 and 1987. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Sunni Wahhabi/Salafist-led governments like Saudi Arabia feared that Ayatollah Khomeini would export Shiite ideas and influence. Saudis gave financial support to General Zia, and, in turn, Zia patronized radical Wahhabi-Deobandi-like Sunni clerics in Pakistan. A wave of new seminaries opened, some no more than storefronts, from which clerics issued fatwas and declared Shias heretics and apostates. As Pakistan got involved in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (which is also mostly Deobandi and Wahhabi, majority of Sufi/Barelvi Sunnis have stayed away from Wahhabi-Deobandi violence and proxy Jihad), the power of religious extremists grew. Many of the Taliban came from the seminaries that Zia had helped build.
In 1985, in Jhang—a small town in Punjab—a group of Takfiri (apostatizing of Sufi Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis) Deobandi extremist clerics led by Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi formed the S.S.P. It positioned itself as a political party, with the aim of declaring Pakistan a Sunni state, and even won some seats in the National Assembly. In 1996, a breakaway faction that felt the organization wasn’t violent enough formed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—the Army of Jhangvi.
After 9/11, General Pervez Musharraf banned both Sunni and Shia sectarian militant groups, but it did little to ebb the violence against Shias. There was never an equation of violence between well-funded and well-trained Deobandi Jihadist groups and a few reactionary Shias who resisted a genocide like situation. The legal system has been notably weak when it comes to investigations and prosecutions of sectarian violence. In the early two-thousands, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi frequently targeted Shia professionals. During Musharraf’s first term in office, from 1999-2003, around six hundred Shias were killed in sectarian violence. In 2003, The Friday Times weekly newspaper reported that around five hundred Shia doctors had fled Pakistan in the space of a few years, after more than fifty of their colleagues were assassinated in Karachi.
By 2009, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, a coalition of militants operating out of the tribal areas of Pakistan, was carrying out lethal bombings throughout Pakistan; several former Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ aka ASWJ) leaders had assumed important positions within its ranks. And sectarian violence has intensified. “The attacks on the Shia community increased radically in the past year. As the national elections are a few months away, the militants sense a lack of political will within the political parties to go after them,” a Lahore-based newspaper editor told me.
A week after Dr. Haider’s murder, Lahore’s middle and upper classes tried to fight back symbolically, gathering in thousands at the city’s first literary festival. A certain sense of purpose was palpable in the sessions; writers and journalists spoke passionately about the sectarian violence, and their critiques made headlines in the English press. Although the festival mostly drew an English-speaking, upper-class crowd, it also attracted students from Pakistan’s villages. Raza Wazir, a twenty-two-year-old literature student originally from Waziristan, where drone strikes and Taliban attacks are a routine, had come to festival by way of Ferguson College in Lahore. He had dutifully attended every session for two days. He had lingered at the bookstalls, noting the titles of books, but found them too expensive to buy. “I realized how important it is to write and tell your own stories. People from places like Waziristan have always been spoken about; we have never told our own stories,” Wazir told me. He wanted to write and wanted to know how to write, how to process the violent world he had inherited.
Four days after the festival opened, on February 25th, a bomb exploded at a Sufi shrine in Shikarpur, a few hours from Karachi, killing three Shias, one Sufi Sunni and injuring more than twenty worshippers. Soon after the explosion, a tweet came from @JHANGVI, the group’s account:
Central Jail RYK; Me ny Sirf Ek Allah k Smny Jhukna Sekha hy Me Unka Waris Ni Jinhon ny Darbaron ki Dehleez Chati ho Malik Ishaq sb
[I bow only to God. I am not an heir of those who prostrate at shrines.]
Terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi consider not only the Shias but also Pakistani Sunnis, who venerate shrines of Sufi mystics, as infidels deserving death. In the summer of 2011, Jhangvi sent an open letter to the Shia community in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province and home to around six hundred thousand Shias from the Hazara tribe. The letter, written in Urdu and signed by the commander of Jhangvi, read:
All Shias are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of [this] unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure, and the Shias have no right to be here…
…We will make Pakistan their graveyard—their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers.
Hasnain Haider, a twenty-four-year-old computer science student was at a friend’s house in Quetta on January 10th when he heard about an explosion at a snooker hall in the city. (Hasnain is no relation to the doctor in Lahore—Haider is a common Shia name.) Haider and his friend, both Shias, rode on a motorbike toward the explosion site. They saw a few blue ambulances speeding ahead. A shopping area, homes, and a Shia shrine were nearby. “Around five hundred people had gathered on the square and people were trying to evacuate the dead and the injured,” Haider told me on the phone. Policemen were trying to push people back. “I walked into the lane leading to snooker hall to help carry out the injured or the dead. The moment I stepped into the lane, the second bomb went off. I was tossed several meters away, onto the ground by the explosion and lay on the street for a while,” Haider said.
Haider collected himself and took in the devastation. “Everywhere I looked, I saw bodies torn into pieces, and the injured, bleeding, crying out for help. And a few vehicles burning.” At some point he ran his hand through his hair and it came out wet. “I didn’t realize for a long time that I, too, was injured.” Haider made his way to a local hospital where doctors stitched the shrapnel wounds on his head and left leg. Hours later, news came that his uncle, Arif, a forty-five-year-old functionary in a local government office, who lived a few blocks from the snooker hall, had also been killed: “He had come to buy bread for his children when the second blast killed him.” He left behind two sons and two daughters.
Eighty-one people were dead. In the days following the carnage, Haider’s community made a stark gesture of protest: despite heavy rain, tens of thousands of Hazara Shias sat outside with the bodies of the dead and refused to bury them. Eventually, Pakistan’s central government dismissed the local administration for its failure to protect the Shias.
Yet a month later, on February 16th, a bomb exploded in another busy market district in a Shia neighborhood in Quetta, killing eighty-four and injuring some hundred and sixty-nine more people. Again, several thousand Shia men and women gathered in a sit-in and refused to bury the dead in protest, but the killers remain at large. “At our rallies, we have been saying, ‘Yeh Joh Dahshat Gardi Hai, Iske Peechay Vardi Hai’”—behind the terror stands the uniform—Yasin Changezi, a graduate student from Quetta told me in a Skype interview. He was referring to the charge that Pakistan’s military establishment protects the sectarian militants, with whom it has old ties. And on Sunday, March 3rd, another lethal blast in a Shia neighborhood in Karachi killed at least forty-five people and injured more than a hundred and fifty.
“I can’t see a future for myself in such circumstances. I have a computer-sciences degree and want to work, but I am scared to even move beyond the street where the Shia neighborhoods end in Quetta,” Haider told me.
Hazara Shia groups put the number of émigrés from Quetta itself in the past few years at around twenty-five thousand. At a fee of ten thousand dollars, which few can afford, smugglers ferry immigrants to Indonesia and from there by boat to the unwelcoming shores of Australia. “Those who have money are leaving for Iran, Australia, and Canada, but where will someone like me go?” Haider said.
Amjad Hussain, a Shia journalist, has reported for several leading Pakistani publications, including the English newspaper Dawn. Then Hussain began receiving death threats from the militants and moved to Islamabad for safety. “He would wake up in the middle of the night and break into laughter. At times, he would simply cry,” Changezi, who knew Hussain, told me. Eventually, Hussain, the journalist, paid a smuggler, who ferried him to Jakarta and put him on a ship to Australia. There he sought asylum, with the other boat people of Quetta.
Photograph by Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty.