Grim prospects for Pakistan’s minorities

Why is the Pakistani government failing to protect its citizens?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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A couple of days ago there was another attack on the Shiite community in Pakistan – 45 Ismailis have been shot dead in a gun attack on a bus in Karachi, and another 13 were injured. Things brings the number of Shiites killed in Pakistan for their religion to at least 139 since January. And they are not the only minority targeted: every non-Sunni Pakistani, whether Shiite, Ahmadi, Christian or whatever else, can expect to find themselves as random victims to mindless attacks for no other reason than that they profess the “wrong” faith.

The government either is incapable or maybe even uninterested in acknowledging that there is a problem

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Nor can these minorities look to the government for protection. When PM Nawaz Sharif was informed about the atrocity this week, he instead opted to continue his lunch with other political leaders where they were discussing the potentially controversial details of the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Not quite George Bush choosing to continue reading children’s books when told about the attack on the World Trade Centre, but much more indicative of the PM’s real priorities. And this is not to say that CPEC is not hugely important – indeed, it may be one of the most momentous event in Pakistan’s foreign affairs for decades. But if, as a prime minister, you do not care that your citizens are being massacred, then there is something deeply and disturbingly wrong with what is going on.

Dance of power

So why is the Pakistani government failing to protect its citizens? The first problem seems to be that the government either is incapable or maybe even uninterested in acknowledging that there is a problem. Its political priorities would not be served by worrying too much about minorities, in any case. In fact it might be straight up politically problematic to stand up too firmly for minorities and risk open conflict on the issue with Sunni hardliners who are one of two main constituencies in the country – the other being the military-intelligence complex.

The second problem is that even when shocking massacres of civilians happen, it is much more convenient for everyone involved to deflect any responsibility away from any internal, Pakistani issues with extremism and terrorism, and instead point the finger at the “malign influence” of foreign powers – their favorite bogey man is India’s intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). It took less than 24 hours for Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary some army chiefs and local police chiefs to make a series of public statements which taken together heavily imply that RAW is behind the attack, rather than indigenous home-grown terrorism.

Military-intelligence complex

In this understanding of events, the interests of the military-intelligence complex and those of the Sunni hardliners are aligned against foreign meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs, and this justifies the amount of support that the Pakistani intelligence services, and indeed the army, keep providing to various radical Islamist groups to fight “foreign influence” – even when those very same groups have had extensive histories of anti-state activities in the past.

But so long as the victims of this perverse dance of power between the two main entrenched power-structures within the Pakistani state are minorities and the “democratically elected” leaders do not have to care, all is well. Some kind of uneasy balance between the two competing forces can be maintained, and tensions leading to outbursts of violence can be deflected outwards, towards groups that neither cares about: Pakistan’s minorities, or women, Indians (e.g. in the Mumbai attacks), Afghanis, Western troops or mercenaries still in the region and so on. And so long as this state of affairs continues, it will be the most vulnerable that will continue to suffer. Pakistan’s minorities need to brace themselves. Worse is still to come.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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