They Were Not Numbers


*First published by Hum-Aahang. On seven months since Peshawar:

Majid Maqsood is a 16-year old student who has just passed his matriculation with 80% marks and is headed towards college. He loves music, football, writing and composing songs, and rapping. Incredibly polite and rather mature, he is brilliant young boy, but most importantly, a brave one.

Majid is a survivor of the Peshawar Attack.

When the attack began, Majid was in the auditorium with students of the 8th, 9th and 10th grade for a medical lecture. Soon they heard the sound of firing as three terrorists entered shooting, at the sight of which he sat down to take cover; the best he could do to hide. They went firing from chair to chair, now remembering which Majid is surprised that he managed to survive. He recalls that in those eight to ten minutes of firing, more than a hundred students were killed.

Ten minutes.

A hundred children.

Ten children killed in every minute. Ten families shattered forever, in sixty seconds.

Ten minutes. A hundred children. Each with a name, a face, a family, a future.

They were not numbers.

“They were the future of this country; someone was a brilliant doctor, one an army officer, one an engineer, one an actor, one a musician , one a politician – everyone was pursuing his dream and working hard,” he recalls. “Each one was kind, intelligent and smart”.

He remembers the last time he played football with Mubeen Shah, but in particular, he remembers his close friend Usman Abbasi. “We used to play together, sit and talk, go out. He was a really mature guy and more intelligent than me. He was a sharp but he had different dreams and goals too.”

He wants people to not just remember Peshawar [attack] as Peshawar and all that is conventionally associated with the city, saying those who were killed were “were not only Pathans or from Peshawar, it was an army school so students from all over the country were studying. Even I am not a Pathan. On the 16th, the dead bodies went to almost every part of Pakistan.”

The dead bodies.

Dead. For once they lived; they breathed, they played, they hoped, they dreamed.

They were not numbers.

I asked Majid if he felt people had forgotten the attack, and he was quick in expressing his sense of the briefness of outrage after Peshawar, the short-lived grief and the hollow promises, “After the 16th [of December] I learnt a lot, that there’s no one for you, no one cares about anyone.”

But as a survivor, despite the scars of trauma and sorrow, he believes he has emerged stronger than before, “After losing my friends and teachers, now I am afraid of losing others. All I went through is beyond describing; all those dead bodies of friends, lashes of blood, shouts and screams, but that day really made me strong because now I am no longer afraid of such cowardice. That day revealed the value of a single life to me.” He now wants to do a tribute song for the APS attack victims.

No 16 year-old who loves music or writes songs, should ever be thinking of channelling the expressive power of these passions into a tribute for his fallen friends, peers and teachers.

No 16 year old, and no child, should ever be required to be this brave.

Yet Majid’s maturity only strikes with the harsh acquaintance survivors and victims of the APS attack had to make with the hideous realities of life; of blood, death, and loss. A reality birthed by consummate barbarity.

But he continues to have lofty ideas and plans, “I am focused on my own work, and I have many aims and dreams in life but not just for me but for my country, its people, everyone.”

Majid is not one boy; he is one of many, many who were usurped forever from us.

They were not numbers.

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They were made of blood and flesh. They had hopes, fears, zeal and dreams. In them were poets, painters, singers, soldiers, artists, sportsmen, philanthropists, doctors, and leaders. They were tomorrow’s Faiz, Manto, Wasim-Waqar, Gulgee, Jahangir Khan, Moin Akhtar, Ahmed Shah Bokhari, Nur Khan, Adeeb Rizvi, Abdus Salam and Alvin Cornelius. They were to scale the mountains and to soar into the skies. They were to imagine, to create, to heal. They were to pave the path for a better, peaceful, a just tomorrow. They were the promise of a tomorrow.

Seven months on, Majid is right to assert that, “Time heals but we [the survivors] don’t want this.”

Let us allow this wound to deepen. Let us stare into this abyss of loss. Let us never let the pain of Peshawar subside.

Let us realize that December 16th 2014 made us forever poorer.

Let us never forget, for they were not numbers.

– Hafsa Khawaja

~ On These Roads, Flowers Sell


To the beautiful children of Pakistan; a future forced to be spent on the roads of today.

Photo credits to Maryaa Sajjad on Flickr

          

Weary faces,

Crushed fragrances,

Shoulders small but burdens big,

Tiny hands, roughened and stiff,

Not a wink of sleep and undreamt dreams,

Wilted before they bloomed,

For on these roads, flowers sell.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

The Night is Dark


*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:

Five Hazaras were gunned down in Quetta on 7th June. Numbering 500, the bereaved families and members of the Hazara community later protested on the streets with coffins of the deceased. In vain.

Aftab in his youth

Aftab in his youth

Aftab Bahadar was hanged on 10th June. Sentenced in 1992 for a murder along with Ghulam Mustafa, the plumber for whom he worked, he had been painfully waiting on the death row since 22 years. However, both Ghulam and the eyewitness who testified against Aftab only recently repudiated the claim that Aftab was complicit in the crime. According to Guardian and human rights organization Reprieve, Aftab said that when he was arrested the police asked for a 50,000 rupee bribe and said they would let him go if he paid. He couldn’t.

What lies between these deaths is hollowness, a hollowness of promises and vows that continues to jar louder each day since 16th December 2014.

With a seriously flawed judicial system and reportedly the world’s largest number of inmates on death row, believed to be over 8000, the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan was controversial from the start. Yet all reason was jettisoned in an attempt to subdue and satiate the seething fury and mourning after the Peshawar Attack. The decision was oblivious to logic in disregarding the fact that the very desire of terrorists resides in death and the anticipated ascension to heaven; and that an ideology as toxic, bloodthirsty and pervasive as that of extremism cannot be bound, let alone defeated, by the mere physical elimination of its members. Nonetheless, the restoration of the death penalty was made to appear as a seemingly bold and big step against terrorists; symbolic of the state’s newfound deadly and steely resolve against terrorism. However, the reinstatement of the death penalty was but a grand eyewash and façade used to deflect from taking real action on the fronts that demanded immense political will, honesty, courage and tenacity. A reality starkly reflected between the unabated killings in Quetta and the hanging of Aftab Bahadur at Kot Lakhpat.

The comprehensive National Action Plan that emerged in January as the government’s guide to countering terrorism and extremism seems to have been an act of plain political grandstanding since it remains far from any noticeable implementation.

A critical statement on the state of madrassah education by Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed was enough to evoke a spate of hate and attacks against him, prompting fears for his safety. Pervez Hoodbhoy succinctly spoke of the controversy’s implications in his Dawn article ‘The Pervaiz Rasheed Affair’“Not a single voice in government defended the information minister. By refusing to own the remarks of its own information minister the government has signalled its retreat on a critical front — madressah reform.”  Such are the hazards and hurdles associated with the problem of extremism in Pakistan that a mere statement can shackle the government from action. As for the minorities Shikarpur, Youhanabad and Quetta suffice to mention. They continue to be hounded while militant outfits such as LeJ and SSP continue to run amok with their lust for blood.

On the other hand, decisions taken in wake of the Peshawar attack such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s permission to allow teachers weapons inside schools resonate with the coarse nature of political imagination in the country. The prevalence of such poor governance that determines this slipshod management of alarming issues and knee-jerk reactions to them has only recently taken the life of a 12-year old pupil in Swat who was accidentally shot dead by the teacher while he was cleaning his pistol.

Despite the monstrosity that bloodily usurped the lives of 141 children, the government’s reaction has been marked by the customary national cycle of temporary outrage, condemnation, protest, forget and repeat. The recent killings of the Hazara in Quetta and the execution of Aftab Bahadur serve to illustrate the lack of any decisive, solid or substantial government and state action against terrorists and extremists, and the superficiality of the steps taken, such as the restoration of the death penalty, in curbing the cancer.

Little has changed six months since the Peshawar Attack, most of all the captivity of Pakistan and its collective consciousness by political, ideological, social and moral paralysis.

At such a moment in time, one must listen to a dead man speaking from his grave; Aftab Bahadaur’s words from his last letter (translated and published in The Guardian a day before his execution):

“While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say. I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money…I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”

The night ended for Aftab as his last, but for Pakistan, indeed the night remains very dark.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~ Tyranny of Everlasting Sorrow


On 16/12/14, to which it has been six months yet nothing has changed but the deepening of 141 wounds inflicted upon every single Pakistani till the end of time.

On the mother in a bloodied and tattered green and white.

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Oh beloved mother,

Bloodied and bruised,     

From the tyranny of misfortune,

Your children wished to nurse you tomorrow, 

Yet what trampled you forever, prevailed yet again;

The tyranny of misfortune triumphed,

Into the tyranny of everlasting sorrow. 

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Obfuscation of Reality & the Guilt of being a Minority


*First posted on Dawn Blogs, unedited version below:

“This is an attack on Pakistan”

“They were killed for being Pakistanis, not Ismailis”

This line of response to atrocities within Pakistan is not new but has become rather common and frequent. The horrific recent assault on the Ismaili community in Karachi was also no different in prompting it among many.

However, there is a problem with this.

As mentioned before, attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan are often deemed continuation of the plague of terrorism in the country; violence that is raging yet indiscriminate, targeting and affecting all Pakistanis. However, the danger of this narrative is that it blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; especially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, and now Safoora Chowrangi, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Violence against religious minorities and minority sects is a distinct, targeted violence aimed at their complete extermination from Pakistan. These are not sporadic bouts of savagery but a carefully planned, calculated and continued carnage aimed at ‘cleansing’ the land of pure from, what Lashkar-e-Jhangvi disgustingly decries the Shias as, ‘impurities’.

There is a special distinction motivating these slaughters, that of religious identity, and this distinction cannot be brushed under the blanket of national identity without appearing as a travesty of truth.

Anti-Shia violence precedes the war on terror since sectarian militant outfits like the LeJ and SSP, which have now come to be subsidiaries of major terrorist organizations due to their ideological commonalities, have existed since long. Those who have lived through the 80s and 90s would bear witness to this.

In his piece for Al-Jazeera, Murtaza Hussain mentions:

“It is believed that since the early 1990s, nearly 4,000 Pakistani Shias have been murdered in sectarian attacks, and at a pace which has rapidly accelerated in recent years.”

Minority sects, especially the Shia, are labelled kafir to kill. They are singled out for being Shia and Shia alone. Any attempt to sketch attacks against them as any other reality is akin to the attempts made in the US to paint the Chapel Hill shooting of three Muslim students as a “parking dispute”, anything other than Islamophobia – which clearly outraged many Pakistanis.

Obfuscation of narrative therefore blurs reality and blinds people to the prevalence and nature of injustice.

Therefore, to say that the recent massacre is an attack on Pakistan is to obfuscate the narrative. It is an obfuscation that serves nothing but to perpetuate these atrocities and normalize their occurrence as part of the routinzation of violence in the country.

This long-existing violence has only been emboldened by the prevalence and pervasiveness of state failure and complicity in overseeing the reign of terrorism in Pakistan.

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There is also a rush and tendency in Pakistan to make the perpetrators of these brutalities as monsters, that people from among us can never do such a thing. Yet their ideas are not new. They are the same ideas that thrive among many segments of the Pakistani culture and society; ideas drenched in anti-Shia prejudice. Ideas that run along, “Shias should not be killed but they…” Ideas that see the Shia as deviant Muslims distorting Islam, as religious “others”, which extremists and terrorists derive strength from, subsequently taking them a bloody stretch further by deeming them kafir and wajib-ul-qatal.

However, as denying of internal rot as many are, naturally little time is spent to link all inconceivable acts of such cruelty to foreign forces.

It is important to quote former Pakistan Director of the Human Rights Watch and human rights campaigner Ali Dayan Hasan, who took to Twitter after news of the attack:

“Increasingly, formulaic condemnations and condolences by state institutions in the face of carnage just add insult to injury. Blaming India & others for atrocities against minorities does not absolve the state of failing in responsibility to protect.”

As religious minorities remain besieged by persecution, fear and discrimination in Pakistan, let us not lose sight of the fact that the state, with its spinelessness, indifference and links of patronage with these groups, remains complicit in letting takfiri militant outfits run amok with their hate and lust for blood.

And as a society, perhaps if we cannot stop this butchery, we can at least try not to silence the screaming plight of these communities who are only guilty of being religious minorities in Pakistan today.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Loyalty Oath, More of the Absurd


*Originally published in The Nation.

There is no shortage of the absurd in the land of pure.

In continuity of the norm of absurdity, the returning IDPs of North Waziristan were recently required to sign a certain “Social Agreement North Waziristan 2015”. The document requires the reaffirmation of their allegiance and loyalty to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Frontier Crimes Regulation, along with a host of other things including that protection of government institutions as the responsibility of the tribes.

A report in Dawn mentions some contents of Agreement: ‘If a tribe fails in fulfilling its responsibilities mentioned in FCR, then the government will withdraw all incentives of the tribe or clan including cancellation of national identity card, passport and other documents. Their properties including houses would be confiscated or demolished or they will be barred from the area. The people would be responsible for maintenance of peace, security of the government bodies and action against anti-statement elements.’

The agreement, a compulsory and non-negotiable prerequisite for all returning families and tribes, is alarming in all its character. By placing doubt on the loyalty and allegiance of a people who made the greatest sacrifice and abandoned everything for a war proclaimed in the name of Pakistan; and by placing immense responsibility on them for preventing elements on their land, that caused them such hardship in the first place, is but a travesty that stands as a deplorable testament to the Pakistani state today. The obligation upon the people of North Waziristan to “keep their soil free of anti-state elements” is a clear reversal of traditional roles of the state and the people with the former responsible for the security, safety and protection of the nation. It is a denial and disavowal of the state’s responsibility by the state itself.

However, the origins of such obligations and requirements are not new, rooted deeply in a product of British colonialism of 1901 that still prevails in FATA and upon its people in the 21st century: the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

Formulated to rein in Pashtun opposition to British colonialism, the FCR has only been nominally amended since. Legislation passed by the Pakistani parliament is invalid in FATA due to Article 247 of the Constitution which invalidates the application and operation of laws made by the Parliament, and removes FATA from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts.

It truly is shocking how a colonial relic is very much alive in governing the people of an independent country in the 21st century. And while the rest of Pakistan may debate over the progress of democracy, civil liberties and rights, the people of FATA are still virtually colonial subjects, governed by a colonial set of relations, barred from the share of any political, social or economic development and participation in the rest of the country. The prevailing existence of the FCR in Pakistan is, but a stark reminder of the bleak credibility and character of democracy in the country; and the character of the state and country itself.

The Agreement proceeds to further say that, “You will not become part of any action intended against peace and security of Pakistan and will prevent enemies of the state, Constitution and institutions or local and foreign terrorists from using your soil against the country”.

While the part about not becoming part of any action intended against the peace and security of Pakistan seems fairly clear and innocuous, a second glance reveals the opposite. Since compliance with the FCR has been the main component of the allegiance, challenging the draconian system of laws would naturally constitute a challenge to the state; a disruption to the peace and security of Pakistan. Conflating the FCR with the state, which virtually doesn’t exist in FATA, and Pakistan, is farcical at best. It is also precisely because FATA is virtually removed from Pakistan in every aspect, that the region is open as a fertile ground to local and foreign actors, along with powerful organs of the state, their machinations and plays – a state within the state – all at the expense of the people of the region.

The formulation of this Agreement thus, leaves no room for hope against bringing the people of FATA in the mainstream of the country with full citizenship rights; and attempts to subdue the utmost necessity of doing so. The Agreement is also indicative of the lack of intent prevalent in the corridors of power in Pakistan regarding the reform, repeal of the FCR, or any relief for the people of FATA.

During President Zardari’s tenure, a number of amendments were made to the FCR which included the extension of the Political Parties Order of 2002 allowing the operation of political parties in the region, the right of appeal against decisions of the political agent; and changes in the Collective Responsibility Clause for women, children and senior citizens in cases of arrests and detentions. However, their practical implementation is subject to much debate today; as the amendments themselves remain bound within the FCR framework that still holds FATA in its grip.

The FCR is a chief instrument of the dehumanization of the people of FATA who are daily witnesses to myriad difficulties and horrors, which barely make the margins of our news, let alone national and political consciousness. The late Justice Cornelius is said to have famously remarked that the FCR is “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”. And his words resound even more loudly today.

Perhaps it would be more prudent if our lawmakers, leaders and media persons discussed and debated the conditions of FATA and Balochistan as vigorously as Pakistan’s possible role in a conflict in the Middle East.

For Pakistan cannot move an inch forward with such shards sticking painfully in its heel.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Engaging Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law


*First posted on Laaltain.

From Aasia Bibi, Rimsha Masih to Shama and Shehzad; blasphemy in Pakistan hangs like a sword over Pakistan’s religious minorities.

However, amid the cases, there is a concerted effort underway to push for reform regarding the blasphemy law in Pakistan, by the name of Engage.

 

A non-profit research and advocacy organization, Engage is pushing for the reform through research and dialogue, by way of which it aims to impact and change the discourse; legal, social and cultural frameworks surrounding the issue of blasphemy in the country.

Unlike the usual frameworks, such as those of human rights, used to structure debate and discourse against the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan, Engage is rooted in the singular framework of Islamic tradition for the pursuit. During his recent talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, researcher Arafat Mazhar, who is one of the main individuals associated with the organization, continuously reinforced that authority has to be established in order to counter the dominant narratives prevailing on the issue in the country; and that this authority and evidence has to be derived from the same source which is used as a legitimating basis for the Blasphemy Law i.e Islamic tradition.

Picture taken from Engagepakistan.com

Engage, therefore, pursues the important deconstruction of what it calls the erroneous basis of the law through Islamic tradition; chiefly through Imam Abu Hanifa’s position that blasphemy is a pardonable offence for non-Muslims.

Moreover, Mazhar spoke of Ismail Qureshi, architect of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan’s, and his disastrously incorrect reading of Ibn-e-Abideen (1836) whom he referenced to lend weight to the law. It was Ibn-e-Abideen, who, in fact, pointed out the line of false narration regarding the Hanafi position on the issue of blasphemy by non-Muslims.

And as written in his articles for Dawn, he reinforced the significance of this Islamic tradition by mentioning that the position of blasphemy as a pardonable offence for non-Muslims was approved and signed by no less than 450 of the most prestigious names in the Hanafi ulema, not just from South Asia, but around the world” (which included Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, founder of the Barelvi school of thought to which, ironically, Mumtaz Qadri belonged).

The organization’s site is prompt to state that:

 “Our research actually shows that the law is built on erroneous religious foundations including misquotations and misrepresentations of authoritative classical Islamic jurists.

[and by demonstrating the abovementioned through informed, thorough research and historical evidence]

It is only when this narrative – the public sentiment– is reshaped that legal reform can be addressed.”

In Mazhar’s words, “legal reform cannot take place in a vacuum in Pakistan” without addressing the popular social and cultural acceptance and prevalence underlying the Blasphemy Law.

In short, Engage aims to make use of solid research in Islamic tradition to delegitimise the basis of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and engage the general public, society, culture, institutions such as the government, judiciary, religious scholars and groups such as non-governmental organizations and the civil society in Pakistan along with the international community of Islamic scholars, in order to push for reform of the law.

As part of its efforts, Engage has established a Fatwa Drive which seeks scholarly endorsements recognizing the erroneous position on cases of blasphemy relating to non-Muslims; that if an alleged blasphemer seeks pardon, he should be forgiven.  The Fatwa Drive includes visiting major madrassahs, masjids, Islamic jurists and scholars for the purpose.  For Engage, this is based upon the idea that “Together, the moral authority of these opinions can be used a force for legal and popular reform.”

Well-aware of the ire, controversy, dangers and suspicions such a campaign can and does invite, Engage seeks to maintain a clean character of its campaign – free of affiliation, association with different interests – by seeking funds to support itself and its objective through crowdsourcing.

Engage’s campaign can be contributed to at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/engage-reforming-pakistan-s-blasphemy-law

Arafat Mazhar can be contacted on Twitter: https://twitter.com/arafatmazhar

And truly, if Pakistan is to chart a peaceful and pluralistic future for its citizens and religious minorities, it is essential to engage with and overcome all that sustains the Blasphemy Law.

~ Hafsa Khawaja