Why terrorists are targeting Pakistan’s Ismaili community

People gather as rescue workers and volunteers makes way for ambulances, carrying bodies of the victims of an attack on a bus, as they move outside the hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, May 13, 2015
People gather as rescue workers and volunteers makes way for ambulances, carrying bodies of the victims of an attack on a bus, as they move outside the hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, May 13, 2015
Image: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro
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Gunmen boarded a bus in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, on May 13. They separated the children from the adults before opening fire on the 60 or so riders, a survivor told Vice News. Reuters reports that at least 43 have been killed and 13 wounded.

The bus was carrying members of Karachi’s Ismaili community—a religious minority in Pakistan. Jundullah, a branch of the Pakistani Taliban that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Nov. 2014, has claimed responsibility.

“These killed people were Ismaili and we consider them kafir,” Ahmed Marwat, a spokesperson for Jundullah, told Reuters. “Kafir” means “unbeliever” or “infidel” in Arabic. “In the coming days we will attack Ismailis, Shiites, and Christians,” he warned.

According to the US Department of State, an estimated 25% of Pakistani’s Muslim population adhere to Shia Islam (75% are Sunnis). Of that 25%, the majority are Ismailis, the second-largest branch of Shia Islam after the Twelvers, who hold sway in nearby Iran.

Ismailis are seen as a reformist sect and more liberal in their interpretations of the Quran than other strains of Islam. In some ways, they are: the 48th Ismaili imam, Aga Khan III, made it optional for women to cover their hair in public. The vast majority of Ismaili women do not wear a hijab.

Some attribute these liberalisms to a philosophical commitment to modernity and pluralism. Ismailis have a religious mandate to pursue knowledge and fulfill traditions of tolerance by actively working toward harmonious, pluralistic societies. This requires ever-evolving interpretations of Quranic doctrine.

Essentially, it’s an obligation to adapt to the times—an idea that stands in stark contrast to fundamentalist politics of all sorts. The Ismailis are a natural target for groups like Jundullah, whose ideological bread and butter is the intimidation (if not extermination) of progressive Pakistanis.

While not necessarily accurate, Ismailis seem to be perceived by certain critics as Westernized. A cursory Google search of Ismailism brings up a slew of message-board postings asking rhetorical questions like, “Why do Ismaili women dress so slutty?” Commenters speculate that all Ismailis drink like fish (the Quran forbids imbibing); that they hold the opinion of the Aga Khan above the teachings of Muhammad; that they are all rich and politically influential and enamored with “Western lifestyles.”

It’s possible the lifestyle of one leading Ismaili—the current Aga Khan—has been projected onto the entire community. Prince Shah Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan IV is a Swiss-born British subject. He heads the Aga Khan Foundation, an NGO awash with cash that combats poverty and promotes public health in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia. He was educated at Harvard, has a net worth of more than $800 million, owns a private island in the Bahamas, and currently lives in a chateau in northern France.

But the Ismailis killed in Karachi were not much like the privileged prince—at least not in terms of net worth or lifestyle. They were residents of the al-Azhar Garden Colony, an Ismaili housing project; and most of them were commuting to work and school when they were attacked.

Did the Jundullah militants have a clear idea of who these Ismailis were, or of the Aga Khan and his connections with various players in Western political establishments? Or were they just another minority group in a long list to be targeted? In either case, the violence against them, as against all religious minorities in Pakistan, would seem to lie in ignorance and the spread of misinformation.