Book Review: Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider and Witness in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar


*Originally written for and published on Eqbal’s Ahmad’s fanpage:

Note:

In the “intellectual indolence” that has reigned in Pakistan, Eqbal Ahmad has been a flare of exception. Although I became acquainted with his life and work long after his demise, his intellectual honesty, courage and brilliance has taught me to think, to learn, to question and to speak up; inspiring me never to dim the dream of a progressive and peaceful Pakistan and world; to stay true to the pursuit of this vision. My admiration for him knows no bounds and I am truly indebted to his work that has educated and awakened the importance of an intellectual consciousness in me. And I would like nothing more than to consider myself but a student of his.

Book Review:

Political scientist, activist, writer, thinker and intellectual, Eqbal Ahmad (1930-1999) was a man beyond his times. Writing his obituary in 1999, the late Edward Said described him as a ‘Companion in arms to such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Richard Falk’, and ‘perhaps the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa.’ Eqbal has rightly been called ‘the astute alarmist’  who uncannily foresaw future trends that later came to develop into concrete realities marking the world. And it is with six incredibly significant examples of this prophetic perspicacity, including the fallout of the Afghan War and that of a possible US invasion of Iraq, that Stuart Schaar begins his book on Eqbal Ahmad.

Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Schaar was friends with Eqbal since 1958 when they were both at Princeton. He carefully traces Ahmad’s journey from a little boy in Bihar who was an early witness to violence, a participant of the Partition, student at the Forman Christian College and Princeton University, one of the notorious Harrisburg 7 (a conspiracy case during the era of the Vietnam War in which the defendants were accused of a plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger), professor at Hampshire College in the US, to his return and final years in Pakistan. Each stage steering him towards the distinguished public intellectual and thinker he came to be; a transformation unveiled by light the book sheds on his personal, political and intellectual evolution.

Schaar writes, “The combination of originality, intelligence and fearlessness in confronting power, drew some of the major intellectuals on the Left towards him, including prominent figures in a variety of fields in the US, Western Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia,. He socialized with writers from around the world and learned from them. He corresponded with leaders of the international Left and in the Indian/Pakistani subcontinent he knew and befriended some of the most gifted intellectuals, while political figures and military leaders courted him for advice.”

Indeed Eqbal Ahmad’s brilliance and numerous travels led to his contact and correspondence with countless people, both those within and outside the realm of power, including Yasser Arafat, Ayatollah Khomeini, Frantz Fanon’s widow and Osama bin Laden, and various activists, diplomats, politicians, leaders, journalists, writers, revolutionaries from all over the world. The book makes sure to deal with this important aspect of his life. One of the instances, related to this, mentioned involves Habib Bourghiba’s attempts to get Ahmad to write his official biography while he stayed in Tunisia for his PhD thesis. Ahmad also came to be acquainted with various struggles, especially the liberation movement in Algeria against France.

As his friend, Schaar was able to gain insights not only from his own memories but also from the access he gained to the latter’s family, friends, colleagues and students. Their anecdotes and recollections paint a fuller picture of the person that Eqbal was in each of his relationships: as a father, teacher, friend, colleague and thinker.

[the book even sheds light on the gourmet chef Ahmad was, also including a whole recipe of his at the end]

One of these is dealt with in detail in the book: Eqbal’s friendship with Edward Said, a relationship of immense respect, admiration, solidarity and affinity between both. Regarding which the book holds some wonderful insights in the form of excerpts from the email correspondence between both and the letter of recommendation by Said when Ahmad applied for a job at Hampshire College.

Moreover, the book goes beyond illuminating Eqbal Ahmad’s words and ideas by engaging with his efforts and encounters through which he channelled his ideas and social and political activism; such as his role in organizing and establishing people-to-people Indo-Pak cultural exchanges back in 1980s, which Schaar writes, [they] intended to build a social movement which would….help create a groundswell to move both countries towards reconciliation and peace.”, and his plan to establish a liberal-arts university in Islamabad by the name of Khaldunia (named after the Arab polymath).

Furthermore, Schaar manages to focus on both Eqbal Ahmad’s personal experiences and his ideas and work; by blending both as complements for each other into the narration of his life. To add clarity to the book and lend lucidity to understanding Eqbal’s work, the book neatly divides several of his ideas, stances and polemics on particular issues: (i) Islam and Islamic History; (ii) Imperialism, Nationalism, Revolutionary Warfare, Insurgency and Need for Democracy; (iii) The Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict; (iv) India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh: the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation and Views on Partitioning States; and (v) Critique of US foreign policy: The Cold War and Terrorism. Although these sections do not cover the vast expanse of Eqbal’s ideas in detail, which perhaps can only be accessed through his essays, they are nonetheless, a fair glimpse of his perspective and analytical eminence.

Despite being his friend, Schaar does not remain from revealing Eqbal’s occasional idealism and resulting follies, such as his criticism and attacks on then prime-minister Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari in his Dawn columns all the while hoping and expecting her government to endorse and support his Khaldunia project, which consequently faced many hurdles to its realization.

However, Kabir Babar sees the book as not without its drawbacks for students of Eqbal new and old:

“This book is not without its flaws. A drawback of the anecdotal style in which it is written is that Ahmad’s life is presented with neither chronological nor thematic consistency.

And while the book is revealing, it is by no means a definitive biography, for there are numerous aspects of Eqbal Ahmad’s life that are either ignored or glossed over in this work. For instance, no mention is made of Ahmad’s encounters with Malcolm X and Fidel Castro. Also, while much is made of the impact that Ahmad’s exposure as a boy to Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had on his thought, there is no reference to Syed Abul Ala Maududi, to whom Eqbal acknowledged owing an intellectual debt. Ahmad is said to have directly participated in the Algerian revolution, but few details are provided. In his foreword to a collection of Ahmad’s essays, physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy states that, during successive martial law governments in Pakistan, there were warrants of arrest and death sentences put out on Ahmad. None of this is mentioned in Schaar’s book.”

Nonetheless, Babar is right to point out that, “The subtitle of this book is well-chosen: because he was ideologically difficult to pigeonhole and the scope of his activities and intellect was global, Eqbal Ahmad was an outsider everywhere.”

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All in all, Schaar’s book weaves a truly vivid portrait of the man about whom the late Edward Said said, “Knowing him has been an education”, and on occasion of his [Ahmad] retirement from Hampshire College, “..to paraphrase from Kipling’s Kim – a friend of the world.”. Eqbal was a friend who saw the future before its time, who was an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed all over the world and was an epitome of intellectual honesty and courage – a friend who, in today’s global moment of confusion, crises and clamour, is all the more important to revisit. A revisit for which Schaar builds an important bridge through this book, for there is no doubt that knowing Eqbal Ahmad even today would still be an invaluable education for anyone seeking guidance and direction in hope for a more just, progressive and peaceful world.

—- Hafsa Khawaja

Allah De Hawale


*Originally published in The Friday Times:

A sessions court in Karachi recently dismissed a plea filed by PTI against the Sindh government regarding incompetence and apathy in the face of the devastating heat wave that struck the city. According to a report in Dawn, the esteemed judge was of the opinion that, “Climate change is in control of Almighty Allah…Due to climate changes the season of monsoon also has been effected and rather delayed and for all this we being Muslims have to pray before Almighty Allah to extend the relief to the human being by showing His kindness.”

Energy experts at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, Maha Kamal and Maariyah Wasim recently wrote an article stressing the dangerous scale of climate change for South Asia. While emphasising and proposing proper policy action to combat climate change, they mention that the Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015 marked Pakistan in the ‘extreme risk’ category and comment that, “Climate scientists all around the world now agree that climate change is not an esoteric term but a manmade phenomenon, caused by human activities. Blaming ‘climate change’ without accepting responsibility for the causes of climate change has led to inaction by policymakers, as well as a lack of direction.”

The New York Times’ also recently commented on the fresh findings of British medical journal The Lancet concerning the subject of climate change and its effects on health: “More people will be exposed to floods, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather associated with climate change over the next century than previously thought.”

Furthermore, Michael Kugelman’s article in Dawn throws light on the immensely alarming looming danger of water scarcity in Pakistan: “A new IMF report throws the severity of Pakistan’s water crisis into sharp relief. Back in 2009, the Running on Empty study projected that by 2025, Pakistan’s water shortfall could be five times the amount of water that could then be stored throughout the Indus River system’s vast reservoirs. It estimated that the shortfall in 2025 would comprise almost two thirds of the entire Indus River system’s current annual average flow.” In view of this, the nightmare of a ‘water-starved wasteland’ does not appear too distant as Pakistan’s future.

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However, it seems that no amount of studies, statistics, figures and projections can drive home the point that Pakistan faces a crisis of survival posed by climate change. There cannot be a clearer signal and a more frightful warning than the recent heat wave that claimed a staggering number of 1,200 lives. It can only be wondered with dread what more is in store for a country that, according to the data from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation (ND-Gain) Index, holds a dismal ranking regarding its adaptation to global warming, and yet, has left it all to the Will of Allah alone.

The belief that all lies in the hands and power of Allah is not alien to Islam. However, neither is the norm of the use, abuse and exploitation of religion by the Pakistani state uncommon. Such an argument, as articulated by the distinguished judge, deprives those in power of any agency, which they are otherwise rather quick to exercise. It serves to justify and perpetuate the incompetence that marks government performance in the country; providing them an escape from the responsibilities and duties owed to citizens.

Back in May a motivational lecture on the ‘Morality and Ethics and Public Service Delivery’ by a religious scholar was organised for customs officers by the Federal Board of Revenue.  While there is nothing wrong with motivational lectures, it remains to be noted that it will take a lot more than sermons to “motivate” the epidemic of entrenched corruption and inefficiency out of the bureaucracy. FBR and other state institutions need immediate reforms which sermons can succeed in supplanting.

What the mention of this motivational lecture exhibits is once again, the pervasive use of religion in Pakistan as a convenient substitute for initiative, action, accountability and reform; a use that will intensify as issues such as those of climate change increasingly lay claim to the country.

Perhaps people in Pakistan need to be acquainted with the message given by Professor Mehmet Gormuz, head of Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs in 2014. Addressing muftis from every province after the horrific Soma Mine incident that killed 303 workers, Professor Gormez also responded to then PM Erdogan’s statement that such accidents were matters of fate and nature:

 “Producing excuses about ‘divine power’ for human guilt and responsibility is wrong. The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters. The strength of the believer against the consequences of disasters is important. But similarly important is the believer’s comprehension of the causes.”

From Soma to Karachi, the importance of Gormez’s message resonates; ‘divine power’ and ‘fate’ should not be draped as escapes from human responsibility, or excuses for indifference and inaction.

Perhaps it would be better if those at the helm of power in Pakistan stop indulging in convenient fatalism and immediately revise and implement the National Climate Change Policy. With more than a thousand lives usurped, it is time to abandon the prime method of redressing Pakistan’s pressing problems, a method which can be summed in three words: Allah de Hawale.

– Hafsa Khawaja

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