Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2018: Manzoor Pashteen

Source: Rahat Dar/EPA/The Guardian

In a year that has been widely recognized as one of the darkest, if not the worst ever, in terms of free speech in Pakistan, only someone who could take on the state could be the most important free speech hero.

As Pakistan becomes more and more of a police station since the Taliban insurgency and the War on Terror, the state is doubling down on authoritarian security measures. However, in the name of national security, you will often find the voice of political dissidents suppressed.  Such has been the case with Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a protest political movement against the active racial profiling against the Pashtuns in Pakistan as well as the missing persons abducted in the aftermath of the Waziristan operations carried out by the Pakistan military. Perhaps this movement would not have gathered such spontaneous support across Pakistan had the discrimination against Pashtuns not reached such pan-national scale. The boiling point came with the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, which triggered nationwide outrage from the Pashtun community, except for the ones too uncomfortably close with the state establishment.

Manzoor Pashteen is important of perhaps all the free speech heroes in Pakistan due to the influence he has been able to exert in a very short time and with no resources at all. And he managed to get under the skin of the Punjabi establishment, a sign of which was the state-backed propaganda against the movement on the mainstream media. The Punjab government even featured his image in an advisory against terrorists. And such state behavior ensued while no action was taken against the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, which made openly rebellious statements and perhaps contributed to pushing the limits of free speech in Pakistan itself.

The PTM is a completely grassroots movement and primarily making use of the social media, the PTM leadership rose and rallied its supporters and sympathizers and now even have two MPs in the parliament. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, whose names were recently included in the Exit Control List for a while, have been just as vocal about the issues. However, they lack the central attention that Pashteen has been able to garner with his unlikely charisma. His trademark Pashteen cap has become a symbol of defiance and resistance among the PTM supporters.

ANP veterans and secular progressives Senator Afrasiab Khattak and former MP Bushra Gohar were suspended from party membership due to their sympathy for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and outspoken rhetoric against the military establishment. They are doing their bit to make the PTM grievances more mainstream, while also sending a message how the movement is larger than partisan agenda, considering how the state has been portraying Manzoor Pashteen as more or less treasonous. Whether his campaign will be any more effective than it is, considering how politically passive the rest of Pakistan is becoming under a strict suppression of dissent, it is yet to be seen.

It was not just the pro-PTM lawmakers who had a hard time in terms of expulsions and blacklistings on the Exit Control List. Award-winning human rights activists were not immune from the penalty too. Gulalai Ismail, an ethnic Pashtun who has been recognized by the Government of France on her work on her NGO project “Aware Girls” was the biggest victim in the anti-PTM witchhunt by the state. A girl who used to be a hero is now interrogated by the FIA on arrival and her name has been put on the Exit Control List.

In a year that saw major assaults on free speech in Pakistan, there is no shortage of heroes here. The Pakistani journalist, in general, suffered a very difficult year in 2018. This year marked the violation of the boundaries of the Karachi Press Club, something which had never even occurred in the darkest days under General Zia according to Ghazi Salahuddin. Journalists Taha S. Siddiqui and Gul Bukhari have been two major names as well. Taha was assaulted and chased by armed men in civilian clothing but who obviously had the state’s agenda to carry out against journalists who were doing inconvenient reporting. Before his name could have been put on the Exit Control List, he managed to make a safe exit to France. The clearly pro-PML-N Gul Bukhari, who was also abducted briefly by similar mysterious people, has been vocal against the military establishment and the incumbent PTI government. Both of them are still vocal against the state establishment on social media.

Source: The Daily Times

Another great free speech hero that cannot be commended enough not only for his contribution to free speech in Pakistan but for his service in general to humanity is Saif-ul-Malook, the lawyer of Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi was sentenced to death according to the It was his tireless efforts and advocacy that eventually helped overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi and paved way for the Supreme Court to acquit her of the alleged charges. Now considering how hospitable Pakistan is to any such citizen, it is not a surprise that Saif-ul-Malook had to leave Pakistan and has now reportedly taken temporary asylum in the Netherlands.

Ali Raza Abidi, the former MQM MP, who has been openly critical of the incumbent government and was also estranged with the MQM leadership, also got silenced by unknown forces this Christmas. His assassination is a reminder that individual thought and secular liberal minds remain to be an endangered and threatened species in this country.

Finally, probably the greatest free speech hero we will ever have passed away earlier this year. Asma Jahangir who will remain to be the guiding beacon for people pursuing

As long as Pakistan remains a battleground for free speech, we will continue to see such obvious and unlikely heroes emerge.

Read about the Pakistan free speech hero for the year 2017 here.

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A Heroic Verdict from a Dark Judiciary

Source: aleteia.org

Finally! Asia Bibi has been acquitted of committing a non-crime.

Imagine the agony of the nine precious, irreplaceable years that the people and the state of Pakistan have taken away from her. Imagine the pain she and her family have been going through. As a nation, we have truly abused, harassed, and silenced her.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar is a complex character. He is a judicial vigilante with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and probably believes that he has been sanctioned by divine authority to carry out some special task. This probably explains his bizarre behavior as the office-bearer of the highest judicial position in the country. However, his latest action, or at least the bench under him, has resulted in a historic heroic verdict from what has been an otherwise dark judiciary under him.

As heroic this verdict is, you can still read its full text and laugh at some of the ridiculous religious articles found in its initial arguments, especially conceding that the penalty for blaspheming against the Holy Prophet should be death as per the Islamic teachings. Not much you can blame the judges for considering the nature of the cases they are dealing with. However, going deep into it, you would wonder how the lower courts found Asia Bibi guilty based on the testimony that the current Supreme Court found untrustworthy and not having legal standings. This speaks volumes about how dangerous the blasphemy law and its usage in the judiciary. It is shocking how such interpretations of judges could be the difference between the life and death of a person. Especially in ridiculous offenses such as blasphemy.

Justice Asif Saeed Khosa closes his judgment with a particularly interesting remark.

Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religionand religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixingtruth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PeaceBe Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous. It is ironical thatin the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’ but inthe circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in thewords of Shakespeare’s
King Leare, “more sinned against than sinning”.
– p. 55, Criminal Appeal No. 39-L of 2015, October 31, 2018

Of course, following this verdict, pandemonium ensured across the country. The lunatic goons of the Tehreek Labaik Ya-Rasool Allah (TLP), a murderous cult of fanatics ran loose in the streets. The clerics of the movement openly called against the murder of the Justices who made the verdict and even called for the military rule on the condition of overthrowing Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa who is commonly “alleged” to be an Ahmedi, which is a total abomination in the Pakistani society. As we speak, the TLP is ruining the traffic in my town by staging a sit-in protest at Faizabad.

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https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan, who ignored the clear merits of blocking roads and suddenly realizing that it hurts the poor, condemned elements such as the TLP and warned against stern action, even referring to them as “treasonous.” This bold piece of leadership also deserves a lot of appreciation.

Despite all their shortcomings and theocratic leanings, the Supreme Court justices managed to pull off not just a sane but heroic verdict under the circumstances. Their courage for keeping up the values of justice in the face of murderous religious fanatics is indeed praiseworthy.

Let’s hope these small steps of courage can lead to the eventual demise of the blasphemy law.

Free Asia Bibi

Source: Vatican News

So the moment of the decision of Asia Bibi’s appeal was this month. Surrendering to the terror created by the purpose-built gang Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, which again stormed the capital to protest the possible acquittal, the court has delayed the verdict indefinitely. There is nothing the tortured and abused Christian community, or anybody else can do about it.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan must realize the moral significance of this verdict. If they uphold the verdict, they will be forever upholding the ruthless apartheid against non-Muslim citizens in Pakistan. If they uphold the verdict, they will be forever upholding the absolute lack of religious freedom for the citizens of Pakistan who are not Muslims.

The fact that we are not able to raise our voice against this unacceptable injustice, and obviously that includes me, speaks volumes of our insensitivity and a lack of morals. Even an acknowledgment of this wrongdoing should not let us sleep in peace at night. It is absolutely a joke how we go on raving about democracy and human rights in a country and then have the nerve to complain about the treatment of minority Muslims in other countries while we go on to slaughtering human beings in ours.

It is a joke that countries such as Pakistan, which should actually be facing sanctions for its draconian blasphemy law, are now members of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Or probably worse, it is a shame that a nation of 200 million morally constipated people has no power to do anything about this grave injustice. Until we adopt a secular constitution, religious clerics will keep on abusing the law to threaten the lives of non-Muslim minority citizens in Pakistan. It’s an absolute shame.

If indeed Asia Bibi is put to death, a 53-year-old mother of four, Pakistan will not be able to bear the burden of her blood.

The Most Tolerant Nation on Earth

Source:  bosnewslife.com

Source: bosnewslife.com

Pakistanis are by far the most tolerant nation on earth.

They are easily the most tolerant considering how much shit they put up with. I am not even sure why are they accused of intolerance in the society, considering their loving, forgiving nature.

Want to try it? Ask the person sitting next to you about the possible hanging of Asia Bibi. Or even the YouTube ban, which is so embarrassing, that it makes you wonder if you should ever say that you are proud to be a Pakistani.

But enough of the elitist first world digital age problems.

Just look at all the tolerance that has been going on all this time. We have been tolerating and forgiving every single atrocity. From the Gojra riots to the Joseph Colony arson, and from the murder of Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan to the Gulberg Park bombing, all is in the natural order of things.

The recent episode has been the condemnation of the entire community of Christians in Mandi Bahauddin in the name of the honor of the Prophet. We have had such cases several times, in which a person’s loose tongue has warranted the collective punishment of a community. Won’t be the last because we are too tolerant to be moved by such horrors.

Perhaps the only way to survive is to convert to Islam once and for all. Because somehow that makes the rioting majority love the “janitors” all of a sudden.  Though think about it, who would remain a janitor if everyone converted to Islam? Perhaps that thought could ignite some intolerance among the forgiving majority.

I must say, these Christians and Hindus in Pakistan are either too brave or too moronic. And don’t even mention the Ahmedis. They are a special, incurable breed of crazy.

Things like that usually do not happen in most countries, and when they do, it is usually a big deal. But no, it’s just business as usual for Pakistan. Just shut up, look the other way. Hey, harmony and inner peace are important. At least, that’s what my shrink tells me.

We can still question considered outrageous in a parallel universe called Planet Earth, and ask our fellow citizens for their reaction. Only to be met by a silence, by looking the other way.

We privately do question these atrocities, but would seldom do it in public. With the exception of a few nutcases such as Sabeen Mahmud, Jibran Nasir, Taimur Rehman and Farzana Bari, who are so passionate in their activism that it honestly makes me nauseate and feel ashamed at the same time. That is why they remain constantly under the attacks of extremists and nationalist conservatives.

And I wonder if they make a hypocrite like me feel ashamed, what about folks with much higher moral standards? At least to not look the other way.

But do these handful really represent the majority of our society? While they are acting on the logic of the attendance of the Islamic funeral alright, but is their tiny participation enough to make a difference? Perhaps not, because these drivers-of-foreign-agenda are far outnumbered by more tolerant, more patriotic, nicer people.

The tolerance of our moralist political commentators on the television is particularly praiseworthy, who would constantly babble sermons against financial corruption day in and day out. While their passion for mourning the stolen wealth of the nation is exemplary, they would also look the other way when atrocities against non-Muslims, or even the peasants of Renala Khurd, are brought up.

Perhaps, it is time that the educated, civilized Pakistan become a little intolerant in order to discourage, if not put an end to, atrocities against the cornered. Too much to ask?

But then again, it’s probably propaganda funded by foreign NGOs anyway, for which I have thanked these mysterious organizations several times before.

It is probably wise not to care for the sheep and steer clear of the shearer. Because that appears to be in the self-interest of those who have not gotten to the position of the vulnerable yet. Besides, it’s safe.

Granted, but should we be doing that and claim moral superiority for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and its great, true national faith? Because God knows that claim is true.

That still raises some serious moral questions of a population pious enough to go to great lengths not to miss a fast on even a single day in the scorching, dehydrating heat of June.

 

Too bad God only cares about those who really believe in him and those who fast during the month of Ramadan.

 

A version of the post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2013: Sabeen Mahmud

Source: inc.com

Source: inc.com

A right that is almost taken for granted and even denied in Pakistan is that of free speech, and any honor for its promotion is barely ever acknowledged.

Since no one else would bother to say this, at least I would have to. And I am upset with myself for not acknowledging a free speech hero last year. Anyway, partially, that hero was also prominent this year, that is, Malala Yousafzai. No surprises there.

Apart from Malala, a number of people like assassinated politicians Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, journalists Saleem Shahzad and Umar Cheema, Oscar winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and alleged blasphemer Asia Bibi, who everyone has conveniently forgotten, have been prominent in years prior to 2013. It is also important to acknowledge PPP co-Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for publicly expressing his wish to see a non-Muslim as the Prime Minister of Pakistan in his lifetime, contrary to the provision in the constitution.

But more important free speech heroes are the ones who are in close proximity to threats and yet take the initiative to speak their minds, even if that means challenging the blind authority and unreasonable norms of the society.

To my mind, the Pakistani free speech hero of the year 2013 is social activist and entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud.

Sabeen took flak after she started a counter initiative to respond to the anti Valentine’s Day campaign of Tanzeem-e-Islami. Her campaign involved rather amusing messages promoting love, such as “Pyaar Hone De” or roughly ‘Let there be love’, in front of the billboard messages from the religious movement prohibiting Valentine’s Day celebrations, citing verses and traditions. It immediately became controversial.

The content cannot be found any more on the Express Tribune website, the publication which primarily covered her campaign, because it is considered in bad taste by a number of Muslims. The publication even issued an apology for the campaign slideshow.

However, I have seen the pictures from the campaign and can testify that there was hardly anything about the campaign that was offensive. It would have been seen in a completely different light, if many of us had a little sense of humor.

Yet Sabeen was harassed by random people on social media, which included death threats, apart from coarse and abusive language. She was even threatened with a fatwa.

Her apt and enterprising response to the hate speech onslaught was the Nafrat Aggregator, an online tool that quantifies reported hate speech on social media.

Sabeen Mahmud has also been the driving force behind other initiatives such as the Pakistan for All campaign with Muhammad Jibran Nasir and Taimur Rehman, which involved the formation of human chains around Cathedrals and churches to express solidarity with the Christian community in major cities around Pakistan, the Hug YouTube campaign and Pakistan’s first hackathon in Karachi. She is also the founder of T2F in Karachi and is the Director of PeaceNiche.

It is a shame that such individuals are harassed instead of being admired by our society, as it is supposed to be in a democracy, just because they have a dissenting voice on certain issues.

But this is precisely why she is an inspirational free speech hero. I fully support and endorse her, even if I am not half as enthusiastic to legislate against hate speech.

While I admire all her work, this acknowledgment is primarily for her stance in the Valentine’s Day campaign controversy.

To quote her: “Fear is just a line in your head”.

The Best Christmas Present Ever

So this is Christmas. And what have we done?

This Christmas, while I would like to wish a very merry Christmas to everyone around the world, especially the Christians in Pakistan, I cannot help but think about Asia Bibi. She is still in prison. And I am thinking about her little daughters who would still be waiting for her on this festive occasion.

I have personally been through an experience which involved waiting for a loved one not too different to that and I know how frustrating and disappointing it feels.

It really feels like the end of the world.

Do we want those kids to have those kinds of feelings?

No, I hope at least.

To tell you the truth, every person has his or her own joys and sorrow, and everyone celebrates their Christmas their own way.

But what if we make a difference to one more life? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

The most wonderful Christmas present for those girls would be their mother returning home, more than anything in the whole wide world, I can guarantee you that.

Imagine Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer dressed up like Santa Claus and accompanying their mother to their home.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful sight?

Can’t we just learn to forgive, regardless of whether she is guilty of anything or not?

Why can’t we give life instead of death threats?

But what could be the most wonderful present Pakistani government could offer the entire community?

Maybe going for a Secular Constitution and repealing the Blasphemy Law.

We could offer them Security and Peace this Christmas, if we wanted to.

The Best Christmas Present ever!

A Brave Beginning At Least…

November 25, 2010 was a historic day in the history of legislation in Pakistan. One of the more sensible MPs finally took the initiative of proposing amendments in the Blasphemy Laws of the country. It was none other than Sherry Rehman who took the brave initiative after contributing a brilliant article to the Express Tribune.

I congratulate Sherry Rehman for breaking the ice and touching this “taboo subject”. She surely deserves a pat on the back and this is what PPP should be doing. The Governor of the Punjab, Salmaan Taseer also deserves applause for his efforts after Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, was  sentenced to death for blasphemy by a local civil magistrate. I am only disappointed that there is silence from other political parties like MQM, ANP and PML-Q, and also PML-N. I even expect some sense from the JUI-F and the JI.

While I completely agree with the opinion in the legal circles that the President is talking about using his right of pardon prematurely, since the case can move on to the higher courts, and with the decision of the LHC of directing the President to abstain from using the right until the hearing of the petition against it, I was really disappointed to learn that some lawyers maintained that the law did not permit the President to pardon the person who had allegedly committed a blasphemy because it did not pertain to the crimes against the State, and pertained to a crime against Allah and His Prophet. If that is our law, we need to change it.

But the real divide is this.  The secular school of thought maintains that the blasphemy laws should be repealed because it is not an offense in the first place, at least not worthy of a death sentence, if any at all. The right wing, in this case, the religious political parties representing Islam, think that the blasphemy law is more like an article of faith and that any amendments are unacceptable. Though mentioning this was totally unnecessary, but anyway.

While both the groups keep on loathing each other and have no patience to listen to and appreciate each other’s viewpoint, we will not be able to move a single inch towards making any progress in this regard. As a matter of principle, I oppose any blasphemy laws, but since it concerns the feelings of such a large majority of population, I would at least go for softening the “punishment” instead of letting the brutal death penalty stand, which is why I think this bill is important.

We should actually be starting a debate about abolishing the death penalty altogether, or minimize its implementation in the courts. We should at least make the judges think twice, or thrice, before inking such a verdict, especially when it is a blasphemy that you can never prove in the court of law unless it is published in some way, apart from the account of witnesses.

You can simply make the religious groups understand why death in general, and in the case of Asia Bibi in particular, should not be enforced by telling them what Prophet Muhammad would have done in this regard. Rauf Klasra wrote a very good piece on that in Urdu, which you could read to get a very good idea about that viewpoint. We must upkeep the basic human rights in any case and supersede any other laws which lead to their violation.

Courtesy: Reuters

While I cannot help but think about the poor and innocent children of Asia Bibi who are anxiously waiting for their mother to return to them, I can never imagine, as far my understanding of Islam and the life of the Holy Prophet is concerned, that the Prophet would have meant any harm to the woman in the first place. It was contrary to his values, since he even pardoned Hind, the wife of Abu Sufian, a Meccan Lord, who had murdered his uncle Hamza in the most brutal manner.

Had Prophet Muhammad been a man who approved of murder, violence and killings, then he would have done otherwise, and there are countless other examples, such as the Amnesty on the Conquest of Mecca. And yes, I think that despite those Islamic laws of stoning to death on adultery, the conditions of the enforcement of which are actually so strict, that it is near impossible that anyone could be condemned to death for that offense, let alone approving of it.

Unfortunately, the religious groups are not able to understand this simple fact due to the overzealous nature of their politics. Supporting death for committing blasphemy is clearly a political matter instead of a religious one, and I have reasons to believe that the leaders and scholars who understand Islam know it themselves. Whether they want to go for the change or not is another matter.

But don’t forget, they are not the only ones to be blamed for this. The supposedly sensible politicians and the elements in the civil, judicial and military bureaucracy have also played their due role in the creation and approval of these laws. They did not consider the possibility that these laws could possibly be misused, as they are misused most of the time.

Not only the “minorities” or the non-Muslims in Pakistan are at risk due to the abuse of the law, but even Muslims themselves are not safe from it. You could accuse anyone of committing a blasphemy that you hold a grudge against and the crowds would rage and come roaring to get that person. The people need to develop some patience, and both the secular and religious groups need to come together to discuss the issue to reach a sensible solution.

I know that even if we get the text book right, vigilante violence is a problem that will remain very much there as far as the accusations of blasphemy are concerned, but it is important to get the textbook right. That is why I advocate a Secular Constitution for Pakistan. However, as far as making the general public realize is concerned, only Humanitarian Education is a solution, which is unfortunately, not a priority at all in the plans of the Government of Pakistan.

The secular circles of the country should be happy that someone at least made a start towards bringing an amendment to the law, something which people were even afraid to talk about earlier. I am anxiously waiting to see how the MPs vote on this, especially the members of the PPP, the MQM and the ANP, you know, the supposed secular political parties in Pakistan.

 

Maybe someday this could possibly lead to the abrogation of these laws.