Graffiti in Karachi supporting the Islamic State, known locally by its Arabic acronym Daesh, have raised concerns about the Middle Eastern terrorist group’s expansion into Pakistan recently, but locals say they have now seen slogans against the network painted on the walls of the city’s Shia neighborhoods.
Residents of four major Shia localities – Abbas Town, Ancholi, Rizvia and Jafar-e-Tayyar Society – said the killing of Shias and the targeting of their holy sites by the IS in Syria and Iraq has given rise to strong anti-IS feelings among the community in Pakistan, surpassing even their anger towards the Taliban.
“The assertion is true for a number of reasons. While the Taliban have also targeted the Shia in Afghanistan during their rule, the Islamic State group specifically targeted the Shia on ideological and strategic grounds,” says Hasan Abdullah, an Istanbul-based Pakistani security expert.
Athar Mehdi, whose brother Akhter Mehdi was killed in the March 2013 Karachi bombing in Abbas Town, says terrorist groups that target innocent people are equally cruel, “but we see IS as more dangerous.” He was talking to me in his shop on the ground floor of a reconstructed building that had been destroyed by the 2013 bombing. “Buildings have been rebuilt, and our business is flourishing again, but the emotional wounds of that bombing by the Taliban are still fresh.”
Sajjad Haider, from same neighborhood, says the Shia community had been targeted by the Taliban in the past, but the emergence of Islamic State had increased their worries. “Remember the Safoora shooting by IS-inspired youths that left 46 people of the Shia Ismaili community dead?”
“If Taliban are killing everyone, militants of the Islamic State are specifically targeting our community in Iraq, Syria and even in Pakistan,” says Kamil, a resident of Ancholi.
Some of the concerns of Pakistan’s Shias also come from their religious affinity with Syria and Iraq, according to Dr Abbas. “Those holy sites really matter to us,” says Irtiza Rizvi, a resident of Jafar-e-Tayyar Society.
But the spokesman for the organization Majlis-e-Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM), Ali Ahmar, says the problem of terrorism is more widespread. “We don’t differentiate between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and IS,” he says. “They share the same approach, and they target both Shias and Sunnis.”
There are concerns that this rivalry towards the IS may translate into participation in the war against the group, especially in Syria in Iraq. Shia community leaders sternly deny that.
On May 2, AFP cited the Iranian state-run news agency IRNA to report that Tehran had passed a law to grant citizenship to the families of Pakistani ‘martyrs’ fighting in Syria and Iraq.
The MWM spokesman said the words of the source agency had been twisted. “The law applies only to those who had taken part in the Iran-Iraq war.”
The concerns are not new. On August 13, 2014, the National Counterterrorism Authority in Islamabad wrote a letter to the provinces that more than 2,000 Pakistani Shia students at the seminaries in Iraq had been “brainwashed” on sectarian lines. But there has been no substantiation of this allegation.
“Shia student and political groups in Pakistan do have a strong anti-IS sentiments. Some are actively campaigning against IS, while groups may have supplied manpower to anti-IS groups in Iraq and Syria,” says Asfandyar Mir, a US based researcher. “Boys from Kurram Agency’s Turi tribe have also joined anti-IS groups in Syria and Iraq, according to reports.”
Shia groups deny these reports.
The concerns about the emergence of sectarian fighting in Pakistan may have been fueled by the general interest among Pakistani Shias in the politics of the Middle East.
“For instance, there were widespread protests recently against the execution of Sheikh Nimr in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, there were protests against repression of the Shia community in Bahrain,” says Mir.
“Shias have differences with the Saudi Najdis and the Saud kingdom because of several reasons,” the MWM spokesman said.
There have also been reports of Sunni youth from Pakistan joining the IS in Iraq and Syria. A senior police officer told me two such young men had been appointed Qazis, or judges, by the group in a stronghold in Iraq.
According to Tariq Habib, an Islamabad based security expert, suspects from anti-Shia groups in Pakistan have been told by their leadership to leave for Syria via Balochistan.
If Shia and Sunni youth are joining the battles in Syria and Iraq, he is concerned that “sectarian violence will break all past records of Pakistan” when they return.
“Malik Ishaq’s extrajudicial killing was Pakistan’s way of stopping IS from consolidating itself in the country,” according to Mir.