Negotiating Freedom of Expression

23 July 2015

The unresolved debate on freedom of expression was reignited when Islamic militants killed 14 staffers of French magazine Charlie Hebdo last January, ostensibly for the cartoons that offended Muslim sentiments. Earlier this year, two secular bloggers were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In other countries such as Russia and Iran, writers and journalists languish in prisons on similar charges. The intersection of faith, politics, and history has influenced the global debates on the “limits” to freedom. In June, the Center for International Media Assistance, in collaboration with Media Diversity Institute, held a panel discussion on the limitations on the state of media in multicultural societies. An all-women panel, a rarity in itself, included Razia Iqbal (BBC), Courtney C. Radsch (CPJ), Milica Pesic (MDI), and a well-known academic Verica Rupar.

Negotiating freedom of expression and respect for diversity is a delicate balancing act. The current crisis – of “Western” values versus Islamic teachings – is far beyond the problem of media ethics. Razia Iqbal at CIMA raised crucial questions about the social responsibility of journalists. For instance, is freedom of expression sacred, or is it a subjective construct located in the context of every country? The responses were spirited. Some felt that freedom of expression was linked to other rights such as privacy; and therefore it ought to be viewed in a subjective context. Panelists agreed that freedom of expression was a universal right, but that under certain circumstances, limitations were understandable. Journalists have to act in public interest, as they give voice to and act as public watchdogs on behalf of society. Therefore, media persons have to exercise discretion in deciding what to print or broadcast. That is at the core of the idea of “social responsibility.”

Should journalists practice self-censorship and stay away from certain issues in multicultural societies? One panelist noted that journalism does not exist outside the boundaries of a given society; thus, it should reflect the inherent multiculturalism of a particular context. But this leads to self-censorship. The case of Egypt, among others, is instructive, as unprecedented self-censorship is taking place there due to the pressures exerted by the state and lack of legal protection available to journalists. Multiculturalism entails respect for free speech and the availability of public space to enable diverse groups to air their views. Violence changes this dynamic—perhaps for good. This is why Charlie Hebdo’s editor has announced that the magazine will no longer publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad.


Save Palmyra From ISIS’s Rampage

26 June 2015


Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photographs of Palmyra by Felix Bonfils, Myron Bement Smith Collection, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have placed on view a relic from ancient Palmyra in Syria. In addition, the galleries are displaying images of 18th century engravings and 19th century photographs from its archives. In the wake of Daesh or the Islamic State’s offensive in Syria, this exhibition has attained a symbolic significance. Being held in the capital of the world’s only superpower with a questionable Syria policy, the display reminds us of what is at stake.

It was exhilarating to be connected with this rich past of humanity and at the same time extremely devastating to remember that we live in a world where our ancient treasures can be wiped out while we look on helplessly.


Haliphat – a limestone funerary relief bust on display at Sackler- stares at you with an intense expression. Her two fingers on the chin represent modesty and virtue. For a moment it seems like a reflection on what is happening in Palmyra today. Halpihat has been dated back to 231 C.E. The almost-alive figure displays Roman and Aramaic artistic styles, reminding us of how Palmyra was the bridge between the East and West.

The Islamic State reportedly has planted mines and bombs in Palmyra. It is unclear if ISIS intends to destroy Palmyra or is using the threat as a strategy to deter attacks by Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, our collective heritage under grave threat. (more…)

Ideology, impunity & chaos

15 May 2015

The sheer barbarity of the attack on the Ismaili community in Pakistan’s largest and one of the more misgoverned cities shocked the country. It is not the first time that such a sectarian attack has happened. During the past two years, more than a thousand people have been killed in targeted sectarian attacks. However, this was the largest attack on Ismailis. The head of the Ismaili community, Prince Karim Aga Khan, rightly termed the massacre of 43 men and women “a senseless act of violence against a peaceful community”. It is ironic that the Pakistan movement owes its genesis to the contributions of Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Aga Khan III who was the founder, patron and the first president of the All-India Muslim League. In fact, the Quaid-e-Azam was born into an Ismaili household. Today’s Pakistan is clearly an unsafe place for this community.

The National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism has been under implementation since December. Evidently, it is going nowhere. In January, dozens of worshippers were killed in an imambargah located inShikarpur, Sindh. There have been several other incidents of sectarian killings and now the Karachi carnage comes as a rude reminder that perhaps, the strategy to fight terrorism is flawed or is just another un-implementable document.

While military action to eliminate hideouts of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may be a good short-term measure, Pakistan cannot curb the menace of extremism and terrorism without working towards an ideological reorientation. In March, the government reneged on two vital commitments: regulation of religious seminaries and dismantling of proscribed terrorist groups. In fact, such is the power of these militias that they have been openly holding rallies despite the announcement by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while launching the NAP that “no armed organisation will be allowed to operate”.


One size may not fit all

8 March 2015

Excerpts from my statement:
Raza Rumi, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, says the government has much to do when it comes to reforming madressahs.

“There are three issues of main importance: first the registration and regulation. They have to adhere to a regulatory framework. Second, the curricula that needs to be updated and modernised. No point in teaching Fatawa-i-Alamgiri or such other outdated texts. More importantly, sectarian hate that goes into teaching has to be curbed and discontinued. Third pertains to foreign students and teachers that become part of madressah networks without the necessary permission of the State,” says Rumi. He says that for madressah reform two imperatives need to be considered: first, the “extremist mindset flows out of the theological interpretations which are man-made and sectarian and they need regulation and debate. Second, terrorist activity is limited to only a few. And in the past the Pakistani state has used them as recruitment grounds for jihad abroad. These places and handlers are well-known and can be nabbed.”

However, scores of teachers and students at various madressahs have expressed frustration at what they view as being singled out and targeted for their beliefs.

Read full article here

The terrorism challenge

27 February 2015

The Pakistani government must take swift, effective action to implement its will and assert its authority.


Pakistan’s terrorism challenge has burgeoned into a full-blown national crisis. Terrorism emanates from extremist ideologies that use religion to glorify violence. In addition, when there is constant marginalization of particular sections of society, people are denied basic necessities of life and any aspirations for a better life are in vain, many are driven towards violence. In Pakistan, surveys have shown that while the masterminds of extremist outfits are often well-educated, their recruiting ground is among the under-privileged.

In Pakistan the extremist narratives emanate from three main sources – the mosque-madrassah complex, school curricula, and the media. The country’s policymakers and law enforcement agencies need to take appropriate steps targeting these sources in both the short and long term, if the menace of terrorism is to be effectively curtailed.

Terrorism emanates from extremist ideologies that use religion to glorify violence

Short Term Measures:

Credible information is needed about all mosques and madrassahs operating at the district, provincial and national level. At the district level, the District Coordination Officers (DCOs) should be tasked to map and monitor all mosques and madrassahs operating within his jurisdiction. All madrassahs should be required to be formally registered with the local authorities. Information collected from each district should then be compiled into provincial and national data banks containing verified information on those running these mosques/madrassahs, their activities, their donors etc. Any madrassahs with foreign funding sources and teachers should be kept under extra scrutiny. In addition, police officers need to compile their data from each district and create national data centers which can help law-enforcement agencies to identify and monitor suspicious activity in any part of the country.

Any funding from any sources, both loc (more…)

Militancy in Sindh: End of our plural culture?

3 February 2015

The recent carnage in Shikarpur has come as a shock for many Pakistanis. Rural Sindh, invisible from the view of Punjab and Karachi obsessed media rarely makes news unless there is a major political rally or the images of dying children that can enable some quick political point scoring.

For the past decade, the land of Sufis known for its tolerant and plural ways has been the latest laboratory of Pakistan’s sectarian jihadists. Along the major highways, the mushrooming of seminaries is evident and the recent build up of hate crimes testifies to the ideological grafting that is underway. The Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi have since long succumbed to the madrassa-welfare complex that in part responds to state failure as well as fits into the security architecture. The largely secular Sindh and Balochistan provinces are now under attack to balance what is known in the official-speak as ‘inter-provincial harmony’.

Balochistan has seen the worst incidents of sectarian terror in the past few years. Hazara settlements being bombarded with explosives hidden in water tankers, youth spaces such as snooker clubs attacked and young women going to college targeted, are incidents all too well known. But forgotten as they happen away from the centres of power. The sectarian outfits nourished in the populous plains of Punjab have branched out in Balochistan for a variety of reasons. The foremost reason is to challenge the nationalist movement with sectarian-religious passions. Media reports have also indicated that the sectarian militants may have infiltrated the ranks of some separatists but all of this is speculative thus far. Reporting from and on Balochistan is as perilous as covering Syria or Iraq these days. According to Reporters Without Border, Khuzdar is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. You are bound to get on the wrong side of major players: the security agencies and the militants.


Islam Needs Reformation from Within

18 January 2015

“Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that His standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion” — Nizar Qabbani, Syrian poet.

Much has been said about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and its slain cartoonists and their provocative cartoons about Muslims. Satirical representations of the Muslims in Europe do merge with racism and evoke destructive passions. But the barbaric killing of journalists exercising their right of free speech is beyond condemnable. It strikes at the heart of press freedom.

Muslim communities in most Western countries view themselves as besieged collectives. Issues of integration, racism and the colonial baggage resonate each day. But in the past two decades especially with the rise of violent extremism as global phenomena, these complexities have become even more intractable.

By brutally killing staffers of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the violent extremists have offended their faith far more than the perceived blasphemy of the magazine. Theirs is a political ideology — of using terror as a weapon — to avenge a history, to settle grievances and to assert power through violence.

Billions of men and women who practice Islam often have little input in shaping such narratives of hatred. Such violent ideas emanate from the minority schools of thought within Islam, which rationalize the killing of ‘infidels’ and their ‘associates’. This ideology is the same that hounded Salman Rushdie, and killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam for a film.

Ironically, the main targets of this ideology have been Muslims themselves. From the mass killings of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the ongoing killing spree in Syria and Iraq, it is the Muslims that bear the brunt of this violent mindset.

Dozens of Sufi shrines and hundreds of schools have been blown up in Pakistan by extremists. Most of the 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the last decade were Muslims. And in this day and age this ideology prevents the majority of Pakistanis to access YouTube simply because somewhere, someone lampooned the holy figure of Islam.


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