Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2013: Sabeen Mahmud



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”.

The Example of Shahbaz Bhatti


There are not a lot of countries which have to endure unpleasant occurrences such as the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, since which a year has passed on March 2 this year, but even rare are examples set with such crude nudity and such evident clarity that religious extremism can really plague a society like a cancerous tumor. Pakistan is one country that proudly boasts fundamentalism as a part of its dysfunctional constitution and law.

Like always, you cannot be absolutely sure about who did it but the evidence and the messages left at the spot clearly point towards the Pakistani Taliban, a separatist faction which wants to enforce its brand of militant Shariah in the country, which many argue is what the Shariah is, but that’s another subject. It is thought that Bhatti was assassinated for his criticism on the Blasphemy Law. Ever since he has been silenced, so have been most of the voices in the country who were outspoken about it.

In any case, this pretty much puts to rest any false assertions about the Islamic constitution and law, or at least an Islamic Republic, protecting minorities. Even if that is true in theory, it certainly is not in practice. This is usually what I tell Muslim Pakistanis, like many other people who support a Secular constitution and law, that no matter how much you are confident about the provisions in the Islamic law, or Shariah, to protect the minorities, that is not how non-Muslims see that law and that is precisely the reason why there should be an “agreed upon” and uncontroversial constitution and the law, which should not be disputed by any party. As a matter of fact, most of the non-Muslims will immediately raise objections as soon as they hear about the Shariah or the Islamic Law.

People may or may not agree with it, but Bhatti’s assassination has been an alarming point raising question marks about the kind of protection the law and constitution of the country offer to its citizens. I am not talking about communities and minorities here because it sort of disturbs me calling for the rights of this community and that community. Every citizen has their rights and we don’t really have to refer to people as minorities, as if they are not completely a part of the society.

The bottom line is that Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination has been a wake up call for the Pakistani state and especially the Pakistani people that only a secular constitution, which is not loaded with communal bias, is the foundation to the solution of the problems of the country regarding civil rights.

To remind you of the neverending need for protest and the great struggle for civil rights in Pakistan in the face of pointless religious extremism, leaving you with the best sign spotted in a Shahbaz Bhatti assassination protest.

Hope she gets heard some day.

One of the best signs ever seen in a Shahbaz Bhatti assassination protest rally. Source: Abid Nawaz/Express Tribune

Shahbaz Bhatti – Another Martyr for Sanity

Shahbaz Bhatti (1968 - 2011) - Source: AFP

To some people the fact that the Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on March 3, was not a surprise after what happened to the late Governor Salmaan Taseer, but it is yet a huge and shocking tragedy. The pamphlets that were left behind at the site of crime were from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, the Punjabi wing of Taliban, which read that death was the only punishment for blasphemers of the Holy Prophet. This terrorist organization also accepted the responsibility for his assassination.

This is kind of confusing because Shahbaz Bhatti was not a blasphemer. But anyway, how many times have people discussed that. Some of the people also think that there is an international conspiracy behind his murder to defame Paksitan’s name (as if we need their help), but for the sake of argument, let us also consider that possibility.

But the question to ask, again, is what Pakistanis are doing themselves? What the religious leaders in Pakistan, and the silent moderate Muslim majority of the country fail to understand completely is that just stating that Islam is a faith that takes care of the security and rights of the minorities is not enough. The whole world can clearly see that it is not the case, since the recent protests against the proposed bill to amend the Blasphemy Law involved clerics openly calling for death of the people criticizing the law publicly.

Imagine what would have been going through the minds of every non-Muslim in Pakistan when he or she would have seen the Minister responsible for their affairs slain brutally by terrorists, which are harbored and sympathized by many within Pakistan. Even if foreign intervention is involved, it could play no more than, say 10%, of the part, as all the acts of terrorism are carried out by local terrorist groups, most of them religious in nature.

The lesson to learn from the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, who is yet another Martyr for Sanity in an insane country, is that we need to get our textbook right. Shahbaz Bhatti is the kind of Pakistanis we need at a time when religious fanaticism is on the rise ever since this menace grew out of all proportions in the dark reign of the military dictator General Zia ul Haq, who used his influence to force so-called Islamic laws on the country for his own political ends. He was the very same man in whose rule the Blasphemy Law found its current shape.

I am often asked by my close friends about what good would the secular amendments in the constitution do. It is simple. The people of other faith or that of no faith at all are not concerned even a bit about what your religion has to say about them, neither should they be entitled to even listen to, let alone the idea of complying with, the rules that you set according to your religion about them. That is the most absurd idea ever, and unfortunately, this is what has been happening in Pakistan.

You need to offer a common ground for every citizen in the state in a Secular constitution, so that each and every citizen, regardless of religion, sect, language, ethnicity or caste would be able to relate to it. That is the only way in which not even a single person will be considered left out. A communal constitution will always make minorities, and I hate this word by the way, think at the back of their minds all the time that they are not accepted in the country, no matter how many stories you tell them about the way some Muslim rulers had treated the minorities in their time. It is just not good enough.

Shahbaz Bhatti is a great loss for Pakistan because he was a sane voice and was bravely and openly defending the rights of the minorities. Unfortunately, he fell like Salman Taseer as well, among some of the few voices openly questioning the Draconian Blasphemy Law. While the PPP workers would mourn the loss of another comrade, they should be mourning even more that these heroes were not supported by the party leadership as they should have been. At least, they should have owned their efforts which are changing Pakistan right now.

While the minorities in Pakistan in general, and the Christian community in particular, would have felt that their voice has been silenced in Shahbaz Bhatti, there is still time for Pakistani political and religious leadership to concentrate towards building an egalitarian and tolerant society instead of one dominated by a particular community. The bureaucratic and military establishment should support them by all means possible for carrying this out, and let there be intolerance towards intolerance. Besides, they have been equally active in creating this mess during the Zia regime anyway.

I am not claiming I know all the solutions to this complex problem, but let us make a start. If all Pakistanis are united to prevent incidents like the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, there is no force in the world which could cause another national tragedy.


For now, Pakistan salutes Shahbaz Bhatti, a national hero.