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Global terrorism — myth and reality

A new report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank based in Australia, brings to light some hard data on global terrorism. During November 2015, a series of terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria and Mali reignited the debate on the global ‘challenge’ of terrorism. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, another coalition is being gathered to bomb Syria to eradicate the Daesh or Islamic State (IS). It is unclear if a militaristic response would yield results in Syria, given the complexity and competing interests of Middle Eastern actors, Russia and the West. In fact, the lack of a multilateral approach has only served to benefit the IS in the recent past.

The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report confirms that terrorism, globally, is on the rise. Since 2001, there has been a five-fold rise in terrorism. The year 2014 was deadliest with 14,000 terrorist attacks in 93 countries, leaving 32,000 dead. The number of terror victims was 80 per cent more than in 2013. At the same time, countries that battled 500 or more terrorist attacks have seen a staggering increase by 120 per cent since 2013.

The other startling fact, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, is that Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group, was the biggest killer in 2014, and not the IS. During the last year, 6,644 deaths attributed to Boko Haram signified an increase of over 300 per cent compared to the deaths occurring in 2013. The IS was the second-most lethal group as it killed 6,073 people. Tactics used by Boko Haram are deadlier as it indiscriminately targets private citizens in its attacks. […]

Exile for me and others

Pakistan needs to remember those who wanted to but could not stay back


Little did I know that a sojourn to recover from a trauma would turn into exile for me. Exile — forced, self-adopted or incidental — is banishment from your context. Almost a liminal space; where you suddenly know no belonging.

In the discourses of diaspora, the exiles are a marginal story. The ‘diaspora’ for a middle-income country like Pakistan is a source of remittance, a vehicle of transferring jobs, knowledge and skills. The exile is an odd feature of the story — a continuous affront to the nationalistic pride, contrary to the ‘image’ that states want to project and diplomats to peddle.

For decades now, a good number of Pakistanis have lived in such a state of being. Under the various military regimes — especially in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s — several political activists, writers and even high profile politicians had to be away from their countries.

Intellectuals such as Prof Fazalur Rahman and Daud Rahbar who were the rationalists that our society needed, spent their lives in academia abroad. Their works are cited globally but have limited or virtually no traction within Pakistan. […]

October 25th, 2015|Extremism, Pakistan, Published in the NEWS, terrorism|0 Comments

Sabeen Mehmud: A voice of reason, pluralism and secularism

I have been quoted on different stories published on the murder of Sabeen Mehmud. A collection of these is being posted here.

Pakistani rights activist Sabeen Mahmud shot dead – AlJazeera


“Sabeen was a voice of reason, pluralism and secularism: the kind of creed that endangers the insidious side of constructed Pakistani nationalism,” Raza Rumi, a rights […]

May 12th, 2015|Pakistan, terrorism|0 Comments

Sabeen Mahmud, Martyr for Free Speech

My op-ed for The New York Times
The appalling murder in Karachi last week of Sabeen Mahmud is a stark reminder of challenges that human rights defenders face in Pakistan. Ms. Mahmud, 39, had devoted her life to creating an alternative to the religious nationalism promoted by the Pakistani state over recent decades, which has led to a proliferation of violent jihadist organizations. She was gunned down on Friday night as she left the arts center she had founded.

In the country’s largest city, troubled by violence and crumbling institutions, Ms. Mahmud created a hub to promote the arts, harness creative talent and foster democratic dialogue. Since 2007, The Second Floor, commonly known as T2F, had evolved as a small but significant arena for pluralist and secular movements in the Islamic Republic. In Pakistan’s deeply conservative, repressive society, this was a kind of liberation theology.

Hours before she was shot, Ms. Mahmud, a tech entrepreneur as well as a social activist, hosted human rights advocates who were campaigning against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in insurgency-hit Balochistan Province. After the government ordered the cancellation of the event, which was called “Unsilencing Balochistan” and was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Ms. Mahmud offered T2F as a venue.

The government is deeply worried about the insurgency in Balochistan. The commonly held — and vigorously promoted — view is that Pakistan’s great rival, India, is supporting the insurgency. Thus advocating for the rights of the Baloch people is regarded as treasonous.


The vicious cycle of hate and violence

The recent issue to have riled up a good number of Pakistanis — including jihadi networks — is the alleged blasphemy against Islam committed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The imagined gatekeepers of the Ummah and the country in possession of an ‘Islamic bomb’ must protest against the ‘degradation’ and ‘defamation’ of the ‘faith’. Nowhere in that discourse is mentioned how brutal murders by gunmen could be justified, let alone explained.

European societies must not be bailed out for their growing Islamophobia and the uneven integration of the ‘Muslim’ into secular societies. Nor can the double standards on free speech be condoned. Western Europe needs to introspect where it has gone wrong in breeding such alienation and discontent. But that is their problem.

For Pakistanis, and many Muslim societies to get outraged at the offensive material about their faith, is at best duplicitous.

In Pakistan, we grew up with Friday sermons and prayers that ended with calling for the defeat of Christians, Jews and Hindus. In some cases, there is an explicit invocation of divine help for their ‘destruction’. The grievances that such sermons manifest are political, often real, but largely imagined. Mahsaal, a Lahore-based NGO, has compiled a few sermons and one of them dated 2010 advocates thus: “O Muslims, get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy. The Holy Quran instructs us but since we have not followed it the Europeans have published the cartoons …”. This was perhaps said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga where we only harmed ourselves by burning public buildings and getting innocent Pakistanis killed. […]

Back in the Driver’s Seat

Pakistan’s military retakes pivotal control, and the public does not seem to mind.


Pakistan’s military is back in the driving seat. This time, not through a conventional coup d’etat, but through an amended constitution that enables military tribunals to try civilians accused of terrorism.

On Jan. 6, in a joint session, the Parliament amended the country’s constitution to establish military courts. The Islamist parties, opposed to the inclusion of the term “religious terrorism,” backed out at the last minute. But the major secular political parties, ostensibly committed to democratic rule, passed on the judicial powers to special military courts for a period of two years. This is a significant blow to the democratic transition that occurred after Gen. Musharraf’s ouster in 2008, when the country returned to civilian rule.

The unenviable history of democratic evolution in Pakistan is well known. The military directly governed for more than three decades, and in the periods of so-called civilian rule (such as the present one), the military retains control over security and foreign policy. Pakistan’s military is also synonymous with the nationalist identity and therefore shapes the political discourse as well.

The current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office in June 2013. In November, he appointed a new Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, thinking that he was consolidating civilian power. Sharif also pushed for the trial of former President Musharraf (who ousted Sharif in 1999) for violating the constitution by imposing emergency rule in November 2007.


January 16th, 2015|History, Pakistan, Published in Foreign Policy, terrorism|0 Comments

A definitive history of Pakistan

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. […]