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In the Clutches of a Long-Standing Genocide: Pakistan's Hazara Community

Written by Fareeha Ali Yahya

May 3, 2017

In the early Sunday morning of 1996, my tiny excited-self sprang out of bed. Minutes later: “Ready?” My dad glanced to check whether I had layered up adequately in the face of Quetta’s freezing winters. Together, we hit the road for our weekly adventure and drove straight into Mariabad, one of the city’s Hazara neighbourhoods. The picturesque town, flourishing at the base of Koh-i-Murdar, basked in the day’s first rays of sunshine. Navigating around the tight yet teeming streets, we approached our favourite bread maker. And from afar, the mouth-watering smell of butter melting through the toasty Naan-e-Paraki, prepared with the utmost perfection, sent my tummy growling for food. I darted out of the car, with my dad struggling to catch up. Face inches away from the tandoor, keenly observing the Afghani art of bread making, I watched the Hazara chefs work their magic, wide-eyed, salivating. And after a patient wait, carrying a bag of naan in one hand and halwa in another, clasped as tightly as a 5-year old could manage between her stubby fingers, I proudly walked back to the car, content in the knowledge that right about now my brother would be wishing he hadn’t been lazy and just come along.


A view of Mariabad. Credits: Barat Ali Batoor.


5 years later, a few miles from our cherished spot in Mariabad, a vehicle was ambushed and eight Hazaras were killed. The new millennium marked the start of a Hazara genocide in Pakistan. June 2003: Several Hazara police officers killed on their way to training school in Quetta. July 2003: Hazara Imambargah (mosque) bombed, leaving 47 dead, my uncle among the victims. March 2004. January 2009. September 2009. October 2009. February 2010. March 2010. May 2010. September 2010: Attack on a Shia rally killed 73, my childhood friend one of them. The uninterrupted pattern of targetted attacks has entered 2017. If this isn’t a genocide, “the mass extermination of a whole group of people”, what is?

At the time of Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority in the country, were prospering alongside their Sunni Muslim counterparts, despite increasing differences between the two sects. This, however, only lasted till the late 70s when military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq rose to power and implemented sweeping policy reforms, advocating a strictly Sunni Islamic ideology. This was only the start of an era of sectarian violence in the country, with extremist Sunni factions soon actively engaged in a calculated wipe-out of Shia Muslims, prominent among them the Hazaras, who are easily recognizable by their distinct Mongolian features. While most fled their hometowns in Pakistan, others continue to suffer silently. A progressive community of some of the best-known artists and intellectuals in the nation lives without a promise of tomorrow, fearful of its fellow countrymen.

These hostile sentiments amongst Sunni supremacists have mainly arisen from alienating violence propagated by Pakistan’s national education system, which Haq championed. By antagonizing non-Sunni Muslims through educational curriculums, he bred a generation of intolerant, prejudiced individuals, who resort to vigilantism, proselytizing the label ‘Wajib-ul-Qatal’, which translates into ‘religiously justified murder’. Hence, the first step toward combating the terrorism and healing severed ties between distraught communities is to rectify educational curriculums as an initiative for peacebuilding and social transformation. Teachers, school istrators, students and all other stakeholders need to be sensitized to religious diversity. They should be taught to celebrate and not mourn multiculturalism; a tolerant generation of individuals emerges only from embracing shared history and values instead of scorning difference. Educational institutes should also ensure safety at multiple levels. This encompasses prohibitions on hate speech among students and faculty members, and most crucially the curriculum content itself. The language employed in learning environments and the behaviour exhibited in these spaces must be regulated to facilitate peaceful communication of ideas and a fair exchange of dialogue between all concerned parties; progressive societies recognize the perils of violence and value the perspectives of all individuals equally.

But why did Haq turn a blind eye to the relentless bloodshed he had triggered within a peaceful community for generations to come? The answer isn’t simple. When the General took over, Pakistan was still recovering from the shock of Bangladesh’s secession, formerly East Pakistan. At the height of uncertainty, when Islam had appeared to lie at the core of Pakistan’s national identity, its east wing crumpled under istrative turmoil. And in a frenzy of redefining the essence of being Pakistani, Haq pioneered an inherently sectarian Islamization movement, tearing the state apart along a Sunni/’non-Muslim’ dichotomy. Also in effect during the same time was the Shia Islamic revolution of Pakistan’s neighbouring country, Iran; strengthening the solidarity of Pakistan’s Shia Muslims but threatening the state’s sovereignty, which was now rooted in Sunni Islamic ideology. As another missing piece of the puzzle, prominent Shia Muslims at the time dominated the feudal order within the Punjab province of Pakistan, which was the centre of economic and political power. Turning them into targets of sectarian killing might just have been the most effective tactic of destabilizing their authority.

Therefore, without comprehending the socio-political atmosphere in which the seeds of hatred were sown, efforts for peacebuilding today would be a lost cause. And this is exactly why educational institutes in Pakistan must instigate a revolutionary change and facilitate critical thinkers who refuse to condone biased, incoherent pieces of information. It is the isolated, partial understanding of historical events like these that create resentful individuals who only speak the language of hate and violence. This historical revisionism should be addressed through the introduction of new, verified textbooks by renowned scholars like Ayesha Jalal and Hamza Alavi, who have attempted to showcase an authentic version of Pakistan’s history. Nation-wide transformation can only be expected when the public has access to new ideas and is equipped with critical thinking skills through the education system.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela

Fareeha is a former LIDC intern and a Master’s student of Education and International Development at the Institute of Education, UCL.

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