One Good Reason to Celebrate the Valentine’s Day

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

Many of us are cynical when it comes to the Valentine’s Day. And for a good reason too. The Western and probably overly commercialized holiday makes you cringe. And of course, you don’t even need to focus on the harassment that ensues.

But we have forgotten in our sharp criticism that somewhere people with sincere expressions of love are celebrating this holiday too.

I know many people respond that they don’t need a specific day to express their love, because they do so every day. But perhaps we do since we are so lost in our materialistic pursuits in a gesellschaft.

How many times do you speak to a particular friend in a year? Let alone a love interest. At least I don’t nearly as many times as someone would expect, if at all. But I should speak for myself only.

But if none of these arguments make any sense to you, which is perfectly fine, there is one good reason that would help you celebrate Valentine’s Day. Or at least realize that it should not be taken for granted.

Don’t forget that Sabeen fought for the freedom to celebrate the holiday. I don’t know about most of you, but to me, Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to respect the memory of Sabeen, a true Pakistani free speech hero.

Well, now you would hardly find a trace of photographic evidence of this episode online because our overly concerned media publications worried about the sensitivities of their audience too much. However, like the photographs from the campaign, the courage of Sabeen Mahmud in the face of religious authoritarianism must not be erased from our memory.

We know for a fact that the campaign at least jeopardized her life thanks to the instant fatwa machines in the Karachi madrassahs. However, you could speculate if that was the only motive of her killer, if any at all. But that’s what they tell us.

With every forgiven attack and every neglected bit of hate speech and death threats, we are condemned to desensitize ourselves from this moral abomination. However, we are also condemned to put up with it, until we are not. Because in a land where morality is enforced by threatening the life of its citizens, the only law is that of the sword, not of some high moral divinity.

In a society, such as this, celebrating the Valentine’s Day is an act of defiance in itself. Especially when our courts issue verdicts such as banning the holiday in public spaces that defy the standards of civil rights. In some cases, it is even an act of sheer mad bravery. Not very different to what Sabeen did during her campaign challenging religious authoritarianism.

I am not a fan of mingling political statements with holiday celebrations at all. But this is one exception that I would not mind. So, when you celebrate Valentine’s Day in Pakistan, do keep in mind that in such a society, the holiday is more than just vain indulgence.

Isn’t it a good reason to celebrate?

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

To Amjad Sabri: Qawwali Never Hurt Anybody

Source: dawn.com

Source: dawn.com

A few days ago when I landed in Karachi for the first time since Sabeen’s murder, the first thought that struck me was that now this city was without her presence. This drove me into a state of temporary depressed state until I had other things to take care of to offer a distraction.

But I had pictured the scene of gunmen approaching her car and opening fire on her. I wonder how it would have felt. You can only imagine the horror.

Who could imagine, I guess you could, but even expect to bear that the happy-go-lucky, jolly and constantly smiling Amjad Sabri would meet a similar fate. He was killed pretty much in the same fashion as Sabeen on June 22.

The TTP Hakimullah Mehsud group has expected responsibility. Most likely for the same supposedly blasphemous Qawwali that got Shaista Wahidi into trouble for allegedly disrespecting Ali and Fatima. Everyone acting on those calls for violence and considering holy figures more important than human life ought to be ashamed of their morals. Especially blasphemy public inquistors like Mubasher Lucman and the petition filers Shauhada Foundation.

Now, the people are speculating on who murdered Amjad Sabri, whether it is the Taliban or was it a political assassination, or just personal rivalry?

Who cares? At this point in time, so many including myself are in shock and pain.

Perhaps not grief, because it was not someone very close and dear to us. I know some who knew hin somewhat closely and are very heartbroken. But this is all you can think of. The dull pain never goes away, as in the case of Sabeen and so many more who have lost their lives to mindless violence in our cities.

What if the murderer gets caught? Just like the one who killed Sabeen got caught and confessed?

What if we have the satisfaction of having them hanged? Would that bring him back?

Source: Shia Multimedia Team

Source: SMT

I am not sure of anything, but I am sure of this.

For no reason at all, the lives of his family are ruined, especially those of his children.

His widow has already been hospitalized after collapsing of grief. I don’t even want to imagine what she would be going through. What her children would be going through.

They must be wondering what did their father do wrong to deserve this? Especially because they must be religious.

We were never a nation that killed Qawwals. What is the matter with us?

His father Ghulam Fareed Sabri Qawwal performed his masterful Tajdaar-e-Haram in s period fresh with the Islamization from the Zia regime. No threats came to him, despite the Islamization at the time.

Why do these Taliban-like militants on the loose targeting Sufi singers today?

Would Ghulam Fareed Sabri had even the remotest of ideas that his son would be slaughtered in a country that adored and valued his work so much?

For a country that is known for the world for Qawwali, we got to ask ourselves. When did we start hating it?

Does the puritanism of the faith of some have grown more important than messages of peace and love?

Qawwali never hurt anybody.

Every moment of existence is becoming difficult in this suffocating mess.

I do not watch Pakistani TV channels much, but always enjoyed his full of life presence whenever I caught him.

I particularly look forward to his performance in Coke Studio 9.

His voice will always remain with us.

May his soul rest in peace.

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 2015: Sabeen Mahmud

Source: The News

Source: The News

There were quite a few Pakistanis braving their way through threats, intimidation, discrimination and hate, but who could equal the couragee that Sabeen Mahmud has inspired us with. She used to do things where others like me only talked from behind the closed doors of their comfortable lairs. She interacted with people and reached out instead of resorting to convenient misanthropy.

While most people thought she was targeted by people trying to silence, her fundamentalist killer confessed that he was offended by her Valentine’s Day movement, for which she was my hero in 2013. While some folks can still argue about what caused her untimely death, there is no argument over her brilliant resolve to say and fight for the right thing in an environment very hostile to free speech.

She is a free speech hero in the true sense of the word. Others can make claims, but she lived that and probably proved the point with her death-defying lifestyle. What makes her special was that she was a woman of action, not just words. Her death, by far the worst shock of this year, shook us to the core. But still, it is hard to express in words how proud I and many of my friends are of Sabeen. Long live her cause.

Source: Laal

Source: Laal

However, she is by far not the only free speech hero this year. In countries where curbs on free speech are a norm, there hardly ever is. Not unrelated to her accommodation of the talk about Baluch rights featuring Mama Qadeer at T2F in Karachi is Taimur Rehman of Laal, a professor of Political Science in the LUMS affiliated with the Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party. Taimur is known for speaking out about unpopular causes such as rights of minority religious groups and labor rights in a country very hostile to leftist parties.

What made matters even worse for Taimur Rehman was the smear campaign run against him by pro-establishment nationalists for speaking about Balochistan, particularly on mainstream media while he had no access to any such platform to clarify his views. The campaign largely condemnded him as a traitor and accused him of having links with Baluch nationalist separatists. It certainly takes courage to express political dissent as openly as Taimur does, but it goes to show how dangerous doing so still is in Pakistan, particularly with the history of bans on the Communist Party.

PervezRasheed-dawn-p-1

Source: Dawn

Another reminder why democracy is so important. Speaking of which, it is not everyday that a member of the government wins a nod in the Free Speech hero of the year post, but this year is an exception. Pervez Rasheed, the soft spoken but expressive Senator and Minister of Information from PML-N attracted the ire of the clerics and religious conservatives by his speech promoting rational education and condemning madrassahs or religious seminaries as “Universities of Ignorance.”  It’s a big deal coming from a government official of an Islamic Republic.

As expected, Pervez Rasheed was bombarded with condemnation, rather damnation of excommunication from the religious clerics, who bestowed all sorts of titles on him including Ahmedi, infidel, atheist and non-believer, not that anything is wrong with all that. However, that is a fundamentalist Muslim’s way of saying they hate you, and well killing you is alright.

This only goes to show that even government officials are not free from the attacks of religious conservatives for speech, that can potentially cost them their lives if not their positions. I am just glad that protests against him did not escalate as much as in the case of Pakistan’s first foreign minister Sir Zafrullah Khan for being Ahmedi. Because it very easily could have. The good news is that he is undeterred and still serving in the same position, and is a good example for the rest of the leaders in the government to follow for criticizing the role of religion in public life.

Read about the Pakistani Free Speech hero of the last year here.

Dangerous Estimations

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

A lot of people are shocked at the suspects captured for the murder of Sabeen Mahmud and the Ismaili community bus attack. Though there are many others who are not, whether any links are found with foreign intelligence agencies or not.

Many people are dumbfounded by the idea that graduates of the most prestigious secular educational institutes could be involved in such mindless, fanatic violence. A lot of apologists for religious seminaries are rather delighted that the fingers are being pointed toward students of schools and colleges. What they are completely ignoring is how comprehensively the effects of the teachings of their beloved seminaries and pulpits are engulfing the society. Actually, they should be proud of the results.

If these suspects did indeed commit these crimes, as at least one of them with a relatively “sinful”, affluent background has reportedly confessed, that alone is not evidence of the possibility of fundamentalist indoctrination of college students in our society. We know for a fact that there is a pattern. People living our educational institutions experience it firsthand every day.

The misconception that higher education completely turns you into a rational person that is peaceful in all respects is simply wishful thinking. This only goes to show how vulnerable our youth are to religious indoctrination. And if that is not a problem, they are certainly prone to fall for more stupid ideas at least. For example, killing people for “celebrating Valentine’s Day”, or because they happen to have a different religious sect or leader.

The biggest reason to that is that there is nothing about the technical scientific, though secular, education that shuts down the religious indoctrination on the side. As a matter of fact, technical education such as electrical and chemical engineering can only equip them with the necessary knowledge of executing their terrorist missions. Perhaps it would be realistic to expect college graduates to not to turn to religious fundamentalism, had critical reasoning been a mandatory course, just like Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies are in the junior grades.

Even that is not a guarantee that people would not fall for religious fundamentalism because you always have the option of not applying what you are studying. An option which can be as effectively exercised as shrugging off evidence that disturbs your worldview.

So when people are making assumptions such as these, they are making two critical errors. They are overestimating the structure of the secular education, which does not necessarily promise strict indoctrination, if any at all, of a system of morality. They are also underestimating the effects of religious indoctrination dedicated to the very goal, and the fears and desires of the human nature that it addresses.

We make such mistakes not only in commenting on certain tragedies and acts of terrorism, but even when we vote. And it is probably the same mistake when we apologize for the acts and beliefs of the more radical of the religious fundamentalists across the globe.

Of course, what is the harm in voting for a religious party? It is not like they are going to bring about a Khomeniesque revolution overnight, are they?

However, reducing the problem of religious fundamentalism among college students to the lack of rational application only undermines the problem. Approaching religious fundamentalism at college should also be seen as a political movement, not too different to any other college union, just like the leftists or right nationalists.

You can adhere to the idea that Sharia, or say Marxism, should be enforced in the country without giving a second thought to what the doctrine actually is. You don’t need to know what the ramifications would be anyway. If you do and still want it, even better. Makes you a better foot soldier for the cause.

Besides, it must be harmless if it is a divinely sanctioned code of governance and lifestyle. We’ll change.

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

Sabeen died for your Freedom

Source: The Nation

Source: The Nation

Sends shivers down your spine just when you think writing about Sabeen Mahmud.

Because no matter who you are, her closest of friends, or just someone whose life she distantly touched like mine, you cannot help but be in awe of Sabeen’s colossal courage. And I try not using that word lightly.

For the sort of acceptance free speech has in our society, her fearlessness and initiative were extraordinary. Shocking actually. And she was not going anywhere.

There is also a stark difference between her and all those who are writing about her. Sabeen was a person of action, not words. She lived what she believed in. Took action when others would hesitate and never follow up.

Her organization is reflective of this very fact. Instead of talking gibberish about solutions, she actually presented the claustrophobic Pakistani society with one. She showed the way to people to express themselves freely. She showed us that we should not wait for the government to make our lives better.

I very clearly recall the night in November 2013 when Shia-Sunni clashes erupted in the Raja Bazaar area last Muharram. Being in Karachi, she could not wait to send out a message of peace and condolence to the victims of a mosque attack on behalf of Pakistan for All. I wanted to go, but could not. Did not. Rather stay away from the riots targeting Imam Bargahs and the curfew that shortly ensued.

But it was her passion that made me feel ashamed of my lack of empathy for the victims of that riot, or my sheer lack of action. Of course, there must not be a single soul who would not be disturbed by sectarian violence including myself, but it’s reaching out that matters. Her messages and my lack of action are now going to haunt me forever. My self-esteem dwarfed by her towering, though selfless humanity.

Not just in humanity, but in sheer, fearless courage. For someone who received way too many death threats for her fair share, she was amazingly defiant. During her Valentine’s Day campaign, someone even issued a fatwa against her, or almost did. In other words, a lot of supposedly morally righteous people were pretty much after her life. Not that it deterred her in the least.

Finally, she probably went too far in the eyes of our deep state when she invited Baloch activist Mama Qadeer for the Unsilencing Balochistan talk that LUMS turned down for obvious reasons. The social media pages of her organization were apparently blocked because of that, which is a good sign that the state was targeting her cause. Whoever brutally murdered her, could the state be completely absolved of the way they targeted her organization?

Wusatullah Khan’s column, which is a resounding slap on the faces of her killers, report that she died satisfied that the talk went well. Nothing outrageous, inflammatory or offensive about it. Everybody went home satisfied. Sabeen too, only she didn’t reach her home.

Though in the eyes of the holier-than-thou patriots, that was one offense too many.

Why did she do it? Well, somebody has to fight. Somebody’s got to do it.

A lot of my rational friends cringe at my admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t care if he was a religious fanatic, or ridiculously devoted to peace and non-violence. I just admire the fact that he practiced what he preached, and so completely. Or at least he tried. I admire that because I know it’s very hard to do so.

I can hardly think of anyone else who lives so completely what they preach. Maybe Malala and Edhi are other such people. But if I were to think of someone else, hardly anyone but Sabeen’s name comes to mind. If people like her don’t leave you awestruck, then probably you have no idea what it takes to live like that.

If anyone from the youth is reading this, it is people like her who are fighting for your freedom, for true democratic values. This is what free speech is about.

To be honest, I have personally lost a lot of faith in this country today. But I am not sure if giving up is even an option if you are going to be fair to her legacy, as Jibran Nasir said. It is time to support her organization with even greater vigor and donate.

She had the option to live just like any of us. Keeping a low profile, being quiet, not involving themselves in these needless social problems. She even had the option of leaving Pakistan. That would have made a lot of sense after the Valentine’s Day campaign controversy. But guess what, she didn’t.

I just saw Kamila Shamsie’s tweet who asked her to be careful. She replied, in almost Geetaesque conviction, “somebody has to fight.”

She did not leave the battlefield. She waged war, with PeaceNiche.

It is the battlefield where heroes are needed.

It is in the battlefield that heroes fall.

It is up to us whether we take up and carry on her fight or not. Now that we got a hero in her.

But if you don’t, it’s alright because not everyone is that brave. I know I am not.

But I do know, for a coward that I am, that she died for my freedom.

Sabeen died for your freedom.

The post was originally published in The Nation blogs.

 

Islamabad Event on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Pakistan

Bytes for All, an organization dedicated to promoting internet freedom and free speech in Pakistan, organized an event in Islamabad on Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties on September 19, 2013. The event featured participants from all over Pakistan, including the FATA.

The event included three sessions, focusing on hate speech, fair trial and surveillance in relation to freedom of expression. The introductory speech was made by author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who primarily spoke about the human rights violations in Baluchistan by Pakistani security agencies. Hanif revealed that no less than 529 people have died over 5 years in such incidents, which involved torturing and mutilating the victim’s bodies beyond recognition.

Hanif also served as a panelist for the first session, along with Taha Siddiqui, Murtaza Solangi and Sabeen Mahmud. that focused on hate speech. The session was moderated by the flamboyant Ajmal Jami. Taha Siddiqui, journalist, presented the findings of his research report on the presence of terrorist organizations on the internet and the hate speech they propagate to find recruits. A participant objected that the report focused on only a certain kind of groups, which sounded reasonable, but apparently Taha’s focus was on emphasizing that terrorist groups were operating unabated in the country with a clear online presence and that authorities were not moving a muscle in response while banning other websites instead.

Murtaza Solangi, broadcasting journalist, defined hate speech for the audience and said that you should not impose your beliefs on others for harming them. What he did not explain was what if that was precisely what the beliefs required you to do. Mohammed Hanif was the one who actually briefly touched that aspect, emphasizing that you would not be able to take the poor people’s God away from them and that it simply would not happen. He also mentioned that it is hardly any use complaining about extremist militant groups if the state itself handpicked a community, namely the Ahmedis, during a democratically elected government and declared them literal outcasts by legalizing their expulsion from Islam and inviting hatred against them.

Sabeen Mahmud, the Karachi based founder of T2F, presented the hate messages and death threats, quantified on the Nafrat Aggregator, that she received in response to her controversial pro Valentine’s Day campaign in response to Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign of forbidding people to celebrate the holiday using Koranic verses and Hadiths. She offered a personal viewpoint on how it is like to be threatened with groups invading your free speech and right to life in that manner. The shocking aspect remains that most people in Pakistan would consider it their religious duty to violate other’s freedom and security like that, even though in this case, she had hardly done anything that can be considered wrong. I personally fully support her actions and consider her a free speech hero.

The second session focused on Fair Trial and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rabia Mehmood. The panelists included the eloquent Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, Safdar Dawar, a FATA based journalist and journalist Mahvish Ahmed. The most important point was made by Ijaz that legal jurisdictions and continued debate about fair trial, surveillance and privacy violations are necessary and will eventually make a continual but certain difference for the better. The session also focused on the implications of the vagueness of legal definitions. Dawar emphasized how FATA was not ruled by any court of law and that there was no way to address violations of civil liberties there. Mahvish Ahmed raised the importance of political solutions.

The third session focused on Surveillance and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rahma Mian. The panelists included Abid Imam, a lawyer and academic, Asim Zafar Khan, a technology adviser to the government,  Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All and Fahd Deshmukh, a technology expert and activist. The crux of the session was that surveillance was inevitable, so staying ahead of the technology curve is all that people could do. Abid Imam pointed out that avoiding surveillance is not even a declared fundamental human right in the law, and not one that states are likely to grant. Shahzad Ahmed spoke passionately about the need to reclaim the right of privacy and to raise voice against growing state surveillance.

The good thing about such events is that introduces a lot of people to the very idea of freedom of expression, which is pretty much alien to a society like Pakistan where questioning is discouraged and you are mostly required to practice self-censorship right from your childhood. However, when you hear about an event focusing on freedom of expression, you prepare yourself to reflect on a more academic discussion about the subject, especially focusing on the subtleties of hate speech and freedom of expression. It is not always the case when you get there and in this case discussion often deviated from the topic due to the line of questioning from the participants as well.

As a matter of fact, a lot of participants use the forum to bring forth other subjects than the one under discussion. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, as I understand many of these participants need a forum like this to be heard, but it is rather unproductive, time-wasting, largely distracting and drains a lot of energy of everyone involved.

The event was concluded after recommendations from the participants. While I believe that such seminars that educate people about freedom of expression are very useful, further interest among the educated general public could be stirred by holding public debates between liberal and conservative columnists and intellectuals who are for and against freedom of expression, instead of constantly offering a lecturing monologue.

If it does not convince more people of how important free speech is, it would actually make the anti free speech debaters look bad.