It was a regular day in March 2022 when every journalist in the newsroom I was working in simultaneously received a WhatsApp message. The message, sent by a reporter, said that militants had attacked a mosque in Peshawar.
Soon the newsroom was abuzz with activity. Television sets were turned up to maximum volume, and loud voices filled the room. As reporters hurriedly prepared breaking-news updates, live coverage of the incident started to stream in.
The death toll began to rise. Eventually, it would be reported that at least 58 people were killed and over 190 injured. The attack occurred at a Shia imambargah, or congregation hall, but sub-editors were asked to remove the words “Shia” and “imambargah” from their stories.
“Why are we removing the identity of the victim?” I asked.
“We cannot name any sect in the story, it is against policy,” my editor stated.
At the time, I was struck by memories of countless instances where the identities of victims of violence had been systematically erased, from the news and from historical records. The distinguishing factor this time was that I, as a journalist and a Shia myself, had become complicit in this erasure.
Television coverage avoided referring to the specific location of the attack, or mentioning that this was only the latest attack aimed at Pakistan’s Shias, a community that has been on the receiving end of violence for decades. This obfuscation was in line with the wishes of the Pakistani state – after the blast, the information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, criticised the editor of Dawn for highlighting the Shia identity of the victims in the newspaper’s coverage. “Is this the way media should cover the incident?” Chaudhry demanded, speaking to reporters. “Do you want Shia–Sunni riots in Pakistan?”
The mainstream media in Sunni-dominated Pakistan habitually obscures or erases violence against marginalised communities, including religious minorities, often in the name of maintaining interfaith harmony. Research by the academic Abbas Zaidi has shown that Pakistan’s media often presents the country’s religious minorities and other persecuted populations in a deeply stereotypical manner, and remains silent about the violence and marginalisation that they face. As a consequence, the fears and concerns of these groups are largely unheard and overlooked in national debate. This silence is maintained even when there are open calls for killing religious minorities.
The attack occurred at a Shia imambargah, or congregation hall, but sub-editors were asked to remove the words “Shia” and “imambargah” from their stories.
In 2020, an incensed mob believed to be linked to the militant groups Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan attacked the Imambargah Shah-e-Najaf in Karachi. Even though the mob gathered in huge numbers and openly chanted hate slogans, no major media outlet in Pakistan reported on the incident or named the perpetrators.
Even when violence against religious minorities is reported, some groups get more attention than others. In “Narratives of Marginalization: Reporting religious minorities in Pakistani media,” the scholars Aftab Alam, Adnan Rehmat and Emilie Jacobson note that Pakistan’s Hindu and Christian communities tend to be the focus of coverage on religious minorities, while groups such as the Ahmadis, Shias, Buddhists, Kalash and Sikhs hardly ever appear.
In the face of this selective erasure, a handful of activists from religious minorities in Pakistan, often working anonymously for their own safety, are turning to alternative methods – using social media and building volunteer-run online initiatives that document the brutal violence against their people.
Birth of the nation
The Shia community makes up between 15 and 20 percent of Pakistan’s population of over 230 million. It is one of the primary targets of sectarian violence in the country, with the roots of it going back decades. After Partition, the political leadership in Pakistan emphasised the Hindu–Muslim divide rather than examining sectarian tensions. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founding father of Pakistan, was born into a Shia family himself, and called for the creation of an Islamic state that encompassed both Sunnis and Shias. But a section of Deobandi clerics and political leaders – including ones from the Majlis-e-Ahrar Islam and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind – found their influence waning after Partition, and challenged this conception of an Islamic state. With their brand of Sunni revivalism, they began to sow sectarian discontent, which was later weaponised by Pakistan’s political leadership, particularly in the late 1970s.
The mainstream media in Sunni-dominated Pakistan habitually obscures or erases violence against marginalised communities, including religious minorities, often in the name of maintaining interfaith harmony.
The impacts of the Islamic Revolution between 1977-1978, which led to the toppling of Iran’s monarchy and its replacement by a hard-line Shia clerical state, were also felt in Pakistan. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who took power in Pakistan after a military coup in 1977, viewed with consternation the growing influence of groups such as the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria (TNFJ), with its demands for greater Shia autonomy and support for Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The TNFJ and other Shia groups were a reminder that not every Pakistani supported Zia’s policies of “Islamisation”, which made Sunni Islam increasingly central. This opposition reached its peak in 1980, when Zia was forced to exempt Shias from zakat – in effect, a religious tax – after massive demonstrations led by the TNFJ. To prevent encroachment from Iran and curb the influence of Shia groups, Zia deepened ties with Deobandi groups, including the sectarian and vocally anti-Shia Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). At the same time, state-sponsored (and occasionally Saudi-funded) madrassas promoted a narrow, intolerant version of Sunni Islam that demonised Shia as “heretics” and called for the implementation of Sharia law. Zia fuelled the growth of the SSP, which would later become the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat – one of the groups believed to be behind the 2020 attack on Karachi’s Imambargah Shah-e-Najaf.
In recent years, extremist groups have increased their targeted attacks against religious minorities, particularly Shia Muslims and Ahmadis. According to the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, around 4840 Shias were killed in incidents of sectarian violence between 2001 and 2018. The provocative words of extremist clerics inciting their followers to eliminate Shias continue to fuel hatred and intolerance.
Some months after the blast in Peshawar, I reached out to a senior journalist in the city to ask why Pakistani media avoids clearly identifying victims of sectarian violence. The journalist, who asked not to be identified out of fear of being targeted, is a Sunni, and has worked with both local and international outlets reporting on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the north-west of Pakistan.
The Shia community makes up between 15 and 20 percent of Pakistan’s population of over 230 million. It is one of the primary targets of sectarian violence in the country, with the roots of it going back decades.
The journalist said that the mainstream media tends to downplay targeted attacks against Shias, presenting them as random acts of violence, and that the majority of targeted killings of Shias go unreported. This is particularly the case for regions like the Kurram and Orakzai districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Central and lower Kurram are Sunni-dominated, while upper Kurram is a Shia-dominated area and has long been a hotbed for sectarian violence. Yet sectarian attacks here are rarely covered, often simply because few news outlets have a presence in these areas, resulting in heavy underreporting of the violence. Even when mainstream platforms have made the effort to cover incidents in these regions, the violence has often been reported as a part of routine conflict and presented in bite-sized news segments, receiving little attention. News outlets based in upper Kurram that have attempted to tell local stories from the local point of view receive little national exposure. “A website run by Shias categorically covers it as faith-based killings,” the journalist explained. “However, deaths of Shias are seldom reported in regional newspapers run by Sunnis in Sunni-majority areas. Even if they cover the incident, they never identify victims as Shias.”
The journalist’s observations have contemporary relevance. On 4 May, seven Shia school teachers were killed by gunmen who entered a school in Parachinar, the Shia-dominated capital of Kurram district, where students were sitting for their lower-secondary exams, while a Sunni teacher was also killed earlier the same day. The incident was reported very differently in the international and domestic media, with Pakistani outlets not highlighting it as a case of sectarian violence. In July, Dawn reported on attacks in Kurram that left nine dead and 42 injured, describing these as “tribal clashes.” This led to the civil-rights activist and lawyer M Jibran Nasir to tweet, “The mainstream media and anchors must highlight the plight of Parachinar and the locals to not only bring out the truth but also to force the State machinery to focus its efforts in bringing peace to Kurram Agency and protecting those suffering violence. Kurram has had a bloody history of sectarian clashes and its local shia community has been victim of multiple terror attacks and siege at the hands to [sic] terror outfits including TTP” – the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The obfuscation of anti-Shia violence has a long history, and escalated during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule thanks to repressive media controls such as the revised Press and Publication Ordinance of the 1980s. This granted the government broad powers to regulate the media, with penalties including imprisonment for journalists who violated its provisions. Censorship was widespread, with journalists required to submit their articles for official approval before publication. Given this environment, even media outlets that took the risk of reporting on religious minorities often self-censored certain details in their pieces out of fear.
In cities such as Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it was common for journalists who named names to have bullets and burial shrouds delivered to their doorstep as a warning, the journalist said. Other journalists that I talked to, on condition of anonymity, said that newsrooms often refrained from revealing which sects both victims and perpetrators belonged to. They also claimed that the voluntary blacking out of information was for the sake of “peace journalism” – that is, to avoid any news that could further aggravate conflict or trigger violence.
Making violence visible
In response to the media’s blinkered coverage, activists from persecuted groups have set up several digital initiatives to document violence against their communities.
Asad Gokal, a 24-year-old human-rights activist, recognised the need for an evidence-based portal to record faith-based violence in Pakistan. He volunteers at Violence Register PK, which tracks and records faith-based attacks on a daily basis.
Violence Register PK covers four marginalised groups in Pakistan: Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis and Shia. The portal meticulously records details of each incident of violence, including relevant news sources for fact-checking purposes, as well as the number of minority community members injured or killed.
Apart from data collection, Gokal said, the portal uses data visualisation to provide valuable insights for researchers and academics. Visitors to the website can find graphics highlighting the province or city with the highest number of violent incidents targeting Hindus (Umerkot, as of October 2021), or which year was the bloodiest for Shia (2013, with 2134 casualties recorded), or which community is most impacted by forced conversions (Hindus, who account for 70 percent of such cases recorded in the Violence Register PK database, running from 1980 to 2021). These trends shed light on the broader picture of discrimination and violence against marginalised groups in Pakistan, making Violence Register PK a tool for accountability as well.
In cities such as Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it was common for journalists who named names to have bullets and burial shrouds delivered to their doorstep as a warning, the journalist said.
According to well known activist and philanthropist Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, Violence Register PK was first set up in 2013, after Zaidi met with Fawad Chaudhry, then a special assistant to the prime minister. Their discussion centred on the escalating violence against the Shia community, but Zaidi was alarmed by Chaudhry’s denial of the extent of the attacks – he claimed that no more than a hundred Shias had been killed. This sparked Zaidi’s realisation that there was no reliable data on the true number of Shia deaths in the country, and led to the eventual establishment of Violence Register PK, with the help of a team of volunteers.
Initial efforts to gather useful data were hampered by the fact that government departments, including the police, did not categorise incidents of faith-based violence in their records. Media outlets also did not use keyword-tagging on their websites, and even the Human Rights Commission had no specific documentation of violence against the Shia community, focusing instead on documenting broader human-rights violations.
According to Zaidi, while some estimates put the number of Shia killings as high as 23,000 from 1963 to 2019, others suggested it was closer to 8000, pointing to significant discrepancies in the available data. This forced the team to laboriously sift through newspaper archives to extract the data manually. By Violence Register PK’s tally, the number actually stands at roughly 13,336 casualties (with 6122 Shias killed and over 7032 more injured) between 1980 and 2020.
The Violence Register PK website is currently inactive, and the site operators did not answer questions about why. However, the group’s work is still displayed on its Facebook page, though this has also not been updated since 2021.
Written in blood
Shaheed Foundation Pakistan is a welfare organisation providing practical support – including financial assistance, medical support, scholarships and vocational training – to the families of Shias killed in violence, often referred to in the community as martyrs. Its website also serves as a portal for news and resources on topics ranging from Islamic history and religious education to current events and social-justice issues. The portal offers a window into the lived experiences and daily struggle of Shias, according to Alim Nazeer, a member of the community.
Members of the Shaheed Foundation are hard to interview – their policy is to not speak to the media or identify themselves publicly in order to minimise potential threats. However, in February, I was able to talk to one of the founding members. They revealed that the Shaheed Foundation was formed in 1996, by three teenage friends, after a conversation with a boy whose Shia father had been killed. The boy’s response to a question about plans for the future caught the founding member off guard: “I am going to take revenge,” the boy said. The founding member recognised the potential for further violence in the next generation, and the need for support and education to prevent it.
In its initial days, the Shaheed Foundation began collecting donations through small boxes placed in Shia households, with all proceeds used to provide education for the children of the killed. The group’s primary objective was to support families of the victims, and also to spread awareness of crimes against the Shia community. The founding member emphasised that the foundation is not affiliated with any other organisation or political party.
After some time, the foundation began collecting data on those killed in target attacks, including bomb blasts. It was among the first to exhibit pictures, obtained from a journalist, of a massacre that occurred in June 1963 in Therhi, a town outside Khairpur, in Sindh province. The Thehri massacre saw 120 people killed after they were lured into a trap using misinformation that a procession in the town was under attack. When a group of Shias arrived hoping to help, they were met with hundreds of attackers wielding axes and swords.
In his book The Shias of Pakistan, Andreas T Rieck writes that the Shia community – including Shia leaders such as Nawaz Qazalbash, who had long warned the government about Shia–Sunni tensions in Khairpur – loudly called for an investigation and demanded action against the perpetrators. Despite these demands, the perpetrators of the attack were never brought to justice. A report from a state-appointed inquiry committee, published in December 1963 did not name any organisations or individuals responsible for the massacre.
The Khairpur massacre is just one among many such incidents recorded for posterity by the Shaheed Foundation. The “Tragic Events” section on its website features some of the anti-Shia attacks with the highest death tolls. There are 12 incidents recorded so far, from 2006 to 2017, with half of the incidents taking place after 2010. These include a suicide-bomb attack on an Ashura procession in Hangu in 2006, which left 35 dead and 115 injured; a 2008 suicide attack at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, resulting in 35 deaths, after members of the Shia community brought a man named Syed Basit Shah there for treatment; and a 2009 bomb blast on M A Jinnah Road in Karachi, which led to at least 43 deaths. In the most recent incident recorded, from 23 June 2017, two back-to-back blasts occurred in a market in Parachinar. The first explosion targeted people shopping for Eid, while the second targeted rescuers and bystanders who arrived after the first blast. At least 65 people died and more than 200 were injured.
In response to the media’s blinkered coverage, activists from persecuted groups have set up several digital initiatives to document violence against their communities.
The foundation’s efforts to document such violence rely heavily on volunteers, who work to collect pictures and verify the authenticity of information provided. The foundation also aims to combat media underreporting of casualties, providing the public with accurate information on the extent of anti-Shia violence. According to one of the founding members, the initiative was born not out of grievance or anger, but rather a desire to create a better Pakistan where people could live without fear of being targeted because of their faith.
The Shaheed Foundation website records the deaths of “martyrs” all over Pakistan in a calendar. The “Shaheed Calendar” provides separate details on each victim, including their name, father’s name, gender, date of death, as well as details of the relevant incident of violence. Almost every day on the calendar is marked by loss.
For instance, the calendar documents the targeted killings of doctors and pharmacists because of their Shia faith. Among them is Dr Baqar Ali Naqvi, killed in Lahore in 1997 at 40 years old, alongside his brother. Another victim is Dr Muzaffar Ali Samoo, killed in 2002 when unknown assailants opened fire on his car while he was taking his children to school in Karachi. The calendar keeps the memory of Naqvi and Samoo, and others like them, alive in the minds of the Shia community, and defies the Pakistani state and media’s efforts to forget them.