Safety under the Arctic belt

June 22, 2014

Safety under the Arctic belt

Nestled amid the great pines and white oaks of Marsta -- a town located 37 kilometres north of the Swedish capital of Stockholm -- a single-storeyed wood-framed building in deep red seems no different than countless others sprinkled across the expansive Nordic countryside.

From within its wire-meshed windows, soft yet passionate vocals permeate the serene air -- "Najaf ki galiyon mein jo jaana ho." It is a noha (elegy).  Inside, past a narrow hallway in a room dotted with school chairs, a visibly tense man in his late 20s clears his throat to talk. "I wouldn’t have left even if I knew that were I murdered, my killers would have to face justice," he says.

The building is that of the Zainabiya Islamic Centre that serves both as an imambargah and a seminary. The young man is Hassan*, who left Karachi a few years ago with his wife to avoid becoming another statistic in the increasing Shia killings in his homeland.

"You know, you can’t kill an animal on the street here," the weary-eyed man stammers. "Back home, we are worse than animals. Anybody can kill us on the street and get away with it."

Pakistan has been feeling the heat of sectarian strife for many years. In the recent spell of violence, hundreds of Shias have been killed either in bomb attacks or drive-by shootings. These include ethnic Hazaras in the northern and south-western parts of the country and just about anyone whose surname is a giveaway in the port city of Karachi. Sipah-e-Sahaba and other sectarian outfits that once spewed anti-Shia venom in one-room madrassas in remote villages in rural belts, have now moved on to the sprawling slums of the cities. With Shia militant groups emerging in response and the government seemingly helpless, the conflict is apparently headed for the worst.

Back in the tranquility of the small imambargah in Marsta, a small group of 20 or so has gathered inside a brightly-lit hall adorned with an evening blue Persian carpet and gold-plated alam panjas -- a symbol depicting a human hand that holds great spiritual significance for Shia Muslims.

After conducting special prayers, the cleric distributes ice cream bars -- a substitute for the traditional sweets that are eaten as part of the ritual.

Allama Zakir Hussein, who is nearing 70, is not only the secretary of the Federation of Shia Muslim communities in Sweden but also the president of the Imamia Islamic Council of Europe. Wearing a woollen sweater and linen trousers a few hours earlier, he now dons a white turban and a mahogany robe -- a typical Shia clergy attire.

"Shia professionals in Pakistan like doctors, professors and lawyers opt for taking refuge in English-speaking countries like the UK, the US or Canada," he explains, adding, "Here [in Sweden], you will mostly find Shia immigrants from the labour class."

Integration into the Swedish culture is impossible without learning Svenska, the country’s official language. Hassan is still participating in Sweden’s integration programme, struggling to become familiar with a culture and language that is alien to him. But it is the only way for him to land a decent job.

Apart from safety to his life, Sweden also offers him the freedom to practice his religion. Hussein says there was a time when there used to be only 400 participants in the Muharram procession. But now around 5,000 Shias participate in the annual mourning ritual. "We are also allowed to do matam [self-flagellation] as long as we do it indoors," he elaborates.

Sweden not only ranks high in terms of protection of civil liberties, but is also known for its lenient rules for asylum seekers in comparison with other European nations. It recently announced blanket asylum for Syrian refugees.

For Pakistani Shia Muslims, however, it is a different story. The Swedish Migration Board’s statistics show that most asylum petitions filed by Pakistanis are turned down. Pierre Karatzian, an officer at the migration board, says each case is tried keeping individual reasons in view. "If someone doesn’t fall in the category of a refugee, we see if that person is in need of subsidiary protection, for example, if it’s a civilian at serious risk of injury due to armed conflict," he elaborates.

On the relatively warmer southern side of Sweden lies the coastal city of Malmo. With almost 40 per cent of the population comprising immigrants, Malmo is preferred by many newcomers as it is easier to blend in. The Rosengad neighbourhood of Malmo is almost a mini Middle East.

Didar Qaemi, an ethnic Hazara Shia living in this multicultural city, helps community members, who have just arrived in the country, to settle in the new environment. Qaemi is a volunteer with an organisation looking after the welfare of Hazaras in Sweden.

Since 2001, hundreds of Hazaras have been killed in attacks in Pakistan believed to be carried out by sectarian terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The worst of them was in January 2013 when four bomb blasts in quick succession in a Hazara-dominated area in the city of Quetta killed around 115 people and wounded over 270.

"Many Hazaras have started leaving Pakistan, especially after the Quetta bombings," says Qaemi.

Over 5,000 kilometres back in the pungent, humid air of Karachi, the mercury is hitting new highs and so are tempers. Several members of the Shia community have gathered near the chief minister’s residence demanding his ouster from office. They believe that the octogenarian chief minister has failed to provide protection to their community. The outrage has been sparked by 11 Shia killings in just a week.

Sitting in the living room of his bungalow in the posh neighbourhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Mir*, a fine artist in his early 30s, is watching all this on the TV screen with a frowned forehead. Whenever the tv channels flash news about a Shia killing, the uncertainty kicks in. His heart skips a beat at the sight of two men riding a motorcycle approaching his way. Almost every killing in Karachi involves two assailants on a two-wheeler.

Mir has never had enemies. But being a Shia means he has several of them now in his own city. A few years ago, he had never imagined that he would be considering leaving his homeland. Now, it is a matter of survival.

"I am not pessimistic," he says. "I think that things will improve in a few years. But I am not sure whether I will make it by then or not."


 The story became possible through a grant provided by the International Center for Journalists under the Henry Luce Foundation Program to Promote Excellence in Global Coverage of Religion.

*Full names have not been disclosed to protect their privacy.

Safety under the Arctic belt