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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.

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Islam and its more dangerous variants: interview with Raza Rumi, a survivor of religious extremism

By Daniele Grassi

Following the recent events in Paris, Europe has had to face its own fear and vulnerability. Europe’s own identity has been called into question, more importantly, so has its commitment to shaping an open and tolerant society. Above all, the attacks are putting a strain on relations with Islam, a religion that is becoming increasingly associated with terrorism and other forms of extremism.

“Is Islam compatible with democratic values?”. “To what extent is terrorism affecting Islam’s evolution?”
These are some of the issues debated with Raza Ahmad Rumi, a leading voice in Pakistan against extremism and human rights violations. In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has since been working with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.

Raza Rumi10
The attacks carried out in Paris have reinforced, amongst large sectors of the Western population, the idea that Islam is incompatible with the traditional values of democracy. What’s your view on this?
“In recent times the gap between those practicing the Islamic faith and liberal Europe has never been as wide as it is currently. Muslims feel alienated within the value system of Europe, but they also want to reap the benefits and the opportunities provided by the European democracies and economies. Europeans, while welcoming Muslims into their homeland, always expected them to follow their laws while practicing the Muslim faith. However, the recent attacks in Paris have jolted the Europeans and have triggered a new debate about the nature and future of relations between Muslims and Liberal Europe. There is a need for open dialogue between Muslims and liberal Europe in order to determine the future shape of Western society and Muslims’ roles within it. However, more importantly the Muslims need to take an introspective look at themselves and take responsibility for allowing hardliners to preach radical messages, from minority schools of thought such as the Salafi and Hanbali, which justify violence”. […]

January 22nd, 2015|Extremism, Journalism, Published in East Magazine|0 Comments

Will Peshawar attack change Pakistan’s policy on terror?

Pakistan’s predicament is a sad tale of domestic Islamist identity enmeshed with the regional dynamics.

The latest strike by the Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement has jolted the globe. It was not the first attack on civilians. Earlier, Pakistani markets, religious processions and Hazara settlements have been targeted, killings hundreds. But the barbarity of targeting children – killing 132 innocent students – has swung the public opinion in Pakistan. Pakistan’s military has been fighting the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for the past few years. Since June this year, it launched a major offensive in North Waziristan region, claiming to have killed more than 1,000 militants and reclaiming nearly 80 per cent of the territory that they were holding. For the TTP to strike at an army-run school, killing 132 children and nine school staff, indicates that the network is far from being eliminated. Military sources think that this was an act of desperation on the part of the Taliban. Others view this as the ability of TTP to regroup and find softer targets.

The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in the wake of these attacks, called an emergency all-party conference where he vowed to fight terrorism, once again. The moratorium on death penalty has been lifted; because of it hundreds of convicted militants had not been punished. Human rights’ campaigners doubt it will work but there is widespread public support for hanging the terrorists. The second important decision announced by the PM is that Pakistan no longer distinguishes between the “good” (those who don’t attack Pakistan and are focused on Afghanistan) and the “bad” (anti-Pakistan) Taliban.

This is a crucial announcement even if its translation into policy is unclear and perhaps unachievable. Pakistan’s strategic view of the region is based on the threat perception from India and an Afghanistan that may allow Indian influence to grow on its western border. This is well documented in the defence literature and also articulated by strategic thinkers all the time. Will this worldview be revised or adjusted is something that remains to be seen.

Ahmed Qazi sprinkles rose water on the fresh grave of his mother Tahira Qazi, the principal of Army Public School who was killed in Tuesday's attack by the Taliban, after her burial in Peshawar

Essentially, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban share the same ideology and tactics and they have supported each other in the past. In fact, the emergence of the TTP shows the “strategic depth” doctrine has backfired. […]

December 18th, 2014|Extremism, Pakistan, Published in Daily O, terrorism|1 Comment

The Music Doesn’t Stop in Peshawar

A story that I co-authored with Manzoor Ali, published here

On June 18, celebrated Pashto singer Ghazala Javed and her father were murdered in Peshawar. Text messages and news alerts from the city’s famous Lady Reading Hospital started to spread across Pakistan. Ghazala, for so many Pakhtuns, had been eliminated. The police later indicated that her ex-husband might have been involved as he wanted her to give up her singing career. However, until the investigation is complete, the cause for her death cannot be ascertained.

The story of Ghazala’s last years reflects the travails of Pakistan and its province, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), till recently known as the North-West Frontier Province. Her family left Swat in 2007 for Peshawar after the Taliban started gaining power in the valley. In Peshawar, her career witnessed a meteoric rise. She was noted as a rising star with a promising future. During the last three years, the Awami National Party (ANP)-led provincial government has also undertaken a glasnost of sorts by focusing on culture and encouraging the arts industry. But the efforts of Pakistani politicians face a formidable foe in a conservative culture and Taliban militancy. While artists like Ghazala take risks and perform, Taliban militants continue to threaten artists, blow up shrines, CD shops, cinemas and internet cafes. In April 2009, another promising Pashto singer and lyricist, Aiyman Udas was killed on the outskirts of Peshawar. The police suspected her brothers, who were against her musical pursuit, to have perpetrated her death. It remains an unresolved mystery to date. […]

Humanitarian Crisis of NWFP – Urgent Appeal

Let us all us join hands to alleviate the sufferings of the people who need our help

Situation Background

North West Frontier of Pakistan faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis as more than 1,200,000 displaced people flee the mountain districts of Swat, Buner, Shangla and Lower Dir as the war between insurgents and the government of Pakistan intensifies. As the army has moved into these to initiate military action to evict the area from the insurgents, the people of these areas are leaving their homes behind in hundreds to safer sanctuaries in other parts of the province. The displaced people are leaving in a hurry carrying barely anything from their homes to help them through this tribulation. About 10% of these are being accommodated in camps established by the government at fourteen locations. Another 90% are finding refuge with social networks of families, tribes, clans, schools etc in districts far removed from their homes. The main districts where the pressure is falling are those of Mardan, Swabi, Malakand, Nowshera, Upper and Lower Dir, Peshawar, Charsadda. […]

May 13th, 2009|Personal|1 Comment

Whatever shrine I go to

Another readable piece by Dr Sher Zaman Taizi

This poem in ghazal form is very simple and direct. It starts with a direct address to God and gradually moves on to ethical values, human needs and human nature. I will try to transliterate the original Pushto verses into English with the hope that readers will be able to appreciate its meaning.

Not for a single moment, am I indifferent to You! Not indifferent to Your invocation and reflection! Whatever shrine I go to, I have You in mind!

I am not interested in any pilgrimage to mosque or temple! […]

April 7th, 2009|Personal|1 Comment

Nightingale of Peshawar falls silent

My piece published in The Friday Times

The bombing of Rehman Baba’s shrine is more proof that we are slipping, inch by inch, into an abyss. It is as if the soul of Peshawar, and by extension that of the whole of Pakistan has been scarred by those barbaric bombs and grenades. Among other ironies of the situation, this one stands out: the late Baba was instrumental in disseminating the message of Islam in the Khyber valley and beyond. And today the zealots destroy his shrine for being un-Islamic! A poet of love and tolerance, of amity and forgiveness to be treated in this manner displays how brutal we have become as a society and how fissured our state is. Otherwise a successor of a mighty steel frame, the indigenised state has surely given up to the hordes that are now hell bent on destroying Pakistan.

   
 

Rahman Baba was born in 1632 A.D. at Bahadur Kala, a village close to Peshawar. The Pashtuns hold his work in high esteem and his rank in Pashto poetry matches that of Hafiz Shirazi in Persian literature. The simple, down to earth and universal messages of his poetry have been revered by the Pashtuns as well as many adherents of the Sufi creed in South Asia and elsewhere.

In Afghanistan too, Rehman Baba was an icon and his muse was referred to as the ‘heart-beat’ of every Afghan. A friend told me how Saidu Baba, the famed saint of the now destroyed Swat valley, remarked that if the Pashtuns were to pray from a book other than the Holy Quran it would definitely be Rahman Baba’s work. But nothing describes Baba better than what Janes Enveldson had named him: the “Nightingale of Peshawar.” Alas, nightingales do not sing in gardens that have been ruined by long, harsh winters or other cataclysms such as hatred and violence. […]