Inside Story

Pakistan's sectarian tensions

As attacks continue on Shias in Balochistan, we ask if the government is doing enough to protect minority communities.
Last Modified: 18 Feb 2013 10:21

A bomb attack on Shia Muslims in Pakistan's Balochistan province has killed more than 80 people and injured almost 200 others.

Almost a tonne of explosives tore through a crowded market in a largely Shia neighbourhood in Quetta in southwestern Balochistan. This was the second major attack this year.

"They are trying intentionally, in Quetta district, to promote religious extremism. So I think they are provoking our community to be involved; they are going to drag us into the phatic mire of sectarianism. But our people are very peaceful people. We only demand this is my right, a human being's right, we want security and nothing else."

- Abdul Khalique Hazara, the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party

A bomb attack in the provincial capital last month killed at least 92 people.

Shia community leaders say the Pakistani government is not doing enough to protect them, and is unable or unwilling to take on those responsible.

The banned Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi says it carried out both attacks.

The group, which was founded in the late 1990s, was banned in Pakistan in 2001 and designated a terrorist group by the US in 2003.

It is known to have ties to other networks, such as the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban. And it has been linked to major attacks such as the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Most of Pakistan's Muslim population is Sunni, with between 10 and 20 percent estimated to be Shia.

The longstanding conflict between the two groups stems from a disagreement over who was the rightful successor of the Prophet Muhammad after his death.

"The dilemma for Amnesty International and for others is we cannot decide whether Pakistan is unwilling or unable to stop these groups. If they are unwilling, that is a question of complicity. If they are unable, that is a more serious matter of the Pakistani military and the state of Pakistan [being] unable to defend the integrity of their own country, and I think given Pakistan's nuclear capability and its larger status in the world, that is a very important issue for the US, as well as India and China."

- Stephen Cohen, Brookings Institution

Many people in the Shia community in Quetta are ethnic Hazaras. Some of their ancestors migrated from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran over a hundred years ago. More than 650,000 now live in Pakistan - mainly in Balochistan's capital.

The Hazara Organisation for Peace and Equality says more than a thousand Hazaras have been killed in Pakistan since 1999. But in the last 15 years, they say, no one has been brought to justice.

Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province by area. It is about the size of France, and bordered by Afghanistan and Iran. But it is the smallest in terms of population - estimated at a little under eight million.

The province has vast reserves of oil and gas, gold, copper and uranium; and that is contributing to a separatist rebellion.

Nationalist groups are demanding political autonomy, and a greater share of profits from the region's resources. And they are joining forces to take on Pakistan's military.

To discuss Pakistan's sectarian tensions, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Abdul Khalique Hazara, the chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party, representing Shia Muslims in Pakistan; Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution; and Zaid Hamid, a political analyst and head of the Pakistani think tank, Brasstacks.


  • At least 600,000 Hazaras live in Quetta in Pakistan's Balochistan 
  • Hazaras come from a region in central Afghanistan known as the Hazarajat 
  • Hazaras are Shia Muslims in mainly Sunni Afghanistan and Pakistan 
  • Some Sunni groups accuse Hazaras of being Iran's proxies in Pakistan 
  • Sunni and Shia Muslims make up the two different branches of Islam 
  • The Sunni-Shia split occurred after Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 AD 
  • Syria and Iran are Shia governed but Syria has a Sunni majority 
  • Bahrain is governed by Sunni leadership despite Shia majority 
  • Sunni and Shia have different hierarchy for religious leaders 
  • Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a banned Sunni Muslim group in Pakistan and is is tied to many organisations including al-Qaeda 
  • Pakistan began cracking down on the group in 1998 and banned it in 2001 
  • The group has been linked to much of Pakistan’s sectarian violence in last 10 years 


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