Pakistanis observe a national holiday on Dec. 25 every year. It’s not because Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country, celebrates Christmas. Nor is it because Jesus’ birthday is celebrated on that day. The reason for Pakistanis to take a day off work on Christmas is to celebrate the birth of their country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who happens to share his date of birth with Jesus.
Like most other Christmas days in Pakistan, the most recent Dec. 25 was passing peacefully, but things changed that evening. Pakistani news media reported that two gunmen on a motorbike had gunned down 46-year-old Ali Raza Abidi right outside his house in Karachi.
Abidi, who was a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly until May, was a hugely popular social media activist.
Like Jinnah, Abidi was a Shia Muslim. More important, he was what is known as a Mohajir, a descendant of those who migrated to Pakistan after the British carved the subcontinent into two independent states — India and Pakistan — in 1947. Shias and Mohajirs are now facing ever-growing persecution in Sunni Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
Even by Pakistani standards, where suicide bombings, targeted killings, military operations, kidnappings and enforced disappearances are not uncommon, Abidi’s cold-blooded assassination was a shock. He was a fierce critic of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the ruling PTI party. He spared no opportunity to tease Mr. Khan and his army of social media trolls with a series of sharp-witted tweets. He routinely called the prime minister “Taliban Khan” because of Mr. Khan’s relentless defense of the radical Islamic movement and his opposition to U.S. drone attacks on their training sites. He was also a known critic of the powerful Pakistani military establishment’s anti-democracy policies and its overt and covert ties to religious extremists.
Abidi’s social media posts, however, were never abusive or defamatory, and he never resorted to personal attacks.
Abidi was a brave individual who repeatedly defied Pakistan’s powerful military agencies. He refused to comply when he was asked to stop defending his party, the MQM, on social media. He also defied Pakistan’s brutal intelligence machinery when a high-ranking official of the Pakistani spy agency summoned him to his office three months ago and ordered him to shut down his Twitter account.
Abidi was assassinated at the doorstep of his house. Closed-circuit television footage at the compound shows that two men parked their motorbike next to his car. One got off the bike and shot four bullets into Abidi’s head from less than a meter away. Abidi stood no chance. He died well before receiving any medical treatment.
Abidi’s house was located in one of the most expensive — and well-guarded — residential areas of Karachi, the Defense Housing Authority. Consulate offices of a number of foreign missions are located around his house, and the paramilitary Rangers service has a permanent post there.
Yet somehow the killers were able to pursue him, kill him and get away without any resistance. Some media reports suggest that paramilitary Rangers on duty were absent from their posts at the time of the attack.
Given the history of persecution of ethnic Mohajirs in Pakistan since 1947, it would be hoping against hope to expect that Abidi’s killers will be apprehended. After all, those who masterminded and executed the assassination of Pakistan’s first-ever prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, a Mohajir, in 1950 were never caught. Since 1947, at least a dozen Mohajir-majority towns have been subjected to massacres in Sindh province, leaving tens of thousands dead. Not a single culprit has ever been punished.
Abidi’s death was not the only outrage targeting a high-profile Mohajir figure in Pakistan in 2018. In January, Harvard-educated professor Zafar-Hasan Arif was kidnapped by plainclothes personnel, tortured and left dead on the outskirts of Karachi. In fact, it was the tragic killing of Arif that led to the launch in the U.S. of the Voice of Karachi and the Free Karachi campaign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Few in the West realize that it was the Mohajirs who took the lead in Pakistan’s creation in pre-partition India and that those living in what is now modern Pakistan had no interest in seeking freedom. Pakistan was conceived as a way to provide India’s Muslim minority a true homeland and a safe place to live in peace, but their dream has turned into a nightmare. In the 1990s, two federal governments in Pakistan were toppled on charges of Mohajir killings, yet not a single perpetrator of Mohajir-targeted violence was ever identified, let alone punished.
This history of repression and denial of rights have led many Mohajirs to conclude that — like the killers of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Arif — Abidi’s attackers will never face justice. Pakistan’s Mohajirs, along with the country’s moderate Muslims, Christians, Balochs and other religious and ethnic minorities, have high hopes that the U.S., long a beacon of personal and religious freedom around the world, will take up their cause and hold Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated military accountable for its actions.
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