My Pakistani Person of the Year 2017: The Missing Blogger

Source: Beena Sarwar

Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Salman Haider and the original Bhensa, with all of them largely unrelated but contributing in their own right to the cause of free speech, other than many more bloggers that have been abducted by the Pakistani deep state have made an impact on the society never seen before in the country.

This is the effect of the age of social media.

The year 2017 revealed the ugly, draconian face of the government and the state of Pakistan to its relatively insulated urban population like never before. I came to know first about the urgency of the issue when American scholar Christine Fair tweeted about the safety of Bhensa, a satirical antithetical blogger known for his scathing criticism of Islam in particular, and who obviously got harassed by patriotic bloggers in return.

Pakistan has always been an undemocratic and authoritarian country in its true essence. Meet its figures in the government, even including many in elected office, and their view on state affairs and the people of Pakistan are bound to disappoint the democrat.However, the abduction of the dissident bloggers finally truly revealed the state of democracy and freedom of speech in Pakistan to the entire world, with the most prominent news media around the globe covering the news from the New York Times to the Daily Telegraph.

The civil protest against the abduction of the bloggers still was not quite near as strong as it should have been but it did attract attention around the world. One nightmare that the Pakistani military establishment is not used to is the urban civilian educated population protesting against it.

The way the Pakistani deep state entities have approached the dissenting bloggers really reveal the thought process behind repressing political dissidents in the country. Things were going all smooth with the detention and extrajudicial killings of the Baloch resistance at home but considering the local backlash and the critical coverage in the international media about the blogger issue, perhaps this is the reason why all three of the most prominent bloggers were returned home unlike people finding their roadside corpse as previously found in the case of journalists like Saleem Shahzad.

The page Bhensa reappeared as well. However, there are still question marks behind the true identity of Bhensa thought to be Ahmed Raza Naseer of Nankana Sahib, another one of detained and acquitted bloggers, but one way or the other, the page has arguably never been restored to its original expression since the abduction. On facebook, the Bhensa ID is used to actually run an anti-liberal page.

All the returned bloggers said that they were tortured in their own way. Some like Netherlands based Goraya, perhaps the most defiant of them all, were more vocal and more explicit about what happened to them. He also directly accused the Pakistani military while speaking in the a side event of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Others like Salman Haider were far subtler, being a gentle, poetic soul caught up in the storm.

A national campaign of disinformation was launched by the trolls and journalists on the dark side to accuse the detained bloggers of blasphemy. Prominent news anchors and social conservative anchors, some of which are often the usual suspects for any cause backed by the deep state, were in the forefront to build up public anger and hate against the liberal bloggers.

Something which the state apparatus strongly backs to this day as new ways of legitimizing the hunt to crack down on free speech are being put into effect. Blogger Taimur Raza became the first to be sentenced to death for blasphemy on social media by a “counter-terrorism court.” What a joke! Another Ayaz Nizami is under detention for the same accusations. Back in August, even Punhal Sario, a Sindhi activist campaigning for the return of missing activists is thought to go missing himself. Most recently, peace activist Raza Khan has gone missing with no resolution to his case to this last day of 2017.

But it was not revealed who the great souls of justice were who were dispensing justice to the blaspheming bloggers. Only recently have the bloggers been acquitted by the courts of any such allegations due to the complete lack of evidence. Which begs the question why the dangerous tradition of blasphemy hunting goes unpunished and without reprimand in Pakistan. And like always, you could count on the disgusting goons of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah to harass and pelt stones at the activists supporting the bloggers.

However, I do not consider this verdict as a moment to celebrate as such since the legitimacy of these courts has already been tarnished for standing behind the draconian blasphemy law and announcing death sentences to freethinking citizens who committed no offense to humanity.

Despite the efforts of cover up by mainstream media in Pakistan, which is in the complete clutches of the military establishment, and despite other distractions on the political front, the impact the missing blogger has made on the civil society has proved to be the most moving. This issue has raised questions about the conscience of the society claiming to protect free speech and democracy.

They have been currently haunting M. Jibran Nasir, arguably the most progressive voice in mainstream politics, and an honorable mention is due for my Pakistani of the year 2014. The notorious TV Channel Bol Network has been in the forefront of targeting Jibran Nasir for raising his voice for the rights of Ahmedi citizens, which in his opinion is due to his opposition to the acquittal of the murder of a Karachi youth named Shahzeb at the hands of the son of a feudal from the Jatoi tribe. Whatever may be Jibran Nasir’s reasons, I don’t think there is anything wrong with talking about changing the Second Amendment, and same goes for Minister Zaid Hamid et al.

In 2017, an elected Prime Minister was disqualified and ejected by the Supreme Court and when a group of Barelvi clerics brought the state down to its knees. But none of that matters and have had an impact on the consciousness of a nation like the missing blogger, perhaps only second to the brutal murder of Mishaal Khan, which arguably was largely ignored anyway.

But these missing bloggers still came from some layers of privilege in the Pakistani society, but as many of them have been pointing out like Sabeen, who is going to care about the struggle of the missing persons in Baluchistan?

Read about my Pakistani person of the year 2017 here.

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Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2017: Mishaal Khan

Source: Dawn

For a country that is so hostile to free speech, it is remarkable how many free speech heroes we have in Pakistan. You might hold a dissenting view or two, but if you have not been menaced by the mobs yet, chances are you are not taking half of the risk that could possibly have an impact on this obscurantist society. However, some go even beyond that knowingly or not and end up exposing the hideous, decaying collective moral state of a people.

Mishaal Khan became a free speech martyr in April this year to a case of brutal flogging by a lynch mob that shook the entire world. It also supposedly shook Pakistani Muslims who suspected that the Mardan University student probably deserved it and paid the price for it.

You don’t necessarily have to be killed to be a free speech hero… or let us just say not killed yet. Anyone who is putting their voice out there. Mishaal Khan, a brave student activist and political worker, did the same despite being surrounded by obscurantist and totalitarian religious extremists, whose views could possibly qualify them as mentally ill and psychopaths in a more civilized society.

The Mishaal Khan’s murder is significant considering how it reveals the sheer brutality and lack of moral sensibility in general in the society in Pakistan. But more than that, because it is shockingly symbolic of the struggle between education and obscurantism, between enlightenment and ignorance, between knowledge and violent superstition. Mishaal Khan, a student, was killed in an educational institute by other students. Perhaps it must take an irony as brutal as this one to help someone understand the battle of free speech in Pakistan.

You could say that people like Mishaal are looking for trouble in an obviously bloodthirsty society. Well, they are better than you and me because they are doing what they are supposed to do without fearing for consequences and despite that knowledge. However, it will be idiotic to say that Mikaal got what he deserved or that he was looking to die. And speaking your mind should not be considered committing suicide.

Mishaal Khan’s family has been as brave as their slain son and the way they have stood by him is the dream of every fighter for freedom of speech in Pakistan. Imagine their helplessness and suffocation, yet another manifestation of the forces of ignorance laying a siege around the enlightened and the freethinkers.

Bushra Gohar speaking at the Mishaal Khan protest in Islamabad

Even though he died alone, Mishaal left many of his allies in unity, albeit with a weak impact on an authoritarian society. There are so many more free speech heroes in Pakistan. People like Pervez Hoodbhoy, Bushra Gohar, Marvi Sirmed and Farzana Bari who were at the forefront of protests against Mishaal’s murder in Islamabad and especially people like Asma Jehangir who are taking on the military establishment heads on. Curiously, some of our politicians also deserve a place in this list in their resistance to the deep state. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif became the first top diplomat in a long time to concede that entities such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba were a burden on Pakistan and Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal who condemned fatwas of apostasy and blasphemy on the national assembly floor. And especially all of those who protested the murder of Mishaal Khan and those of the missing bloggers and activists. A special mention in this post remains to be for the many bloggers resisting the oppressive state in Pakistan but there is a more special place reserved for them.

Pakistan remains to be a battlefield for free speech like so many other countries in the world. But the battle in Pakistan is unique because of the character of this nation-state in terms of its cultural, ethnic, religious and political diversity despite the apparently monolithic state. And whether the people win this battle or not, we must not go down without a fight.’

Read about the Pakistani free speech hero of the year 2016 Qandeel Baloch here.

Shame on Pakistan

Source: AFP/geo.tv

It greatly pains me to write these words but I cannot help but express my disappointment in Pakistan in the harshest of words on this day.

You would probably live with this situation (as if we the citizens had a choice?) if things were a bit more balanced and saner at some level somewhere. On one hand, you have a nation content and proud of some of the most discriminatory provisions in the constitution taken as a fair social contract. On the other, you have a group of mullah bandits who have taken the entire nation hostage by emotionally blackmailing them in the name of faith and the love of the Prophet. When you are a Muslim, you are forced to believe their bigotry disguised as passion and love for the Prophet. If you don’t, you are an infidel. A Qadiani sympathizer.

In Pakistan, bigotry has become the highest standard of piety and religiosity.

How can someone with a slightly saner worldview find any hope in a place like this? In a place where perhaps the best strategy to fend off these ills and threats is to remain silent. The November 25 clash between the mullah protesters and the state, ironically two sides of the same coin, is a terrible instance of this fact. What was even worse is that in the face of this blatant religious bigotry, the state, which is supposed to protect the citizens, ends up punishing the citizens for the crimes of a few. In perhaps the first time in my living memory, I have seen the government block the social media, facebook, twitter and youtube, other than the private TV channels just to deal with a riot in Islamabad. This confirmed any misconception that we were living in a democracy of some kind. This needless information blackout is a great stain on the record of the new Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who is otherwise considered a very forward-looking politician.

Source: Hindustan Times

To add insult to injury, on the world news, the very next story following the sit-in protest crackdown was the US denunciation of the release of Hafiz Saeed, the terrorist leader wanted by India for Mumbai attacks. This was the world’s view of Pakistan on November 25. Even the high ministers and superiors in the echelons of the government are blind to what picture of the country is presented by this state of affairs to the world. Either that or there is nothing in the world that they can do. It is remarkable how they expect foreign entities to even visit Pakistan with this sort of air, let alone invest their capital in it.

Forget foreign investment and the global image, all of these are only more reasons to leave Pakistan for a humane country. All of these are more reasons to stop believing in Pakistan and to stop defending it, rooting for it or supporting it.

November 25 showed Pakistan’s true face to the world. A raving mad and bloodthirsty public infected with Islamic extremism and a draconian, undemocratic government misleading its citizens and enabling their viciousness.

Copy of the concluded compromise agreement

To further humiliate the government, the selectively just military of Pakistan refused to partake in the operation against the Barelvi protesters, terming them “our own people.” The terms on which this protest has ended on November 27 sound humiliating as well with the government succumbing to the demands of the sit-in protesters, which they have been resisting up till that point. Other than the resignation of the accused Law Minister Zahid Hamid, the compromise agreement called for an inquiry to penalize those who had made the amendment in the statement pertaining to the anti-Ahmedi oath. The Islamabad High Court has slammed the military’s role in this negotiation but we have a lot more to be alarmed about this. Wish our judiciary had too. This essentially means that even suggesting to propose an amendment to these draconian theocratic laws could possibly mean prison time if not death sentence, confirming Pakistan as a theocracy like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

November 25 will go down in history as a dark day for the people of Pakistan.

On this day, everyone should be ashamed to be a Pakistani citizen.

What Independence Means After 70 Years

Source: BBC

Well, here is the 70th anniversary of the independence and we are supposed to be ecstatic.

Just imagine how it would be like on the 75th anniversary, or on the centennial, for that matter.

Well, I wish.

Because in my entire life, I have never felt more suffocated by Pakistan than on the 70th anniversary. I have never known Pakistan like I have on the 70th anniversary.

Never more disillusioned, nor more disappointed. It is like living in a prison with walls closing in that you would want to escape. But forget me. I feel for the 200 million others, most of who don’t even feel the suffocation that they are being subjected to.

It has been 70 years and still, there is no respect for a citizen of Pakistan.

It has been 70 years and still, there are people who are being harmed and abused by the state.

It has been 70 years and still, an elected leader has not completed their term, and one just got dismissed in a judicial coup.

It has been 70 years and still, Pakistan remains to be a theocracy.

The fact of the matter is that the minority religious groups are constantly jeopardized and marginalized by a hypocritical and morally

There are people in this country who will deny the rights to other communities for which they have claimed to win a separate country.

And in the same breath, they would complain about corruption and justice and transparency.

It is disappointing, to say the least.

The very root of this country is infected with a moral corruption that seems incurable at worst.

It is unfortunate that we still have people in this country who are not willing to give marginalized communities a chance in this country.

It is unfortunate that we still have people who would not agree to a fair social contract in this country.

Then there are people who say that freedom would remain to be an abstract, relative concept for every individual and group anyway?

So why celebrate the independence of a political regime after all?

But so much for being a contrarian.

So they tell us to celebrate 70 years.

70 years of independence from the British colonists? Yes.

70 years of independence from ignorance, tribalism, obscurantism, tyranny, and theocracy?

70 years of freedom of speech or freedom of political association?

NO.

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.

What Purpose Does the Blasphemy Law Actually Serve?

Source: The Nation

We all know that the blasphemy law is supposed to punish the offenders who desecrate the good name of God and the Prophet, or commit a similar offense against religion. And there is really no doubt that blaspheming against holy persons and entities is indicative of a lack of sensitivity and regard toward religious communities. However, people like to debate whether the offense warrants penalties as strict as death and life imprisonment or even any at all.

There is no debate possible in the country in its present climate whether the blasphemy law should be repealed or not. However, fortunately, many of the people, including some very smart mainstream religious scholars from both Sunni and Shia traditions agree that there are margins of improving the law. In other words, many people concede that the law is being abused or that there is a possibility of abusing it to settle personal scores. This is keeping the next-to-none debate of amending the law alive, where it is important to keep in mind that most people are not willing to compromise on the prescribed penalty.

That is still progress nevertheless. To the common religious conservative citizen, the law must be about penalizing the blasphemer and it becomes a matter of the “rule of law.” However, this is merely an instrument of asserting the political authority of a community. It is basically a reminder of who is in charge, or what is in charge, relevant in this case. There is a reason why blasphemers happen to only target Islam in a country of more than 200 million.

But even if you are in the “amend-not-repeal camp,” I wonder with these motives behind it, people who matter would actually be willing to even agree on any changes to the law. We all know how Senator Sherry Rehman was threatened when she tried proposing her amendments. Even if the majority agrees on such an amendment, the small but forceful minority would see to it that they have their way. There obviously is little hope but to try convincing people to improve the law. However, banking your hopes on that also points toward a fundamental misunderstanding of why the law exists in the first place.

So, if you missed the memo, initiating discussion of the misuse of the law also becomes an offense to the authoritarian religious conservative. That is a fine line to tread on as slips like the late Governor Taseer calling it a black law could cost you dearly. But even if you are super careful and respectful, you are still challenging the very authority that the blasphemy law formulated under Zia is designed to keep, instead of offering an equal opportunity of complaint to all.

While this may have prevented an average citizen from the fanaticism of the minority religious communities, it has made those communities very prone to damage. Especially the helpless individual citizens from those communities who always end up paying the highest cost. It is simply their misfortune that their fellow citizens want nothing to do with knowing their troubles.

The blasphemy law under Zia was passed under the threats of clerics and it is maintained by similar vows. It was a comprehensive push against the secular side of the state, which had since grown weaker by the day. And since the penalties are as per the prescription of the Sharia according to most scholars, amending how the law is enforced would be a push against the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic against secular entities, if not about upholding the word of God. After all, the JI Emir complains that Pakistan is not an Islamic State.

Even when common citizens or scholars agree on the problems with the law, the blame often goes to the secular law enforcement instead of the violence it is encouraging. Vigilantes are arrested alright, but this is seen unfavorably in general, thanks to legends like Ghazi Ilm Deen. However, the act of vigilante violence is disapproved by conservative elites who prefer the victims to hang after a trial. This is why we must have the blasphemy law. Even though they choose to ignore how free our judges are in terms of passing the verdict in such cases and how it encourages religious extremism.

While Mashaal Khan’s tragic killing has opened a window to start this conversation, it is not as if the other side is giving even an inch other than tolerating slightly dissenting comments and pieces in the media. That too, because let’s admit it, Mashaal’s death was too brutal for even most blasphemy law supporting religious conservatives in Pakistan. But the underlying problem remains the same and only time will tell if the ice would break.

We do make a lot of fuss about the blasphemy law and its abuse. While there has been a sharp rise in cases registered since the amendment under Zia, the secular judiciary has refrained from passing many harsh verdicts. Call that denying justice, it hardly matters as hate speech like “Off with the head of the blasphemer” dominate every town in Pakistan. It is almost an article of faith.

.

We are at a point far from arguing or talking reason. Perhaps we would be if the intent were just to penalize the offenders.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

Why We Badly Need to See a Therapist As a Nation

Source: geo.tv

In a saner world, or let me rephrase that even before I begin…

In the real world, such behavior is easily considered to be mentally unstable. A serious problem. Yes, even in Pakistan.

On an evidently non-violent trigger, anger fits so severe that you end up possibly and at times actually killing a human being. Even doing the same to a non-human animal would warrant serious investigation but of course what really matters is how good you feel at the end of the deed. Nobody wants to burn in the agony of repressed anger about God knows what.

Let the rage out. It’s good to let the poison out. But also focus on the positive things in life. You know, surround yourself with positive people. But still does that make this problem go away?

And what is the solution to this sort of behavior? What would you suggest for an individual displaying such dangerous, out-of-control behavior? Or even worse, a large group of individuals displaying shockingly identical symptoms. Now it is easy to condemn and dismiss a large group of people just like that, but what about offering a real solution.

The latest episode of rage is an undeniable symptom and evidence of such a condition among our nation.

I don’t know about you but when I experienced not-so-similar and far less dangerous anxiety and compulsive symptoms, I went to a psychiatrist. I was prescribed some medicine and now I feel much better, or I am trying at least. Now I know while there is no way you can make the problem disappear completely, you can at least manage it and become socially acceptable.

There really is no taboo in mental illness, especially when you acknowledge that you are going to act to treat it. Of course, no one chooses their mental disease but they can sometimes choose to keep people around them from suffering the consequences.

It is more difficult to diagnose and treat mass hysteria though. Especially when it is mixed with a strange mix of illusions, delusions, and paranoia of an extreme nature. They have an altered version of reality.

However, it is just a thought that we may go on with this sort of inappropriate behavior or start facing the reality of our condition and to start treating it. While I know that it is hard for an entire nation to see a therapist or be prescribed an SNRI or an antipsychotic for curbing the violence in our heavily indoctrinated nerves, we could start doing so in an individual capacity.

Mashaal Khan – Source: wire.in

Doing so might limit incidents such as the lynching and public humiliation of Mardan journalism student Mashaal Khan at the hands of his fellow campus mates in Abdul Wali Khan University for committing a blasphemy, allegedly or not.

This is not normal if you think it is. It is just a socially acceptable mental disease. And estimating very carefully, we badly need some help. Which means seeing a well reputed, qualified psychiatrist who can prescribe antidepressants and anti-psychotics, whatever is needed in each deteriorated case.

However, you could choose to make matters worse if you think that the local cleric in your mosque is a good substitute to a psychiatrist. Or especially if you think he is more qualified. That is why we have this role in our society and economy.

But of course, all the rational prescriptions to this condition would sound not only ridiculous but outrageous and offensive when religion comes into the picture.

In that case, even the most savage behavior somehow becomes the most enviable sign of high piety.

In that case, diagnosing, prescribing and helping become acts of blasphemy.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

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