CPEC Marks the End of Free Speech in Pakistan

Source: par.com.pk

The latest provocative Dawn story about the CPEC might as well be a pack of lies but what about things unfolding right in front of our eyes. It is very hard, and almost feels immoral, to remain silent at the Interior Minister’s crusade against dissenting bloggers and social media activists. Since Zia’s period, we have not seen the Pakistani state practice such blunt and open crackdown against free speech and dissent in the countries. What are you to say of authorities who treat their own citizens, whose taxes pay for their livelihood, like the enemy?

It is deeply disappointing.

There is a reason why people are skeptical of China. The Chinese Road and Belt initiative does sound very good to the ears and who in their right mind would oppose economic cooperation beyond borders? But the reason why people find it hard to trust them is because of the political culture and ideology they practice in their country. They do not practice the freedom they have preached in this initiative. There are no Google and facebook in China and that is precisely why I am not too excited about the cross border optic fiber cable network from China border to Rawalpindi. The Chinese ideals are not shared by the Pakistani youth struggling for freedom of expression.

The Chinese cultural push in Pakistan also sounds more than just a rumor, with their political culture seems to be creeping into the country. You see, in Pakistan people like to dissent, even when it comes to the blasphemy law. They like to vote for other parties, speak ill of the people of other sects and ethnicities. And considering the totalitarian trends that are also creeping into Pakistani politics with unanimously passed constitutional amendments, it is important to remind that we are not a one party country and would never be no matter what happens. It is only sad to see that these values of the Pakistani people are not being shared by those cracking down on dissenters.

We can only beg our higher authorities to please think about the people of Pakistan above everything else and stop crackdown on dissenters.

Ever since the CPEC has started, the government has been responding very aggressively and reactively to any criticism, without trying to understand what the concerns might be. In good conscience, you cannot possibly support that, especially when the democratically elected officials stand behind such policies. China may genuinely have a very encouraging vision of the regional economy but the questions that the local Pakistani businessmen and cultural critics have are worth listening to.

The Pakistani dissenting bloggers may criticize or insult the Pakistani armed forces all they want, at least we knew that their higher echelons appreciated finer things in life. At least they valued some freedom for themselves, some of which trickled down to us mortals. But with an authoritarian influencer in the picture, are we even going to have the little freedom that we used to enjoy? The future looks uncertain and scary.

Also, please do not mistake these lines to be a contradiction to the title of this piece. The more frightening aspect is that now the Pakistani authorities do not even fear if their reputation gets affected by openly targeting dissent. And that is precisely the effect of the CPEC.

Consider this and all the pieces to come from hereon to be heavily self-censored.

Long live Pakistan.

 

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.
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The Words of a Perpetually Angry Minister

Source: voanews.com

The recent blown-out-of-proportion episode of Dawn Leaks saw the civilian leadership reprimand the military for not being tough enough against Islamist militant outfits. However, the recent tirade by the Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, makes you wonder if they need to give a lecture to people in their own ranks.

Like a raving lunatic, Nisar went on to flaunt his love for a theocracy while serving in a democratic regime. His favorite target as always were his biggest critics but easily the softest ones in the country, of course. The secularists. I would not go as far as some as far as calling his comments a provocation to lynch the faithless, with Mashaal Khan’s murder fresh in memory, but let’s just say it was a pretty appalling display.

Basically, what gets under the skin of Chaudhary Nisar is the allegation that he is in bed with the Islamist terrorists of the country. While he completely considers it baseless, he has been seen often in talks with the religious fundamentalist leaders who are often seen to be behind Sunni sectarian terrorism. One of the recent episodes being his meeting with the ASWJ leadership.

Given Nisar’s predicament as the Interior Minister, which you cannot expect the likes of Jibran Nasir to fathom, you may have to engage such elements from time to time. However, his onslaught is more targeted to his more substantial PPP archrivals such as Senator Aitezaz Ahsan and other more secular peers who have often targeted the interior minister for his record.

But where he makes matters worse for himself by dodging the allegations by declaring himself a defender of Islam and emotionally blackmailing the religiously fervent public. And even worse, misrepresenting secularism in front of the masses while holding his secular office.

Furthermore, secularists in Pakistan are also lamenting the fact that the Interior Minister is playing an intellectually dishonest narrative by equating secularism with a lack of religion. While many secularists would not mind a society without religion, the tactic used by the Interior Minister is a classic one to create a roadblock for secularism in a society like Pakistan.

But what these critics of secularism fail to understand is that since a secularist deems religion to be an individual affair, they are least bothered about what religion anyone is practicing. It is precisely the paradigm of interfering with another’s religion that defines the viewpoint of someone who wants to impose a theocracy. The trouble with religious conservatives is that they expect everyone else to share their invasive ideas about religion in society.

Either that or Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan is more malignant than he is ignorant. As Wusatullah Khan points out in his latest BBC Urdu column, it is strange that someone educated at Aitchison would confuse secularism with atheism. But what if the minister is playing the ladeeniyat (faithlessness) card on purpose, and like always has used the dirtiest trick to block the already narrow path to secularism by equating it with a lack of religion.

Of course, a lack of religion means a lack of moral compass to religious people, especially with the oldest beverage in the world getting an honored mention in his speech. But it is funny how all these reservations are absolutely disregarded with atheist communist friend China by the same theocrats like him who attack others for stooping to anything for power. You know the atheist communist China which actually persecutes Muslims horrifyingly as opposed to the meek critiques of the toothless and terrified Pakistani secularists. It would indeed be fun to watch how China tolerates Pakistan’s vision of religion as it invests physical assets more heavily than ever in an ally cursed with theocratic instability.

But perhaps more than anything else, the honorable federal minister is just a very compulsively angry man who probably should not be serving as the boss of the national cops and federal agencies. It is under him that we have seen the worst crackdown against bloggers in history and he is still at it by announcing a new witch-hunt against websites which defame the Pakistani military. He might also want to take a look at a few of the members of his own party for those instances.

If you find yourself confused that Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan belongs to the same party as that of the Prime Minister who has spent two straight Holi festivals with the Hindu community, nobody should blame you too much. And for as long as the PM keeps this relationship for a handful seats in the Rawalpindi district, it would remain to be the bane of his existence.

As it would be of ours.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Secular Theocracy of Bangladesh

Source: EPA/npr.org

Source: EPA/npr.org

The future of democracy in Bangladesh is in serious jeopardy.

The machete attacks on secular, atheist and progressive bloggers and academics have become a norm.

Anyone speaking their mind about their worldview, as well as criticizing religious groups for their ignorance and obscurantism can consider themselves to be the next target.

It feels like just yesterday when I wrote about the brutal killing of Avijit Roy. Since then, dozens more have lost their lives including Ananta Bijoy Das, Washiqur Rahman, Niloy Neel, Nazimuddin Samad and more recently Professor Rezaul Kerim Siddique. The list goes on.

The latest occurrence was Bangladesh’s very own Charlie Hebdo, if you will. The killings of Xulhaz Mannan, Editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine Roopban, and that of the openly gay actor Tanoy Mojumdar, only occurring within a week of Professor Siddique’s murder, are particularly significant.

Unlike earlier attacks, this killing has been claimed by the Islamic State itself for the “unIslamic” sexual orientation of the offenders.

This is probably the first sign of the presence of Islamic State in Bangladesh, which is no surprise considering there are no ideological boundaries to this group. The presence of Islamic State in Bangladesh is obviously being denied by the Bangladesh authorities, considering the terrible optics that it involves.

I wonder what went on in the minds of the slain as they were witnessing the murder of fellow citizens who stood for free speech. I wonder what is going on in the minds of those who are alive and standing up for free speech in Bangladesh, as they see this menace get out of hand.

Using the word martyr is cheap. But these people were really brave and resisted life-threatening odds. Who knew what was going on around them, but instead of shutting up, they stuck to their positions. Walked the walk.

It’s easy to talk about freedom of speech, it’s an entirely different matter to live it. It surely is not easy. Especially in a world where it is easy and acceptable to use violence to silence people.

Secular bloggers and journalists in Pakistan have been enjoying relative safety considering the carnage in Bangladesh. Probably because they largely stick to the English language as a medium and preach to the choir, like myself. If confronted with a threat, most of us are not just likely to shut up, but to hide away for good.

Such a possibility is not entirely remote. Islamists are known for engaging in brotherly behavior, and they might very easily replicate the actions of their Bangladeshi brethren before you would expect.

With their repeated attacks on people who offend Islam, the Islamists have found an effective way to silence dissenters, apostates and critics. They have been carrying out these attacks with impunity, from Paris to Bangladesh, because they know that they will eventually get off the hook. Most commentators would gladly blame such groups for distorting their ideology than addressing the venom in the ideology itself.

In Pakistan, the liberal elements have always believed that the separation of Bangladesh was on a principled stance which included the demands of a secular constitution. Also, as a reaction to rights usurpation, a stolen election and injustices at the hands of the West Pakistan establishment.

However, despite escaping the theocratic leanings of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it is disheartening to see Bangladesh lose its way in terms of building a more tolerant, free and open society. Probably becoming even worse than Pakistan.

And the incumbent Bangladeshi government, which sadly borders more on the lines of authoritarianism and fascist nationalism instead of being a liberal regime, is not exactly helping the cause.

Not only are liberal circles outraged at the inaction of the government to counter the attacks, the recent statements of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina criticizing the bloggers for attacking Islam have only added insult to injury. While I do not doubt the government’s commitment to purge Bangladesh of extremism and recognize the challenges to take the necessary action, these are surely not encouraging signs.

The Islamist groups, the traditional nemeses of the secular leader, have ironically welcomed her statement against antithetical and faithless elements. While her statement seems like the product of the pragmatism of any politician in a Muslim majority country, it apologizes nauseatingly for the murderers and blames the victim. Basically, the same old reason why Islamists get off the hook every time.

The situation does not make the secular and liberal elements in Bangladesh too hopeful about their government, which apparently seemed tough on Islamists with all the JI death sentences but is not willing to protect freedom of speech. When it comes to apostasy and blasphemy, even Sheikh Hasina would not dare confront the Islamists. Perhaps wisely so, or it could possibly make the religiously conservative population go out of control.

But some of her critics have other problems with the history of the government of the ruling Awami League.

Considering the violence that erupted after the calls of the boycott of the polls by the opposition Bangladesh National Party, they have been blaming deaths such as that of Avijit Roy on the rival party so instead of the Islamist terrorists. The Prime Minister is still maintaining that stance. Not that the leading opposition party has any better thoughts to offer on the killings, being an ally of Islamist parties itself, citing “absence of justice” as the age-old reason.

Just like the rest of the subcontinent, violence and intimidation are not unheard of in Bangladeshi politics. The last elections were a clear instance to prove that point. Some bloggers have even reported to be threatened for criticizing the government, which probably gives you some insight into how deep this problem runs.

There is no wonder why citizens with secular and liberal are growing more frustrated by their government for not blaming and cracking down on the Islamist militants for the killings.

Whether the threats to bloggers and journalists originate from Islamist extremists or secular political groups, the only losers are freedom of speech, democracy and the people of Bangladesh.

However, the Bangladeshi government should at least admit the presence of Islamist groups in the country and must take decisive action against theocratic activity. When it comes to Islamist groups, proactive action is justified in order to control more attacks on non-violent political commentators and journalists.

1971 worked. Perhaps secular Bangladesh should consider starting another movement for liberation from authoritarianism and theocracy.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

The Foreign Hand Excuse

Karachi-Bus-Attack-news_184842_l

What do we need to absolve the usual suspects within the country of their responsibility? Just let someone utter these words that our ears always long to hear:

Foreign hand was involved.

Let us not doubt the words from our foreign office, for we don’t have the access to the information to either take their word for it or deny it. However, what is certain is the instantaneous told-ya knee jerk reaction deviating attention from the real problem that such statements trigger.

Incidents such as the Karachi bus attack targeting the Ismaili community, and other similar religious terrorism that has been going on for years, have much deeper root causes than just the foreign hand.  We better not shy away from the problem of religious extremism at home.

It is no secret that religious terrorist organizations run amok in Pakistan, despite scores of them being banned by the federal government, and quite a few of them targeted by law enforcement. Considering the power of religion in the contemporary Pakistani society, any government would think twice before even planning to initiate an operation against such culprits.

However, I cannot help but applaud the incumbent Information Minister Pervez Rasheed for his courage to speak against religious seminaries. A statement that has apparently attracted fatwas against him.

Not even the serving government officials are safe from fatwas. This only goes to show the perpetually threatening force of religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. An undemocratic entity that enjoys legitimized status in the Pakistani society. Considering how true they are to their faith, you can hardly blame them.

Even if we suppose that factors such as foreign intervention were behind the Karachi bus attack, it is not the foreign intelligence agencies that declare Shia infidels. It is not the foreign agencies that would publicly condemn them to death in sermons. The sectarian hate movement against the Shia is very indigenous, and if someone would advocate its foreign influence, it would only inconveniently point fingers to certain allies in the Middle East. But let’s just call that a vague conspiracy theory.

Until the Pakistani state takes the responsibility for not acting against religious political parties and sectarian terrorists, it would never be able to overcome the problem of terrorism. Even if foreign powers are exploiting such anti-state weaknesses in Pakistan, it is such elements of the Pakistani society that are at the heart of this problem.

Another thing that is at the heart of this problem is the faith of the people guiding them toward such belligerent behavior. Simply attacking religion of freedom by issuing draconian decrees regulating the time of the call to prayer would not suffice. The government should never hesitate to tread upon the religious freedom whenever it is threatening the individual liberty and security of the people. This is where sectarian terrorist groups must be proactively crushed.

It is true that having a secular constitution is not a guarantee to prevent the flourishing of religious fundamentalist terrorism. The growing Islamist terrorism against rational Bangladeshi bloggers is a demonstration of this notion.

Nevertheless, the government must promote religious tolerance instead of puritanism, but if it is finding it hard to do so, it can at least crack down on extremism for establishing law and order. Egypt is doing so, albeit with an undemocratic show of force.

Until and unless we stop apologizing for religious political parties in the name of choice and democracy, we would keep on falling in their trap of totalitarianism. And will remain tangled in the obsession with homogeneity and purity, which were apparently or allegedly the basis of creation of Pakistan, which continue to extend and evolve.

It is time to nudge the law enforcement operation to a slightly different, uneasy direction.

This post was originally published in The Nation blogs.