Peshawar school attack

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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.


Pakistan’s future — fraught with perilous possibilities

Nearly two months after the Peshawar attack, it is unclear if Pakistan’s direction has changed. The unprecedented grief and anger over the tragedy has now given way to business as usual. Bureaucrats undertaking the routine round-up exercises, platitudes by the politicians and the ‘firm’ image by the military leadership. Sections of civil society that defied the taboos of entering Islamabad’s no-go area i.e., Lal Masjid, ignited some hope that there was going to be a mass-scale mobilisation of Pakistanis against extremism and its violent manifestations. But the last rounds of activism attracted lesser numbers and apathy – a cornerstone of Pakistan’s mainstream culture.

What could be the greatest example of this syndrome than the muted response of the state and society over the massacre of 61 worshippers in Shikarpur. The National Action Plan is under implementation and apparently, thousands have been rounded up without a plan in place as to how they will be prosecuted in a court of law. The end result will not be different from the past record. Courts will bail them out sooner than later. Military courts are being operationalised and many Pakistanis view them as a panacea for the long-term failures of the judicial system. But there are many stages before they will become effective and deliver the kind of results that are needed to combat terrorism.

The prime minister had announced that all violent militias would be banned and proceeded against. But there are many which are free to mobilise. One day, the Jamatud Dawa is banned, the other day it is not. The ASWJ rallied in Karachi and the seminaries that are the backbone of these organisations remain fully functional. Admittedly, it is not possible to tackle them immediately but is there a strategy to handle three decades of mess that is growing messier? The answer to this question is in the negative.

When the Senate questioned the Punjab Police about foreign funding to seminaries, the initial response was denial-as-usual. Senator Tahir Mashhadi reportedly said that substantive evidence confirmed the “involvement of foreign-funded seminaries which were involved in promoting militancy in Pakistan”. The Saudi Embassy clearly said that whatever support was extended to welfare seminaries, mosques and charity organisations materialised with the express consent of the government. This has exposed the hollowness of the government’s commitments to address this key issue. Pakistan simply cannot be a playground for imported ideologies and allow sectarian battles to further bleed society. […]