ON MAY 13, nearly 50 Ismailis were massacred on a bus in Karachi. The attack was claimed by two militant groups, each referring in its statements to the Islamic State (ISIS) and events in the Levant as much as Pakistan. These murders seemed to constitute one more example of the globalization of sectarian violence in the Muslim world. The phenomenon had arguably begun in Pakistan, partly in the form of a proxy war between Iran and her enemies across the Persian Gulf following the Islamic Revolution. Apparently, it has now returned to its country of origin. But there was something new about the Karachi killings, not least because they targeted a community that hadn’t previously been on the frontline of religious conflict, having largely avoided politics and without any state backing it.
Prior to the bus attack, Ismailis, a small and globally dispersed branch of the Shia sect that subjects Islamic prescriptions to allegorical interpretation, had been targeted in Pakistan’s most populous city once before. In August 2013, bombs were thrown into two Karachi Jamat Khanas (places of worship), killing a couple of people. Ismailis had been the victims of low-grade sectarian violence, however, in the mountainous regions of Chitral and Gilgit, where they form significant rural populations alongside Sunni and other Shia groups. But even here they were not important actors. In addition to heresy, they were generally accused of being pro-Western, even of trying to carve out an American puppet state that would have brought together the Ismaili populations of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan with those of eastern Tajikistan — to say nothing of western China.
In the Muslim world, in other words, the Ismailis have been linked neither with pro- nor anti-Iranian politics, despite their presence as an insignificant minority in the Islamic Republic. But while they don’t quite fit into contemporary anti-Shia narratives, with their invocation of the Magians or Safavids, the presence of Ismailis in Syria, and their historical allegiance, like other minorities, to the regime there has led to attacks by ISIS.
It was this Levantine rhetoric that informed the Karachi massacre, as evidenced in statements left behind by the killers. In a cruel irony, this homogenization of Ismailism, by putting together two very different populations and histories, served as a perverse recognition of the sect’s own efforts to create a uniform global identity — not least by identifying with a single and religiously defined name in Arabic, rather than the varied ethnic and linguistic appellations of the past.
Cutting against such uniformities, however, is an emerging pan-Shia identity that isn’t premised upon homogenization. Going back at least two decades, this identification is bringing hitherto separate communities together in a network of mutual recognition. Relations between the Shia of Iran, Iraq, or Lebanon and the Alawites in Syria or Houthis in Yemen, for example, have expanded for obvious political reasons. And, in the wake of the Karachi killings, Iran’s foreign ministry also laid claim to the Ismailis in a statement, though their Iranian members still aren’t recognized as an official minority. Such identifications, of course, are also negative in part, deriving from an anti-Shia narrative that puts these groups together by deploying polemical categories like batini (esoteric), historically used to describe Ismailis, for mainstream Shia groups as well.
One reason the globalization of Ismaili identity by their enemies has come as such a shock, especially in Karachi, is that the sect has always been represented in that city by a trading caste of Hindu background, called the Khojas, which shared almost nothing of the sectarian history that defines its coreligionists elsewhere. Originating in western India, and scattered across East Africa, Western Europe, and North America in immigrant communities, Khojas represent the single most numerous ethnic group among the Ismailis. Having lived in secure and relatively open societies, they are also the wealthiest, running many institutions dedicated to education, health, finance, and culture. And yet, despite their dominant position within Ismailism, the Khojas and similar if smaller castes such as the Momnas, who were victims of the Karachi attack, now find themselves identified by the histories of those on its margins.
Their syncretic or even “Hindu” practices, which had once earned them criticism from Muslim neighbors, have become irrelevant as Khojas and Momnas are defined by the more “Islamic” characteristics of their coreligionists in the Middle East. Given attempts by the Khoja leadership, over a few decades now, to claim a Muslim identity, this isn’t surprising. Whether it was to gain the trust of their neighbors, or with the grandiose ambition to set them an example of what “modern” and “progressive” Muslims looked like, these Khojas reworked an Ismaili identity for themselves with paradoxical consequences. No longer a merely local group with local peculiarities, the Khojas have for the first time become identified with a Middle-Eastern heresy in Pakistan, while in India they are also for the first time seen by a large number of Hindus as Muslim.
During the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat, Ismailis found themselves attacked by Hindus for the first time, but were still treated differently from the rest. Their property was destroyed, but their lives were spared as if in a recognition of their “modern” and “progressive” character. This difference was also evident in that Khojas weren’t accepted by many of their alleged coreligionists as Muslims; long before the riots, they would complain that their businesses faced boycotts from both Hindu and Muslim groups. More recently, their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, who manages his community’s institutions from a chateau outside Paris, was given one of India’s highest civilian honors by its Hindu nationalist government for his many contributions to health, education, and rural support there.
Gifts for the good Muslim
Like a number of world leaders, the Indian prime minister condemned the Karachi killings, in gestures that included a series of tweets. What interests me about this situation, in which Ismailis are simultaneously praised and patronized, if not persecuted, is how it has come to characterize their status as good Muslims more generally. This became clear in the immediate aftermath of the Karachi massacre, when there was a remarkable spate of statements issued by figures like the US secretary of state or Canadian prime minister, condoling with the Aga Khan and attesting to the “peaceful” nature of the Ismailis. That their peaceable character had to be mentioned in order to make Ismailis into victims — as contrasted, apparently, with other Muslims, whether killed by militants or NATO airstrikes and American drones — seems to indicate that even the Aga Khan’s followers had to pass a test before their modern and progressive self-image became acceptable.
Due perhaps to the Aga Khan’s wealth, status, and philanthropy, as well as that of his Khoja followers in some parts of the world, the Karachi attacks received a great deal of media attention, though for a very short period of time. Yet despite the Ismaili leadership’s efforts over many decades to showcase the community’s liberal views and good works, this coverage presented a scrambled image of the Ismailis at best. Much of the British press, for instance, followed up its reportage of the Karachi killings with details of the Aga Khan’s racehorses and glamorous lifestyle, as if to point out the great distance between him and his followers. This would be like an attack on a bus of Catholics in Northern Ireland being reported alongside descriptions of the Vatican’s art collection and annual income.
Even in Pakistan a television anchor was unable to identify Ismailis as a Shia sect, thus illustrating how little the liberal elites, to whom the community’s outreach and public relations exercises are largely targeted, have been influenced by it. Often unwilling to distinguish between sects on the principle that they are “all Muslims,” or Pakistanis, liberals are sometimes more ignorant about their own society than the militants who attack it. And then there was an almost obsessive desire in the Western media to define those attacked in Karachi as purely religious figures, with the bus transporting them from the Al-Azhar Garden housing society to secular workplaces in the city described as having been bound for a mosque. All this surely demonstrates the Ismailis’ failure to promote and control their own public image — even among those who are well-disposed toward them.
Part of this failure can be attributed to the very effort by the Ismaili leadership to control the community’s image, often by discouraging its members from speaking to the press, which results in the endless repetition of a thoroughly unconvincing party line. That such a line has worked to cross purposes was evident in patronizing comments which described Ismaili women as better treated than those of other Muslim groups. Attributable to an understandable caution in what should be revealed to outsiders, an attitude perfectly in keeping with the sect’s esoteric theology, this controlled narrative also foregrounds the Aga Khan, with all the details about his followers kept vague. It was not surprising, then, that he should have come to dominate media coverage after the events in Karachi, though not perhaps in the way the community’s leadership expected.
For while it was certainly the Aga Khan’s status that made Pakistan’s prime minister and chief of army staff act quickly in rushing to Karachi, declaring an official period of mourning, the fact that he became the figure to whom condolences were offered ended up obscuring the families of those who had been killed. Indeed, for the moment the only memorials to the victims themselves, as individuals rather than a generic collection of Ismailis, are the touching homemade images and videos circulating on social media. These display photographs from happier times of those who died, and a soundtrack of Urdu song embellished with misspelled statements in English — in keeping with the lower-middle class background of the victims themselves. The community’s official memorials will no doubt soon appear, though probably for Ismaili consumption only.
The victim’s tale
Although it may have failed to project an appropriate image, the Ismaili leadership’s wary attitude to what may be said and shown in public is important beyond the community’s esoteric beliefs. Since the 1960s there have been a number of instances where Ismaili populations in different parts of the world have been at risk, and the Aga Khan has always deployed his considerable resources and mobilized his networks to help them, but in the quietest of ways. When Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda in 1972, for example, he chartered all the planes available in the region to fly out his followers as well as those of other faiths. The Aga Khan also seems to have come to an arrangement with Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, to take many of these refugees, whose financial stability he guaranteed.
Similarly, with the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s, as well as what happened there during and after the period of Taliban rule, the Ismaili leader appears to have reached a comparable agreement with Canada to admit his Afghan followers as refugees. Many thousands of others were maintained in Pakistan or sent to Germany. The civil war in Tajikistan during the 1990s, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, exposed Ismailis there to great violence: the Aga Khan was able to help in the negotiation of a peace accord, and provided desperately needed food aid and other forms of assistance. The most recent crisis has been that of the Ismailis in Syria, many of them now refugees in Sweden with their imam’s help, largely made possible by Khoja funding and expertise.
Even without these major crises, there are others the Ismaili leadership routinely deals with, whether riots in India or terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was perhaps because the Ismailis subjected to such crises, large and small, have received so little assistance from their liberal friends in the West and elsewhere, that the community founded its own institution for the delivery of humanitarian relief in 1994. This is called FOCUS — or “fuck us,” as some of its more irreverent Central Asian beneficiaries call it, referring to the top-down working of so many Ismaili institutions. Properly suspicious of the benefits to be gained by portraying Ismailis as victims, these institutions tend to go about their work without any attempt to publicize their suffering. This is why the global visibility brought about by the Karachi killings has been so disturbing, not least because it has forced Ismailis around the world to see themselves as victims for practically the first time — given that such violence is rarely publicized even within the community.
In part, no doubt deriving from their esoteric beliefs, and partly from their rather more prosaic caution at becoming too visible socially or politically, this secretive attitude has spared Ismailis from adopting victimhood as one of the most important forms of global identification, together with its narrative of persecution and vengeance. The Aga Khan’s lavish lifestyle, and the wealth and enterprise of his Khoja followers, have also set an intellectual obstacle to such an identity internationally, however filled with defeat and martyrdom earlier Ismaili history may otherwise have been. Indeed their focus has been on the moments of triumph during that history, which was why the housing society, and its bus, involved in the Karachi killings were named after the famous mosque and university of Al-Azhar in Cairo.
Now the premier institution of Sunni learning, Al-Azhar was built, like the city in which it is located, by an Ismaili dynasty. Itself an example of the homogenization of Ismailism, the use of this name by Karachi’s Khojas and Momnas wasn’t meant to refer in any resentful way to Al-Azhar’s transformation into a Sunni institution. But should such a homogenized history continue to be deployed, by their enemies as much as themselves, Ismailis might well end up the sectarian and potentially persecuted minority their Western and liberal friends are so familiar with recognizing — but so little able to help. And this would be a calamity.