In America, Muslims are often seen as a monolith. As a whole, we have experienced discrimination and persecution from non-Muslims. What people may not know is that Islam actually consists of many sects, including Sunnism, Shi’ism, Ismailism, and Ahmadiyya, much like how Christianity includes Protestantism and Catholicism. The minority sects, specifically Shi’ism, are currently being persecuted in multiple Muslim-majority countries (Human Rights Watch), including the genocide of Shias in Pakistan (Al Jazeera).
Even in the United States, many Shias like myself have felt pressured to hide our beliefs in majority Muslim spaces. Shias worldwide know the feeling of hearing a non-Shia Muslim expressing anti-Shia sentiments before realizing they’re talking to a Shia. Anti-Shi’ism is so systemic that changing your name or hiding which mosque you attend is commonplace for many (NY Times).
Being Shia itself is a crime in Malaysia, and Shias have been deported from the United Arab Emirates if their identities are found out (Majlis.org.uk). While many Shias have fled to the U.S. for safety, Shiaphobes have immigrated here as well. A profile of the rising population of Shias in 2012 quoted Muthanna Waili, whose family was expelled from Kuwait in 1985 and established a Shia mosque in the US. He said, “I’ve personally had people label me as a kafir, an infidel. People look at you like you’re trying to change the traditional way” (Washington Post).
Historically, Shias have always been the minority, so they have a centuries-long history of being oppressed by the majority (New Statesman). Shias comprise about 10-13 percent of all Muslims worldwide, according to the BBC. Sometimes referred to as “Twelvers,” Shias believe that the son-in-law of the Holy Prophet Muhammad was divinely appointed as his successor, as were the next 11 members of his lineage, a total of twelve Imams (britannica.com). On the other hand, Sunnis, who belong to the majority sect of Islam, believe the people elected Muhammad’s successors.
There has been tension between the sects since the death of the Prophet, but recent events in Pakistan have made being Shia a death sentence (The Guardian). New blasphemy laws make reciting Ziyarat Ashura (a prayer that Shias have been reciting since the 9th century) illegal. Violence against the minority has also risen at alarming rates, with at least five Shias being killed for their beliefs since August 30th (The Diplomat). Although the names of those directly responsible for the murders have not been released, it is clear that they were influenced by different Deobandi (Sunni revivalist) groups who have plotted anti-Shia rallies and speeches in the past couple of months.
Pakistan’s history of Shiaphobia is political as well as religious. When it was founded in 1947, Pakistan was supposed to be a haven for all Muslims, regardless of sect, as well as non-Muslims. However, this utopia didn’t last long. When dictator Zia ul Haq seized the Pakistani government in a coup in 1977, he began to shape Pakistan into a Sunni Islamist state. Meanwhile, Iran was beginning its Shia Islamic Revolution and began supporting Shia militant groups in Pakistan. The United States supported Saudi Arabia’s Shiaphobic government during this time to protect their oil interests. For more on the Iranian Revolution, read this article from E-International Relations.
When Iran and Iraq went to war in 1980, Iraq involved itself in Pakistan’s emerging sectarian conflict. Soon the Arab Gulf states joined to help marginalize Pakistan’s Shia Muslims, who were seen as Iran’s pawn in the region. Thus Pakistan soon became the site of an elaborate sectarian proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni strategic competitors (War on the Rocks).
Since 1963, approximately 23,000 Pakistani Shias have been killed for their beliefs, and the number seems only to be rising. There are also currently about 80 convicts on death row or serving life imprisonment terms in Pakistan for committing “blasphemy,” according to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom.
Shias have always known the violence of Shiaphobia. Sunnis continued to triumph politically as Islam spread across the East, and today, sectarian violence is the cause of clashes across the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Despite the ongoing violence against Shias, the sect is still thriving (AP News). There are many organizations doing work on the ground to support Shias who live in danger. The Zahra Trust is a faith-based charitable organization that provides humanitarian aid globally so that people can live self-sufficiently. They provide emergency relief, food aid, medical aid, educational support, water and sanitation services, support to orphans, widows, and vulnerable people. The Shaheed Foundation is dedicated to supporting the families of genocide victims, while The JDC Foundation of Pakistan also helps those in need, including victims of genocide and their families.
We need to work to eradicate Shiaphobia. Ending persecution against minorities is paramount to creating real safe spaces. But in America, many non-Shias are unaware of sectarian tensions and genocide. In this case, silence is quite literally violence, and Shiaphobes depend on it to continue their persecution without repercussions. It is up to us to share the stories of persecuted Muslims and spread the word about the genocide going on under our noses.
Shias are being persecuted and killed just for their beliefs in multiple Muslim countries.
Non-Shias rely on silence and ignorance to continue violence against minorities without consequences.
Supporting Shias on the ground and Shias applying for asylum is paramount.