A month ago, on June 15th, a bus carrying students home from the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University in Quetta, Pakistan, was hit by a female suicide bomber. The bus was destroyed and fourteen passengers left dead; but that wasn't the end of it. The militant group behind the bombing, Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ), then attacked the Bolan Medical Complex, where the injured had been taken and anxious relatives were gathering, killing four nurses, among others. We sometimes need to be reminded how utterly depraved the ideology is that drives jihadist groups like the LeJ. University students are blown up, and a hospital is attacked to intimidate and murder those ministering to the victims.
But who are Lashkar-e Jhangvi's victims? The simple answer is, Muslims from the alternative, Shia tradition of Islam. A brutal campaign targeting the Shia minority in Pakistan has been going on for years, with Sunni militant groups like Lashkar-e Jhangvi declaring the Shia heretics and "deserving of death"; and they have encountered scandalously little opposition from the Pakistani authorities, elements of which are quite clearly complicit with the LeJ's agenda. Extremists of the LeJ's stripe consider fair game anyone who hold beliefs different from their own (Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, etc.), but a particular focus of attacks has been the Hazara community in Quetta, descendants of refugees from Afghanistan who are predominantly Shia, and have distinctive, east-Asian features, making them readily identifiable targets.
The June 15th attack was far from the worst that the Hazaras have faced. On January 10th two suicide bombers killed 91 at a snooker hall on Alamdar Road, the main thoroughfare of Mehr Abad, a Hazara-dominated suburb of Quetta. On February 16th 110 Shia (85 Hazara, 25 non-Hazara) were killed when a water tank packed with explosives blew up in a busy market in Hazara Town, on the other side of the city. Since the turn of the century over 1,100 Hazaras have died in attacks, and the campaign is intensifying. Activists are not exaggerating when they claim that we are witnessing a systematic genocide of the Hazaras of Pakistan.
The Hazara people have a fascinating, though troubled, history. Their homeland is the Hazarajat, in the central highlands of Afghanistan. Bamiyan, where the giant Buddhas once stood, is its most famous town. There's a longstanding tradition that the Hazaras are descended from Mongol troops settled in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century, in the wake of Genghis Khan's conquests; and recent genetic research has lent some support to the idea. Why Hazaras are predominantly Shia, when most Afghans are Sunni Muslims, no one knows, but this religious difference and the connection to Genghis (a bogeyman to many Afghans) have contributed to historical discrimination against the Hazaras in Afghanistan, excluded from public life and typically restricted to menial jobs, as depicted in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.
The big migration of Hazaras from Afghanistan to Quetta (and elsewhere in what is now Pakistan) came about at the end of the nineteenth century when Abdur Rahman, an Amir of Afghanistan determined to create a centralized state of Afghanistan on the Western model, brought the Hazarajat forcibly under his control. Many took refuge across the border in British India. That refuge can now be described as "hell on earth", and to many young Hazaras escaping this hell seems their only option: the violence is also generating a refugee crisis.
Yet it's still possible that this is the first time you've heard of the "Shia genocide". Some brave journalism has been done on what is happening in Quetta, but it has hardly been the headline news in the UK that it should be. Partly, of course, it's because Quetta is a difficult place for Western journalists to operate.
But a more significant reason is that the plight of the Hazaras complicates our view of things in that part of the world. Most people are pretty convinced now that Western involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not helping things, and that the best thing we can do we is get out, and the quicker the better. But if you're an Afghan Hazara, you don't see the last decade as the unmitigated disaster most in the West do. The Hazarajat has been generally peaceful, and the Hazaras, with their impressive commitment to education, have made significant advances in Afghan public life and the media. Contrast this with life in the civil war of the 1990s, and especially under the Taliban, when Hazaras were the victims of atrocities in the Hazarajat, and elsewhere.
What will happen to the Shia of Afghanistan when we leave? One does not need to be a pessimist to expect something like what's happening in Quetta to start in Afghanistan, persecution of Shia Muslims by Sunni militants. The signs are already there.
I am not suggesting that NATO stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. But we must understand that disengaging from Afghanistan has to be done carefully and responsibly. Neither Obama nor Cameron give any impression they understand this. But precipitate departure threatens consequences in the future that will, if anyone is there to report them, appal us.
Let's contemplate that attack on a bus in Quetta. What made it an appealing target for Lashkar-e Jhangvi? It was the bus that usually took Hazara students back to Alamdar Road, although a late change of destination meant that those students had left earlier. Yes, the horrible final wrinkle to this story is that the LeJ hit the "wrong" target and slaughtered women from a mix of backgrounds. But their intended victims were Shia women getting an education. A number of fundamental principles are under assault here: freedom of conscience, women's rights, and specifically the right of women to education. We in the Western democracies don't like to think of ourselves as inflicting violence on others, and rightly so. But will we be comfortable looking powerlessly on as the Hazaras' slow but determined rise from centuries of oppression is brutally curtailed?