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”.

Advertisements

My Comment on Pakistanization: A Post by Syed Ali Raza Abidi

Apart from people fighting over how racist they are while discussing incidents of violence, sometimes words of sense appear on the pages of the Express Tribune as well. Oh, but then again, what I am talking about right now is not a work of a full-time professional columnist, so maybe that is why. However, let us come to the point. Pakistan right now seems to be passing through the darkest and worst of its phases ever since its creation in 1947. Pakistan is currently facing every possible problem which exists under the sun, let it be corrupt leadership, poor law and order, violence, lack of education and discipline, threat from terrorists, international pressures, a weak economy and even the worst natural disaster in recent history of the planet.

A coincidence? Maybe not, because in Pakistan, it doesn’t rain, but it pours. Some basic problems lead to many others. A lot of people can get you depressed with their words, but maybe not Syed Ali Raza Abidi. His recent post in the Express Tribune Blogs titled “Solving Our Problems: Pakistan-ization“, which offers solutions for a change, instead of the same old rhetoric of hopelessness and the same old mantra of “the end is nigh”. This is the reason why I have decided to mention this meaningful and constructive post here and to add further to it. I also added a brief and impromptu comment on the blog page.

A Secular Constitution, Education and Brave Leadership. Will solve many social problems. The goal must be Economic Freedom. One of the most meaningful posts that I have read on this site for a long time.

Although some people may not agree with the first three words of my comments. So let me address those first of all. Although it is a popular notion that the struggle for Pakistan was initiated for the Muslim community of the India under the Raj, so that is why many people believe that Pakistan should have a constitution with Islamic provisions, but that does not mean that Pakistan should not consider a Secular constitution like most sensible countries. Incorporating Islamic provision is not really an issue, unless they result in the preference of a particular community as compared to the others, and even worse, may not offer enough, and ideally equal civil rights to some communities.

It is useless to be too specific about it, but it is common sense if you look at it. Every citizen of Pakistan must have equal rights and the constitution should guarantee that. I don’t really understand why anyone should disagree. There should not really be a concept of a majority and minority community. I personally disapprove both these terms when it comes to communities. When every community and citizen has equal rights, why is one community a majority or a minority? What if the Sunni population is larger than that of the Shiites, and what if the Shiite population is larger than the Ahmedis? And the same applies to other religions like Hinduism, Sikhism and Zoroastrians. It does not matter because all are equal in importance. All are Pakistanis.

Maybe it is not possible to completely prevent social discrimination of communities which do not have the majority of population in a particular area, and this applies to anywhere in the world, whether you take the example of India or the United States, but at least Pakistan should correct the text book. It is important to do so. I think the most important step that any government can take is to change the communal based status of the constitution. This will be an important achievement, unless some crazy right winger registers a petition in the Supreme Court to get the amended constitution reversed to its miserable communal state. It will be the most tragic thing that will happen to the country since the 2010 floods.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone in Pakistan talks about it, and even the most progressive and secular parties of the countries assign no weight to it. Maybe they are afraid of the reaction of the people, who are under the false impression that Pakistan needs to have an Islamic constitution. There is no need to delete the Islamic provisions, if everyone agrees to that, but not if they are conflicting to the equality of civil rights. However, there is no need to paint a communal color to  the constitution anyway, so that no community in the country should feel left out. Only Muslims can be the President and the Prime Minister of the country currently. Pakistan should be an equal opportunity employer.

This was how the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a Twelver Shia by faith, but a Secular statesman in political vision, wanted the country to be like. Yes, he believed that the country should offer the freedom to Muslims to practice their faith, which they have, but he also wanted other communities to have equal rights in every way. They may have their freedom in the country, but we have to offer them their equal civil rights yet. The Ahmedis often complain of discrimination, and with a secular constitution, their complaints will be answered on a basic level at least. It is up to the Muslims to decide about their status as Muslims or Non-Muslims, but as far as ensuring  equal civil rights are concerned, that is the responsibility of the secular government.

I think we must not be emotional or sentimental in this regard, and must treat the matter pragmatically. This could solve a number of social problems in Pakistan and could prove the first step towards the education of the masses, which will further result in the eradication of communal prejudice, violence and sectarianism. Mr. Abidi talks about a solution in his post that as a nation we need to speak and face the truth. This is one truth which we have been avoiding for a very long time.

The blog post under discussion puts forth five very brief and strong points in his solution to the problems of the country, which are:

  • Separation of Religion from State
  • Bringing Uniformity to the Education System
  • Revamp and Revolutionize the Health Sector
  • Transparent Judiciary
  • Accountability with Honest Work by Citizens

While these points could never have been put in a better way, I only added a brave, honest and straightforward leadership to it, which should have a clear intention to work towards the progress of the country, unlike the passive establishment and the morally corrupt political leadership of the country. The bureaucracy, feudals and politicians of the country have been infested with corruption, which has become an integral part of the society, from the grass root level to the ruling elite.  And yes, the armed forces should be as accountable as any other Pakistani institution, because they ensure the existence of the country.

The people of Pakistan already realize the importance of an independent judiciary. But an important point was raised in the post under discussion that we must recognize the enemy within our ranks. It is the enemy within which is pinning the country down. As for the pseudo-intellectuals he talks about, well let’s just say that people find it fashionable to speak against their motherland. There can be no second opinion about the attention which the health sector requires. But education by far remains the most important element of the post. Unless the people are educated, do not expect any progress or improvement of any kind.

This means that the education facilities should reach every single village from Gilgit-Baltistan to Gwadar. Not only will this produce an economically self-sufficient society, but will also purge out the disease of acceptance of violence and prejudices in the society. A sincere and honest government can make that happen. We have all the funds we need. Once everyone is educated, and in a uniform system without abolishing the Madrassah system, there will be no more incidents like the Sialkot murder. Many in the West blame Islam for all the violence, but do not realize that actually the cause is lack of education. Why the educated Muslims around the world are not resorting to such violence?

I know it is easy to rant about it, but the right intention is all what is needed for offering a solution to the problems of the country. If you want to sum up the post under discussion, it can be done in just two words: “right intentions”. Moreover, Pakistan must work towards financial independence, no matter how difficult and hard it seems. This is the only way the country can break free from the shackles holding it down. This will also offer more diplomatic freedom to the country and greater influence among the nations of the world.

As for the pressures from the world powers in various areas, this is where the role of brave leadership comes into play. Leaders like Jinnah and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto have done that. It can be done again.

Things have never been worse for Pakistan. It is the perfect time to change.

The journey towards improvement can be begun

Facing the right way is needed to be done.

Why worry about the distance ahead

When you’re even afraid to take the first step.