Tightening the Authoritarian Noose Around the People’s Neck

Source: flare.pk

Pakistan is not a country we should feel proud of anymore. It has increasingly become an entity that is acting hostile to the people it is supposed to stand for. This is clear and evident by the recent curbs on political freedom and freedom of speech in the current year reminiscent of the years of the military dictatorship in the country. However, the comment of the current Chairman PTA, who happens to be a military officer (surprise, surprise) is unprecedented.

The PTA Chairman Maj. Gen. (R) Amir Azeem Bajwa, whose name sounds eerily related to the current Army Chief, said that social media in Pakistan should be blocked in the manner of China and the UAE. He recommended that Pakistan should develop its own social media channels to allow for state censorship and censor inappropriate content. Appointed in December 2018, under the able leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, General Bajwa mainly focused on “blasphemous content” to make his case of taking away the right of citizens to use social media to express their voices. If anyone had doubts about democracy being under threat in Pakistan, this statement should remove it.

The Chairman PTA was testifying to the Senate panel examining purported grievances where he remarked that “either the technical abilities of the organization be enhanced or the allow them to block social media websites to stop the circulation of blasphemous material.”  Even though nobody is ever going to explain what a retired general is doing serving this position and one which he is most likely not qualified for, his comments will largely go unaccounted for other than some fringe criticism on the social media of all the places. Nobody is going to mention it on the mainstream media and any criticism on the national news is improbable.

Surely, for the PTA chairman, blocking more than 850,000 porn and news websites are not enough. It is pretty clear that for these state authoritarians, it is not nearly enough. They want to go after the internet itself and if not the internet connectivity to maintain a facade of modernity, they will neuter it to an unusable state-regulated version.

With the launch of CPEC development projects and the rolling out of the optic fiber link from Khunjerab to Gwadar, one of the biggest fears is the Chinese internet spilling over into Pakistan. While thankfully the CPEC projects in Pakistan have appeared to slow down, it has nevertheless inspired the civil and military bureaucratic despots at the reins of administration in this country.

Unfortunately, the narratives these anti-democratic forces have nurtured for the past seventy years have duped well-meaning conservative citizens into believing that their civil rights and political freedoms are bad for them and for the country. Even in the name of blasphemy and national security, there is no shortage of urban nationalist conservatives in the country who would gladly sacrifice the internet as a public enemy.

The greatest tragedy of all is the fascist administration of PTI, a party that was pretty much built by and through the power of social media, other than a little help of our military establishment of late. More than the duplicitous and malicious leadership of the PTI, the people who would be the greatest losers are the urban educated voters of the party who look down upon the traditional and less privileged voters all across Pakistan. The government they voted in might be infringing on their rights but they have a choice to speak up. Pretty soon this little freedom we have will be gone.

Pakistan still has a lot to lose, which it continues to lose every day.

Don’t You Dare Dissent

Source: The Daily Times

What is going on? The generation on the eastern bank of the Indus who was born after Zia’s period has never seen anything like this in their entire lifetime. And ironically, this is the generation that is standing up the most in dissent. Are they insane?

Their world view has been shaped by the ideals of Western democracy and is inspired by the recently concentrated focus on social justice. How can the activism triggered by these values be reconciled by the fact that they have been brought up in a faux democracy that has a violently grim history?

Well, nothing has changed as far as the Pakistani state is concerned. Except for they are not afraid anymore. Or so it seems to us, clueless commentators.

The revolution of dissent inspired by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement has even taken overnight arrests to the heart of Punjab. Of course, it has happened before the last time the PTM decided to hold a rally in the provincial capital of Punjab following the killing of activist Arman Luni. This time around, Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, a Cambridge educated progressive professor of Punjab University from Lahore, was apprehended at the strike of dawn from his residence.

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Ammar Ali Jan was later released and he articulated his ordeal in a column demanding for a new social contract.

Dr. Ammar Ali Jan was not the only facing the wrath of the authorities. This time the arrest was supposed to make more legal sense when Rizwan Razi was picked up from his home, in classic detention style by the FIA wing under the Cyber Crime Law passed under the last PML-N administration. While I and many prominent bloggers and journalists had a feeling what this, for which the previous administration, as well as the PPP controlled Senate needs to take full responsibility (although, of course, the terms were dictated from the bureaucratic state) but it’s sad how the assault on free speech has been meticulously legislated in Pakistan.

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So what’s next is the question. Banning twitter and facebook in Pakistan? We know these websites have been temporarily suspended from user access in Pakistan before. We also know that our state institutions have an army of trolls to defend the ideology of the state as well. But something on the lines may be days away because of the latest threat by the Ministry of Information, warning of strict action.

Unfortunately, we have a similar history of repression of political free speech throughout the history of Pakistan. Only recently the memo case against the former ambassador in exile, Hussain Haqqani, was dropped from the courts. That case was simply going nowhere and the court ended the hearings because the petitioners themselves were not interested to show up.

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The court simply concluded that the government should proceed against the Ambassador if it wishes to do so. Haqqani is known for his sharp anti-establishment political views about Pakistan and currently heads the Hudson Institute in Washington DC. Despite the hostilities at home, he remains committed to a free and democratic Pakistani society.

But that is not possible without civilian supremacy and a transparently functioning democracy in Pakistan. I know that the buzz is all about the India-Pakistan border conflict but these things also marked a very dark February in 2019.

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.

How We Treat Our Heroes

Source: Pakistan Today

The people who are at the helm of communication and authority in Pakistan often seem to be worried about the image of the country. They would go to great lengths to try, devoting all their energies to divert attention from all the bad news about Pakistan.

However, the same people would turn a blind eye when the heroes earning a good name for Pakistan are treated in a horrific manner if they ever differ from the state sanctioned views. Only recently, the way Gulalai Ismail has been treated with her passport confiscated and her name put in Exit Control List is just an example. All because of her support for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

This has been just a glimpse of the greater decay at the heart of the Pakistani democracy. A lot of commentators are saying that they have not witnessed such an assault on free speech even in the days of the Zia regime. Perhaps for the first time ever, armed guards from a security agency violated the sanctity of the Karachi Press Club.

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What is even worse, supposedly the most progressive parties are shutting their most brilliant and outspoken leaders down because they are expressing dissent with the Pakistani establishment. ANP has just recently suspended membership of Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar. This is what it comes down to when you talk about democracy in Pakistan.

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It probably would not have been half as much disappointing if it was just a case of Pakistani people giving up on democracy. Because unfortunately, that is what has been happening for decades now. Despite all the sacrifices from brave pro-democracy leaders, achieving what people like me cannot even remotely imagine about. What really breaks your heart is that this is how we treat our heroes.

A Fanatic Government Stance Laid Bare

Source: PTV News/geo.tv

There is little doubt that Geert Wilders is disingenuous when it comes to his intentions and goals when organizing the Draw the Prophet event. His main purpose is, of course, to get under the skin of Muslims around the world, especially because he precisely knows what sort of reaction he can get out of them. However, it is a free speech issue regardless of his controversial politics. The protesters thought of this idea when the mainstream Western media frequently began censoring itself whenever the depiction of Prophet Muhammad in media was involved out of the fear of backlash from the Muslim community.

The interesting thing is that no matter how civil the Muslim community tries to be in the face of such a provocation, there are always many who would resort to violence and death threats. One of the problems that more liberal Muslims are facing is that the religious orthodoxy not only permits but even encourages, violence against a person who is alleged to have blasphemed against. While liberal Muslims try their best to avoid that, the conservative far-right Christians, atheists, and other antithetical elements critical of Islam are well familiar with the weakness. Recall the Salman Rushdie Affair.

However, any of these violent actions remains to be acts of individuals. But what if the governments of a country engage in such policies. Of course, we have seen them before with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is even worse when that government is actually making that point from a moral high ground and lecturing others on human rights. The PTI government has vowed to raise the issue at the United Nations, other than calling the dysfunctional institution of Organization of Islamic Conference, giving Wilders a bigger audience than he could wildly imagine.

Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, had long been criticizing the Western idea of free speech by comparing Holocaust denial and desecrating the image of the Holy Prophet. He emphasized the same point in his special video message to the nation especially addressing the (non)issue. He points out that the Western viewpoint of free speech does not even understand the consequences of blaspheming against the Holy Prophet, which they see as freedom of speech.

Well, we can safely say that the Europeans have now understood that well enough ever since Charlie Hebdo.

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Geert Wilders, on October 30, postponed the Draw the Prophet contest citing death threats that he and people associated with the contest event were receiving. The PTI government started to claim the cancellation as an achievement of their “diplomatic efforts.” Not only has the government of Pakistan given such great importance to insignificant politicians such as Geert Wilders and his bigotry but has also exposed themselves as a state that does not respect freedom of speech. What is even worse is that the PTI

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The headlines shared by a local news channel are proudly displayed by the PTI KP Official account, which was retweeted by the official PTI account report the cancelation of the cartoon drawing contest as “a great diplomatic triumph.” The only problem is that the only diplomatic efforts that have been made to cancel the contest were the death threats made to Wilders and people connected to the event.

People all over the social media have been raising this point to criticize the government. The PTI has beautifully manipulated the issue in order to gain public approval in the manner of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan. And I am not even mentioning their ridiculous protest rally and threats endorsed by the Pakistani foreign minister, which openly called for war against the Netherlands.

But let us judge actions instead of intentions. With this claim of endorsement, PTI has laid bare its fanatic stance of endorsing death threats to a foreign lawmaker. While we are aware that Pakistan has blasphemy laws which openly endorse potentially capital punishment for alleged blasphemies, emphasizing such a narrative on the international level and shamelessly claiming something that had nothing to do with them. Pakistan has indeed endorsed terrorism before, so why should this time be an exception?

The Trouble With Being a Liberal, Non-Practicing Muslim Dissenter

Source: Washington Times

There is no denying that hate against Muslims is a real phenomenon around the world. But if someone said that Muslims have earned a great deal of that hate, it would probably not be too much of a stretch. A recent article by Khalil Yousuf, an Ahmediya Muslim (whose community isn’t even accepted by other Muslims in many major Muslim countries), makes the case for shutting down Geert Wilders’ Draw the Prophet contest event because it is hate speech. No, it is not shouting “fire” in a theater. It is simply playing the movie in it.

The premise of the article is that Europeans should stop organizing such hateful contests because it hurts the sentiments of Muslims and incite people to commit violent hate crimes against them. People would have greater sympathy for his case if the Muslim reaction to this alleged piece of bigotry was not this violent and outrageous. To his credit, perhaps the very small and heavily persecuted Ahmediya community has never displayed such violent language but not so much the case with the much larger and dominants Sunni and Shia schools. The Charlie Hebdo killings happened because actually a bunch of Muslims got to practice what the majority believes should be done with those who desecrate the name of the Prophet. We never got the memo when this sort of behavior became compatible with liberal ideals or democracy.

The reason why conservatives and right wingers need to push the limits of free speech is that liberals have given up on that idea. What is even worse, secularism is now losing its ground thanks to liberal governments appease such religious extremists around the world. No wonder there is a resurgence of right wing nationalism around the world.

Decades long pandering to the extremism of Indian clerics, all in the name of the rights of Indian Muslims, has led to a resentment among the Hindus which has brought us to the civil rights disaster of the cow witch-hunt vigilantes and the future of a potential Hindu Nationalist state under Prime Minister Modi. And the sad reality is that his followers in India has started taking the secular nature of their democracy for granted. This is why I endorse provocative statements such as India becoming a “Hindu Pakistan,” made by Shashi Tharoor, because this is the perfect analogy to make people understand the risks.

Not to say that the Congress is the only authority on secularism in India. Sometimes, the political difficulty of taking a stand against such behavior can be immense, as in the case of the Salman Rushdie affair but probably the Congress is suffering the consequences of its past policies today, other than lacking leadership that could inspire the people like Modi. There indeed was a time when the more secular Indian National Congress used to sweep the elections. The people are disillusioned for a reason.

Now Islamophobia (or Muslimophobia as some would prefer to call it) is very real. And interestingly, you cannot disconnect the image of Islam from it. The family and friends of any atheist or dissenting liberal Muslims will remain on the radar of bigots all around the world, whether India, America or Europe. Furthermore, no matter how disconnected they are to Muslim extremism or even the religion of Islam, they will never be fully seen removed from the identity of their religion of birth, unless they are someone very outspoken and famous like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But telling people to shut up because Muslim sentiments are being hurt and threatening to destroy them in one breath does not go a long way to win hearts and minds either.

So, what is a liberal, non-practicing dissenter Muslim to do to survive as an individual? How can Muslims express dissent from the orthodox theocracy without further exposing the community to the risk of hate crimes? Should Muslim dissenters continue to call for reform in Islam, as has happened in Judaism, like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali or defend the existing absurdities like the majority of Liberal Muslims banking their hopes on different interpretations? Or should the atheists among them simply condemn the idea of Islam altogether such as Armin Navabi? I guess nobody knows the answer.

This article was originally published in MyNation.com

A Wake Up Call for the Interior Minister

Source: Dawn

Ahsan Iqbal is easily one of the most dignified, educated, and well spoken politicians in Pakistan. He is a visionary and has been promoting a progressive economic vision since the earlier terms of PML-N.

He became an unlikely candidate for the position of Interior Minister when the self-righteous Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, an ultra conservative pro-establishment PML-N dissident, stepped down. When the Prime Minister was also disqualified, the tensions got even more intense and paved way for Ahsan Iqbal’s rise to the powerful but controversial position of becoming the civilian security boss of the country. Many expected that the position will not suit him well, a man of a scholarly background. Especially because it was in this current tenure that the social media was blacked out during a protest for the first time in history in Pakistan.

Back in November, when Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah was occupying the parliament square in Islamabad, the greatest test came of his leadership. His resolutions to the problem drastically failed when due to the unwillingjness of the military, a half backed operation ended up further strengthening the hands of the rogue Labaik Tehreek Ya Rasool Allah, a radical Barelvi political cult whose agenda is to reinforce the laws about the Finality of the Prophethood and to make life further miserable for the already marginalized Ahmedi community of Pakistan. Ahmedis are perceived as a threat by orthodox religious Muslims in Pakistan to the tenet that Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, even though the Ahmedis respond that they share the same belief.

The recent controversy over the Ahmedi oath for the parliament members sparked the protest in the first place with the blame falling on the , apart from generally on the entire leadership of PML-N. Sunni clerics even issued fatwas that voting for the party was haram or forbidden.

Despite the threat to the party, and some would say that particularly because of it, the PML-N federal government decided to appease the extremist Muslims by making laws about blasphemy and speech even stricter. The Ministry of Interior, as well as the National Counter Terrorism Agency, are running campaigns that openly call for people to hunt for perceived blasphemies in the guise of acting against hate speech. While such narrative has not been started by the Government of Pakistan so proactively, as you can thank the narrative of the local cleric for that, it has emerged with full force as a countering reaction to unpopular speech on social media.

Today, hours ago actually, Ahsan Iqbal was shot at by an angry citizen in a meeting with the constituents in his native Narowal District. Fortunately, the bullet only brushed his arm and his life was spared. The would-be assassin Abid Hussain has been captured and he has confessed to have made an attempt on the Minister’s life because of the “Finality of Prophethood” or “Khatm-e-Nabuwat” issue.  While this complex term may not mean anything to most people, it is the article of faith of the Muslim population, and takes an extreme in the more radical elements of the Barelvi sect that is particularly devotional to the Prophet.

Source: Times of Islamabad

While the Minister has been lucky, all the citizens hunted by the extremists such as his assailant are not so much. Especially when the one putting them to death is the judiciary. The 30 year old blogger who got convicted by the court for just expressing himself was not so lucky. Often people tend to forget how harmful and dangerous these so-called responsible information campaigns are. And it is important to remember that government campaigns calling for reporting blasphemy are as dangerous in creating the mindset that resulted in the attempt on the life of Ahsan Iqbal as the hateful teachings in the mosque.

I wish the Interior Minister will consider this unfortunate event a wake up call. We are very happy that he is safe but it is time that he starts thinking about safeguarding the speech and lives of his citizens. Of course, he can’t fight the atrocious courts in Pakistan but at least he can tone down the explicit witch hunt. Or the same poison that stung him today could get just about any one of us.