A Pakistani Shia Muslim girl holds placard during a protest against the twin bombings in Quetta, in Karachi, Pakistan on January 13, 2013. PHOTO: AFP

Why framing Shia genocide as a sectarian conflict only trivialises the problem

Sectarian conflict involves active participation of both sides. In Pakistan, Shias don't have the capacity to respond.

Raza Habib Raja May 21, 2017
One of the most important factors which determine the way an issue is understood, debated and addressed is the way it is framed in the media. Framing becomes extremely important as it affects the discourse, narrative, and ultimately the kind of solutions which are brought to the table. Knowing its importance, supporters and opponents of a contentious issue often try to frame it to their advantage.

For example, in the US, the debate around abortion is often framed as pro-life by Conservatives. This is a very powerful and effective construct as it creates the impression that those who choose abortion are anti-life and hence some kind of murderers. Unfortunately, this framing has been successful and many, including a substantial percentage of women, have ended up assuming that abortion is some sort of a sin. By framing it as pro-life, conservatives in the US have bagged a moral advantage which they exploit as well.

Framing is not always deliberate, since sometimes an issue gets framed by the media inadvertently also. Once an issue is successfully framed in a particular way, either deliberately or unintentionally, the entire discourse is shaped by it. One key issue in Pakistan, which in my opinion is affected strongly by framing, is the widespread killing of Shias.

Currently, the issue is often framed as an inter-communal conflict between Shias and Sunnis supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some also say that Pakistan is another battle ground of the ongoing proxy war between the two countries.

I believe this framing is seriously flawed as it trivialises what in reality is actually a slow-moving Shia genocide. The scale of violence is alarming. According to data compiled by the South Asian Terrorism Portal over the last 15 years, violence against Shias has resulted in more than 7,000 deaths and injuries. This is not a sectarian conflict, because a conflict would involve active participation of both sides. In Pakistan, Shias are overwhelmingly the recipient of violence and do not have the capacity to respond, and in fact, they hardly respond in the same manner.

Pakistan is a different case from countries like Syria and Iraq, where Shias and Sunnis are vying for territorial control as well as political power. Even their militant groups are backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is taking place there can be termed as proxy wars, but in Pakistan, Shias are not vying for any sort of territorial control as they are thinly dispersed throughout the country.

Violence against Shias in Pakistan is not communal but ideological and is perpetuated by religious fringe organisations who consider them as apostates. Let’s not forget that Pakistan has witnessed target killings of Shia religious scholarsdoctors, lawyers and other professionals. There have also been incidents where buses were stopped and Shia passengers were killed after confirmation of their religious affiliation.

The basic impetus for killing of Shias springs from the Takfiri obsession about who is a true Muslim and who is not. Even though actual violence is conducted and perpetuated by militant organisations, according to me, the general mind-set of the population is also a contributing factor. Let’s not forget that as a society, we are obsessed with veracity of religious beliefs. Unfortunately “kafir kafir Shia kafir” (Shias are infidels) is a slogan which is quite pervasive and not just restricted to militant groups.

As mentioned before, the current framing of the issue seriously obfuscates and in fact trivialises the nature and the scale of the problem. Instead of looking at growing ideological extremism and the spread of hate-filled literature, we start looking at the issue in terms of global power play.

Moreover, this framing also creates a misconception that this is a two-way conflict which has active Iran-backed Shia involvement in it. While this may be true in Syria and Iraq, the reality is that in Pakistan, there is no conflict, only unidirectional violence against a minority. Of course, Saudi Arabia’s funding is playing a role in Pakistan, but the outcome is not a conflict, rather genocide.

Although I am a Sunni, about 70% of my maternal family is Shia. I have seen them become increasingly terrified in recent years with some choosing immigration. Right now, there is a lot of fear in the Shia community and we need to address it immediately. The first step in addressing any problem is recognising its true essence. Let’s recognise the real problem here and not get obfuscated by faulty framing of the issue.
Raza Habib Raja

The writer is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University. He regularly writes for the Express Tribune, HuffPost, Daily Times and Naya Daur.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Adeel Najfi | 4 years ago | Reply In my humble opinion, the only way for Muslims and humanity to move towards a better world, one where your rights are respected and you respect others and their beliefs is to actually stop looking for differences amongst us. And look for similarities. Because we as muslims and humans in general have become accustomed to constantly building these false walls around our selves. For example an average Pakistani is firstly Sunni/Shia, next he is a Pakistani, next he is either Punjabi/Sindhi/Pakhtoon or Baloch or any one of the other ethnic minorities. And then they'll start dividing themselves in tribes and what area they come from, then what neighborhood they come from. I hope that you can see my point here (apologies if its not concise enough). I believe the sectarian divide definitely is the only enemy within muslims. Why can't we simply call ourselves muslims? I believe to be a Muslim, you need to believe in Tawheed and believe in the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) being his last prophet. That my friends is being a muslim (from what little research i have done). So you are a muslim if you believe in Allah and his prophet. And it is not for me or anyone else to decide who is and who isn't a Muslim. That is for Allah to decide. Now for us as muslims and humans, its our moral duty to safeguard rights of others. And not be part of any oppression and to stand up and speak when someone accuses someone of being an indifel or a non believer. Because after all your faith is yours and no one elses. Because from the little i know, i think we're to be judged on our "own" actions and not those of "others". I believe it is okay to have disagreements on our opinions on religion and life. Because after all, we are the "ashraf ul makhlooqat" we have been given the ability ask questions. Asking is a question is an integral part of who we are. What we have to learn is to not get agitated if we do not have the answers, all you to do is look for the answers. And i believe we can find the answers we are looking for in the Quran and the life of his Prophet. And with all due respect to the companions of the prophet and his children and grandchildren. Islam came into existence before their names were written in history. And as important as their lives and their teachings are for us to learn from. Our allegiance is to Allah and his prophet as a muslim. And as for the Saudi/Iran divide none of those countries represents either Sunni or Shia islam. As i said your belief or faith is between you and Allah. We do not owe any allegiances to either one of those states, as they certainly don't owe us any. There is an old african proverb "if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm". No ill feelings, i hope i haven't offended you. If so i do apologize as it was not my intention.
Saba Shahid | 4 years ago | Reply Believe me or not I have seen people commenting from Pakistan when Iran Killed our soldiers on the border many Pakistani shias supported them. I was really shocked to see that. If you look at Iran with their relations growing with India is not just a relation but take it this way that they hate sunnis so much that they allied with a Hindu country that we are being fighting with since 1947. They are killing muslims in kashmir and border. They still keep abusing saudia arab. But the thing is that my friend when Iran open fires on our soldiers it has nothing to do with saudia arabia. When you are supporting India against Pakistan Saudi Arabia is again not there so thing before you put the blame.
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