The Abu Dhabi and Sharjah authorities called in over 1,000 Pashtun men with names like Ali, Hussain and Hassan to the police stations and/or interior ministry offices
What started in the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms some two years ago has taken on a new and vicious intensity. Some of the sheikhdoms’ own officials were calling it an unannounced ‘operation’ but it is increasingly looking like a witch-hunt to harass and chase the Shia Pakistanis, particularly the Pashtun Shia, out.
Since the 1960s oil boom in the Arab countries, Pashtuns from FATA, like many other Pakistanis, have been working as skilled and unskilled labour as well as doing odd jobs in those lands, eking out a living for their families back home. Out of the roughly 10,000 commercial civilian flights in and out of Peshawar’s Baacha Khan International Airport every year, about two thirds are international flights and a majority of passengers on these are Pashtun migrant workers travelling between home and their work in an Arab country. These migrant workers contribute significantly to the host economies but the way they are maltreated on these flights to their ghettoisation in the Arab countries with little respect and almost no rights is a human rights tragedy that is hardly talked about.
The Arab Spring two years ago was a harbinger of more misery for some of these workers who were denigrated as Iran’s fifth column in the Arab countries simply because they are Shia by faith. Even responsible writers like Ahmed Rashid made controversial comments about the political orientation of the Shia populations in the Arab world. In an interview with the US National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, Rashid was asked about the fallout from the Israelis considering bombing Iran’s nuclear facility. Rashid made the following observation: “They (Iran) would launch a guerilla war using their proxy forces all through the Middle East, from Lebanon all the way to India. You know, Iran, as you know, is a Shia country. All these countries have Shia minorities. Many of these Shia minorities have groups, which are pro-Iranian and have been armed and funded by the Iranians. These groups would unleash terrorist attacks on Americans and Europeans and Westerners and Israelis. And there would be a real mayhem. And this would particularly affect the neighbouring countries of Iran, of which both Pakistan and Afghanistan are” (“Fresh Air”, March 20, 2012: http://n.pr/zcyN9Y).
Without any substantiation, the revered writer had broad brushed an entire people as rebels! No context whatsoever was provided for the indigenous and legitimate rights’ struggles, for example, by the Bahraini Shia against the brutal minority regime there. And never mind the fact that the majority of the world Shia — including from Pakistan — follow the Iraq-based Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in religious matters. Rashid had omitted that the monarchies like Saudi Arabia had relied on the Pakistani armed forces stationed there for decades for security needs. No mention was made of the Pakistani mercenaries — including retired servicemen — helping the Bahraini rulers crush the people’s struggle for self-rule there. Unfortunately, narratives like Rashid’s went unanswered at the time, but the damage had been done. While no ‘Iran-sponsored Shia-armed uprising’ took place in the Persian Gulf, the Sunni Arab regimes started kicking out the non-native Shia gradually.
It came to the boil last month just after the Shia commemoration of Arba’een when the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah authorities called in over 1,000 Pashtun men with names like Ali, Hussain and Hassan to the police stations and/or interior ministry offices. They were told to surrender all documents like drivers’ licences and work permits, and then told to leave the Emirates. Some of them had been working there for some 35 years, but were told to pack up and leave right away or in 48 hours at the most. They were forced to sell, if they were lucky to even do that, their possessions — taxicabs, trucks, and small businesses — at throwaway prices and deported.
An overwhelming majority of these men is from the Shia enclave of the Upper Kurram but even some Sunni tribesman from the Masozai and Ali Shezai clans of Kurram who had ‘Shia-sounding’ names were forced to leave. A Shia man from the Upper Kurram stated that he and about 30 of his compatriots had their heads shaved by force before they were made to leave Sharjah. None of the Shia men were charged with and/or convicted for any infarction of the local laws. Apparently, with the sponsorship (kefalah) withdrawn/forced to lapse they had no legal recourse to appeal in a country not exactly known for due process.
Several affected Kurramis feel that someone from Pakistan snitched on them because they had formed the backbone of the Upper Kurram economy when the enclave was under siege by the Taliban. It might be impossible to know exactly what happened but certainly about 1,000 families have lost their livelihood. Mr Ali Hussain in a comprehensive report in a publication (February 11, 2013) writes that according to the Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan has expressed concerns over the “forced deportation” of Pakistanis from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by summoning the UAE ambassador to the Foreign Office. And that is the extent that I, sadly, suspect that Pakistan would go to in defending its own citizens in the face of the most shameless persecution by what it routinely calls a brotherly country. But then again is it unreasonable to be sceptical about a country where it has been an open season on the Shia for years, the latest being a series of the target killings of Shia professionals in Peshawar allegedly by the banned — yet operating with impunity — outfits.
More shameful than the persecution of the Shia in the UAE and their slaughter in Pakistan is the stand taken by the ISPR against another type of ‘heretics’– human rights activists. Days after Pakistan’s foremost human rights defender Asma Jahangir was slandered in the most vicious manner by some thugs in the Urdu media, Human Rights Watch and its Pakistan director, Ali Dayan Hassan were targeted by the ISPR and its media quislings allegedly for an “anti-Pakistan agenda and an attempt to further fuel already ongoing sectarian violence and to create chaos and disorder in Pakistan.” The malicious act of singling out Dayan for an honest report on the state of human rights in Pakistan makes him a marked man in a lawless country.
Unless the world rallies swiftly to defend the human rights defenders, incidents like in the UAE and Peshawar may never be honestly reported let alone prevented.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki