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Anti-Shiism Highlighted by USCIRF

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released its annual religious freedom report. The report documents concerns about religious freedom in Countries of Particular Concern and Special Watch List Countries. 

Among the endangered religious minorities were Shia Muslims, who exist across the world as residents and citizens. 

Below is a collection of insights about anti-Shiism in the USCIRF Annual Report 2020.

Countries of Particular Concern

Nigeria 

“This report and others revealed an ongoing social and institutional bias against religious minorities such as Shi’a”

Nigeria is made up of a population of 203 million individuals, 53.5% of which is Muslim. Shia Muslims are one of the largest minority religious populations in the country. While the national constitution does not assert an official religion, twelve of the northern States use  “Sharia” criminal and family law. The Sharia Law within these states is singular in interpretation. Perceptions of intolerance to beliefs or practices that counter religion as promoted by the State. 

USCIRF exemplified repression by the Nigerian government through the treatment of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria and its leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Zakzaky’s detainment continues despite orders for his release in 2016. The group has been banned in the country on claims of violence and “annoying to society.” None-the-less the groups persist in protesting, expressing nonviolence, and citing the right to freedom of religion, assembly, and speech. 

In October, a number of IMN members were acquitted of charges brought on by the government. 

“While the Nigerian government has most certainly overreached, sometimes targeting innocent Shi’a, the government is justified in its suspicion of the IMN”

Pakistan

“While terrorism decreased in recent years, Pakistan remains a base for extremist groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-eJhangvi.”

Pakistan remains a hotbed for extremism and violence against religious minorities. Quetta, home to Shia Hazara, has been the site of targeted bombings by the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State. 

In correspondence with Shia rituals and commemorations, local and provincial governments have increased security for the group, adopting measures that reduce the risk of targeted violence against the group. 

Saudi Arabia 

“Shi’a Muslims in Saudi Arabia continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and the judiciary and lack access to senior government and military positions. The building of Shi’a mosques is restricted outside majority-Shi’a Muslim areas in the Eastern Province, and Saudi authorities often prohibit the use of the Shi’a Muslim call to prayer in these areas. Authorities arrest and imprison Shi’a Muslims for holding religious gatherings in private homes without permits and reading religious materials in husseiniyas (prayer halls). Saudi Arabia also restricts the establishment of Shi’a Muslim cemeteries”

Despite being nationals with a density of 20% of the population, Shia live as second-class citizens in Saudi Arabia. The Eastern Province is the area of the country most populated with the minority. On numerous occasions have residents reported barricades and extreme military action. 

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, singular interpretation of Islam. 

“The judicial system is largely governed by a Saudi interpretation of Shari’a as informed by Hanbali jurisprudence”

In April of 2019 alone, 32 Shia Muslims were executed on charges including, “ “provoking sectarian strife,” “spreading chaos,” and “disturbing security.” Among the beheaded was Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammad al-Atiya on charges of “spread[ing] the Shi’a confession.”

Among those executed were individuals such as Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, a Shia student arrested at the age of 16 for participating in protests. 

The report noted a history of 15 years worth of documentation on intolerant content in educational textbooks.  

Syria

A country still ripe with extremist activity, ISIS activity proved dangerous for religious minorities in the country. 

“During its time in power, ISIS perpetrated massive atrocities across the areas under its control, including kidnapping and executing thousands of Christians, Yazidis, Shi’a Muslims, and fellow Sunni Muslims who opposed its authority.”

Despite a reduction in ISIS control, attacks by militants remain a threat to minorities such that of Shia Muslims. 

Special Watch List Country Recommendations

Afghanistan

Despite peace talks between the Taliban and the United States government, ongoing extremist activity remains threatening to minority groups, especially Shia Muslims. Hazara Afghans, a largely Shia ethnic minority in the country has been subject to targeted violence. The Taliban have denounced Shia Muslims, labeling them as infidels. 

“Recent attacks included an August 17, 2019, suicide bombing of a wedding reception of a Shi’a Hazara couple in Kabul, killing 63 people and wounding 182; the July 6, 2019, bombing of a Shi’a mosque in Ghazni, killing two people and wounding 20; a March 31, 2019, attack against a Shi’a shrine and cemetery in Kabul during Nowruz celebrations, killing six people and wounding 20; and a March 7, 2019, attack on a memorial service—held for a Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, who was killed by the Taliban in 1995—in a Shi’a Hazara neighborhood in Kabul, killing 11 people and wounding 95.” 

The majority of attacks are by non-state actors.  Analysts stipulate an increase in violence to be a function of opposition to the peace agreement. Attacks target the most vulnerable and most victimized population. 

“Terrorist attacks against the Shi’a community, targeting its leadership, neighborhoods, festivals, and houses of worship, have intensified in recent years, with this trend continuing in 2019.”

In recognition of Shia Muslim’s unique standing in the country, some steps have been taken to increase security measures and to protect areas rich in Shia Muslim presence. 

 “In part due to these efforts, there has been a decline in terrorist attacks against Shi’a religious festivals. However, the government’s lack of control over the entirety of the country’s territory, ongoing problems with corruption, and security forces’ lack of capacity in the areas the government does control hampered the overall effectiveness of these efforts.”

Algeria

Discrimination against religious minorities prospers in the country of Algeria. 

“The Algerian government further discriminates against minority communities that do not conform to mainstream Sunni Islam, such as Shi’a”

The government rules with a strict penal code which promotes a singular interpretation of Islam and punishes any practice of religion not supported by the government. 

The Algerian government hires and trains preachers. Fines and imprisonment are used to punish “anyone who preaches in a mosque or other public place without being appointed or authorized, or anyone who preaches “against the noble mission of the mosque” to “undermine social cohesion” or who advocates for such preaching.”

Azerbaijan

The government of Azerbaijan exerts control and oversight on religious practice and activity. Religious communities are legally required to register with the government; those that don’t are criminalized.  Content, production, import, export, distribution, and sale of all religious literature require State approval. Freedom of speech and religious expression are areas of concern and limitations in practice have created fear amidst practitioners.

A number of prisoners of consciousness remain in detention despite international advocacy. 

“The government continued to exert undue control and oversight over all religious communities and their activities. Government officials continued to manage and limit religious practices through the 2009 Law on Freedom of Religion and related articles of the administrative and criminal codes.”

Bahrain

“While they are generally free to worship, Shi’a Bahrainis have long faced difficulties in an array of areas, including employment, political representation, freedom of expression, promotion within the military, and mosque construction.”

Shia religious leaders face interrogation on sermons. Laws restricting the freedom of speech are used to promote self-censorship as many fear persecution. 

Revocation of citizenship remains one of the country’s most troublesome instruments against Shia Muslims.  In a single incident in April 2019, 138 Shia Muslims were revoked of citizenship in a trial with lacking due process.

While a number of citizenships have been reinstated as the result of international pressure, systemic measures that allow for such violations remain in place. 

Already restricted, prisoners within detention centers are at heightened risk of human rights violations. “Prisoners in Isa Town Prison and Jaw Prison were allegedly prohibited from commemorating Ashura in groups, and prison authorities—who appealed to security concerns regarding large prisoner gatherings—restricted the times in which they were allowed to conduct their commemorations. Shi’a prisoners also were denied access to religious books. “

Indonesia

Religious conditions in Indonesia have deteriorated compared to previous years as religious intolerance prospers across the country. 

“Violations of religious freedom tend to have the greatest impact on Ahmadiyya and Shi’a Muslims, Christians, believers outside the six officially recognized faiths, and nonbelievers.”

The lack of tolerance across Indonesia is especially concerning as the government requires a listing of religious associations on identification cards. 

Blasphemy charges are used to quell the expression and practice of any religious interpretations deviant from that enforced by the State. 

Local activists report increased radicalized sentiments within educational institutions. Such sentiments are supported through existing institutions that degrade groups other than those formally accepted by the government, one such group being the Indonesian Council of Ulema. 

“The quasi-governmental Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) has issued fatwas (religious edicts) declaring these groups “deviant” and heretical to Islam.”

Malaysia

Religious freedom in the country of Malaysia trends negatively as State-supported intolerance grows. 

“All Muslim students are mandated to take religious classes. In Form 5 (for ages 16–17), religious textbooks condemn non-Sunni sects of Islam. The state-issued sermons each Friday often warn Muslims against these “deviant” sects and the so-called threats they present to Islam.”

The Malay ethnicity is paired with a singular interpretation of Islam which has a history of Muslim minorities as “deviant”

“In 2019, Shi’a Muslims continued to face state hostility and detentions, sparking fears of an escalating crackdown.”

In August 2019, an amendment was made to Section 52 of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment 1995,  prohibiting the sharing of religious doctrines or beliefs that are not in accordance with the state-sponsored version of the faith with penalties. The new amendment is an extension to bills that officially identify Islam as Sunni Islam and criminalizes alternative interpretations. 

Minority groups such that of Shia Muslims report marginalization and face violence un-attended to by local justice systems. 

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