The Blood on Our Hands


*Originally published in The Nation. Unedited version below:

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

– W. G. Sebald

A glance at his profile reveals bits and pieces from which you can patch together his person: poetry, musings, an avidness for photography, friendships, quotes from books, posts on global affairs and local issues, a love for knowledge, an interest in Sufism, support for women’s rights and a heart for humanity.

This was Mashal Khan, a kind and gentle soul whose crime was to think freely, to have the audacity to think differently, and to envision a better society and a better people.

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He was brutally murdered in Mardan.

Is it even a shock that such a horrific incident took place in a country which has institutionalized bigotry and hate? Where politicians, representatives, leaders, judges, journalists, anchors and clerics peddle hate, bigotry and violence every single day?

Before the matter of blasphemous posts was concocted, Mashal was accused of being an Ahmadi which he had denied. Is such an incident unexpected in a land whose laws enshrine exclusion, discrimination and persecution towards the Ahmadi community?

When the state sanctions hate, it is a license for the public to have a free hand to apply it wherever and whenever they wish.

The gruesome incident also forces questions about blasphemy in Pakistan, including the reform and the repeal of the Blasphemy Law. It is undeniable that the matter warrants honest and candid debate, but it is also a point to ponder whether or not the people would stop baying for blood if the Blasphemy Law goes. In Mashal’s case, neither a formal complaint nor an arrest had taken place. There has been no appeal to law, mob vigilantism was the law of the day.

The baying for blood may not disappear with the Blasphemy Law, but let us be clear that state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas opens the floodgates for abhorrent public sentiments and abominable tendencies and menaces to come to the fore and actively play out. Trump’s ascent to the White House and the boost it has been for white-supremacists and racists stands stark in sight. One need not even look so far for proof of this, a glimpse at our eastern neighbor suffices. Modi’s rise has emboldened Hindu right-wing organizations and India has subsequently seen a sharp growth in incidents of violence, fear, threat and intimidation against those who provoke their ire.

In Pakistan, state patronage of certain ideologies and ideas, a certain narrative of Islam and the narrative of blasphemy, is an encouragement for the public to engage, express and execute their depraved schemes, bigotry, intolerance, and to take the law into their hands.

Mashal’s murder, however, must not push us into the utopian expectation and idealistic hope that the Pakistani government and state would step up to reflect on their responsibility, their complicity and decisively act to steer the country away from the destruction it is steeply descending into by each passing day.

Such an expectation and hope cannot be fostered while the state and government pander and patronize for their own agendas and interests the very elements and organizations whose extremism, intolerance and violence are fatally injuring Pakistan. Such a hope cannot be kept while religion is employed as a potent weapon for political expediency, for cheap political mileage and for silencing dissent; while lawmakers declare those who wish to see Pakistan should either mend their ways or leave the country; while the Prime Minister’s son-in-law engages in hate speech against the Ahmadi community; while political parties scurry to shake hands bloodied with the lives of thousands of Pakistanis, in the name of electoral alliances; when disappeared bloggers and arrested professors are struck with blasphemy allegations; when the Interior Minister threatens to shut down social media due to blasphemous content; when judges become moral crusaders and drum up perceived dangers to Islam to curtail freedoms.

That this witch-hunt and venom would extend and seep into online spaces was only inevitable.

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Shama and Shehzad

It is too much to expect for things to change when not a leaf stirred when Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were gunned down in broad daylight, when the Christian couple of a pregnant Shama and her husband Shehzad were lynched and thrown into the furnace of a brick kiln, or when an angry mob set fire to a house in Gujranwala killing three Ahmadis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.

The involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism and intolerance confronting Pakistan. We are complicit, through our outright espousal of extremism, through our apathy towards its victims; through the stutter and stammer of our tongue with “ifs” and “buts” when condemning these acts, through the repugnant “justifications”, “explanations” and “questions” we offer for these acts; and through our refusal and silences to protest against them. In one way or another, we are complicit.

When an institution of education, knowledge and learning becomes the site of a cold-blooded, brutal murder, it should be enough to recognize that the Pakistani state is a rotten state, with a diseased society, both of which can never bear a truly living and thinking individual like Mashal.

The state is complicit, and so are we.

We may not have been present at the site of the murder, but we enabled it.

One can suppose that the splatters of blood are lighter on our hands, but know that they are there nonetheless.

Every day, this country dies a ghastly death at the hands of the mob it has the misfortune of calling its people, its nation.

It seems even God has forsaken Pakistan for we alone are responsible for the hell and havoc at home.

Kitni badnaseeb hai who qaum jo apne mashal khud hi inkar aur tabah karde.

Kitne mashal bujhaye jayein gay is mulk main? Aur agar hai, tau kitna tareek hai iss mulk ka mustaqbil.

-Hafsa Khawaja

 

Narrowing Spaces


*Originally published in Daily Times. Slightly longer version below:

Pakistan seems to be caught in a constant movement of one step forward and two steps backward.

Earlier this year, the disappearance of six prominent social activists and bloggers, who were critical of the state and establishment, sent shockwaves through the civil society. Their recovery was a cause of relief, however the message of their disappearances to the rest of the activist community was hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

Recently, activist and academic Dr Riaz Ahmed was arrested during a protest on the charges of possessing an illicit weapon allegedly found in his vehicle. Regardless of the dubious charges, it is important to know that the paramilitary force officer, on whose complaint the case was registered against Dr. Riaz, did not fail to mention that the professor was also “involved in advocating on Facebook for the release of ‘blasphemous’ bloggers reportedly picked up by law enforcement agencies recently.”

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The allegations of blasphemy have permanently jeopardized the lives of the recovered bloggers, but that those who demanded and protested for their release are now also considered tainted, and their lives subsequently endangered, is a disturbing sign.

In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Holi address to the Hindu community in Karachi garnered surprise and praise from several sections of the population for whom it embodied the progressive acceptance, inclusivity, pluralism, and tolerance that should be at the heart of Pakistan.

While the PM’s speech may have ignited a flicker of hope regarding some modicum of a progressiveness in the government’s orientation, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar was swift to emerge as the moral crusader of the hour, second only to Justice Shaukat Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court, to snuff it with the threat of blocking all social media sites in the country which host blasphemous content.

But relevant to this matter, and to the larger phenomenon of Pakistani political parties’ usual pandering and patronizing of the religious right and extremist organizations, is the late Eqbal Ahmad’s incisive analysis in which he wrote:

“Pakistan’s is an ideologically ambiguous polity; here, political paeans to Islam have served as the compensatory mechanism for the ruling elite’s corruption, consumerism and cow-towing to the west. As a consequence, the ideologically fervent Islamist minority keeps an ideological grip on the morally insecure and ill-formed power elite. It is this phenomenon that explains the continued political clout of the extremist religious minority even as it has been all but repudiated by the electorate. Yet, horrors escalate by the day, and neither their original sponsors, nor the victims are doing much about it.”

However, Chaudhry Nisar’s reported statement in Dawn regarding the social media ban, that “no country can allow religious sentiments to be hurt or top state functionaries to be subjected to ridicule the pretext of freedom of expression”, is telling of the other objectives the ban would clearly serve. That the “ridicule” of state and government officials can be swept by a ban ostensibly related to religion indicates the enduring convenience of religion as a useful prop for Pakistani politics and the state itself.

These threads of incidents and developments tie into the thriving reality of an increasingly and dangerously shrinking and narrowing space for freedom of expression, criticism, dissent and protest in Pakistan. It is a space constantly threatened and stifled by religious obscurantism, extremism and state’s growing intolerance of dissent. Activists, students, bloggers, artists, academics, journalists and members of the civil society are steadily being targeted by virulent campaigns or directly arrested on dubious and fictitious reasons.

The academic spaces in the country don’t have brighter views to offer in this these days either.

C7d9RgWXgAAVP6zAt Punjab University in Lahore, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba once again demonstrated their notorious thuggery on a Pakhtun Cultural Day event resulting in clashes and violence. It was later revealed that, in wake of this incident, the Punjab University administration had decided to ban all student programmes and events within the university premises.

This beleaguering bodes well for no one.

Earlier this year, Pankaj Mishra wrote on Vaclav Havel’s conception of a “parallel polis” and its practical construction as a source of people power against the Trump administration:

Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase).

The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”

Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power.

As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.

Although Mishra emphasised Havel’s idea in the current American context, it is helpful for all cornered people and their resistance against the rise of unjust power against them in other countries too, including Pakistan.

The people will have to take up their cause themselves.

The drive to homogenize Pakistan’s religious and cultural character, and to monopolize its narratives through exclusivist understandings and actual violence, has long been a project of regressive forces and the responsibility falls on ordinary citizens today to thwart its renewed attempts.

With this march of terror, fear and suppression, that draws strength from the standard repertoire of reasons such as religion, “national ideology” and “national security”, it has now become necessary for all concerned citizens to recognize this reality and organize to protect those who fight for our freedoms, and vigorously preserve the spaces and liberties we are entitled to.

Further space and freedoms must not and cannot be conceded in the face of this rising tide of regression, repression and pressure, for there is only more beyond a surrender to them.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Return to Pakistan


I’ll say it again, the casualties of terrorism in Pakistan have been many. The sense of loss is perennial. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

I look at my city, and I am often unable to recognize it.
The Lahore I knew was a Lahore of basant, concerts, cricket matches, festivals; a city constantly throbbing with life. Lahore today is the beating heart whose loud, wild and festive rhythms are muffled and arrested by high security alerts, barbed wires, check-posts, fences, and high walls. Arrested by an architecture and landscape of fear and insecurity, mirroring the one we have come to construct, and navigate through everyday, in our collective mind.

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So many of us have spent the past few days and weeks pondering over and expressing how unwise and misguided holding the PSL final in Lahore is, and yet this return of cricket, this event, even if temporary, even if carefully orchestrated, even if precarious in the possibilities it offers, swept away all the supposed rationality, skepticism, cynicism and sense with which we argued. It was impossible to escape the significance of the event and the overwhelming emotions it brought it: the jazba, the junoon, the frenzy, fervor, joy, excitement – of a beloved’s return, of the recovery of something lost to where and to whom it rightfully belongs, of that persistent pester that refuses to die and continually tugs at the heart for embrace: hope.

And what happened in Lahore embodied it all today.

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The crowds, the dhamaal and Dama Dam Mast in the stadium, the electrifying spirit, the joy, the celebration, so beautiful, powerful and symbolic. That we remember Sehwan. That we celebrate Sehwan. That we are all that Sehwan represents. That we will not bow.

That this, this audacious defiance, is Pakistan.
That all is not lost, that we refuse to surrender.
That one day, we will prevail.

Call it what you will, a distraction, a silly show, but God knows we needed this. This was not a triumph against terrorism, it may change nothing, it may have been the extremely short-lived return of international cricket to Pakistan, but for a few hours, it was the return of millions of Pakistanis to the Pakistan they knew, the Pakistan they remembered, the Pakistan they miss.

May we come to see a time where the normal is no longer nostalgia, where this yearning for the normal is no longer normal. May Lahore and all of Pakistan once again pulsate with the celebration, joy and peace witnessed today.

(Also, may Lahore Qalandars have mercy on Fawad Rana and us, and atleast make it to the semi-finals in future editions of PSL….)

Thank you, PSL. Thank you, all policemen, officers and officials who helped make this happen.

Congratulations Peshawar, Warka Dang!

PAKISTAN ZINDABAD!

-Hafsa Khawaja

It Hurts, Deeply


*Originally published on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

It hurts, deeply.

Lahore. Quetta. Mohmand Agency. Peshawar. Sehwan.

I wonder, will we ever live without this sense of fear and foreboding? This anxiety and fright of you or your loved ones stepping out of the house only to be separated forever.

One of the ways I spend quality-time with my younger sibling is to go to the cinema with him. There have been times when we’ve been there and I’ve been struck by anxiety, and seized by apprehension. What if someone blows this place up today? What if terrorists burst in here? Where is the nearest exit that I will be able to push Abdullah towards? How can I hide him? No, he’s too tall now to be hidden. What will we do if something happens? We shouldn’t be here. What if something happens? What if?

I wonder.

But I am distressed when he goes to school too.

I worry.

I worry someday the Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, or other monuments and places of historical and cultural significance might come into the focus of terrorists. I worry my historical and cultural heritage will be irrecoverably taken from me.

Because nothing is sacred, nothing is certain.

This sense of fear, the sense of loss doesn’t lurk in the dusty corners of our minds, they loom on our hearts, crushingly. 

There are texts and emails every now and then. Identifications of potential targets. Security alerts and warnings. Places to be avoided. Emergency drills to be conducted and participated in. Fears to be grappled with.

For how long?

Normalcy eludes.

I thought nothing was left there to break me further after Peshawar, and yet we learn that what is shattered can be broken further. The past few days have reminded me of the 2008-2009-10 days, when we had ninety suicide attacks and five hundred bombings in a single year.

I thought we were past this. I hoped we were. I prayed we were.

The rising death toll. The need for blood donations. The full impact of the attack. The same old condemnations. The same old rhetoric. The same old statements. The same lies, the same passing the buck, formation of commissions, orders for inquiry etc. Until another attack. And repeat.

50,000 and counting.

We have come to a point where the names of cities are symbolic of the violence, loss and tragedy they have borne. Peshawar is not its history, Peshawar isn’t Fort Bala Hisaar, Peshawar is not Khyber Pass, Peshawar is not its heritage, its beauty, its culture, Peshawar is the APS Attack.

Quetta is not Quetta, Quetta is Hazara killings.

Cities are no longer cities, they are signifiers, signposts of tragedies. Of losses borne, of lives mourned.

The violence, the loss has subsumed everything.

The casualties of terrorism go even beyond the lives. They are tragic ruptures in what was once our cherished collective and celebrated cultural and social life and identity. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

Everything is a reminder of what we face. There is no distraction, there is no relief.

I am at a stage where I shut myself from social media when a tragedy occurs. Because I am a coward, I can no longer face it. I am selfish, because I don’t want to.

I am tired.

Where does one summon the strength from when all is sapped?

I can shut social media for a while, but I cannot shut torment and turmoil of my heart.

I think of the lives taken, I think of the promise held by their presence in others’ lives; the promise held by their existence for Pakistan; a promise betrayed.

I think of the healers, teachers, sportsmen, artists taken from us, who were never given the chance to know it themselves. I think of the ordinary person toiling all day to put bread on the table of his family, wanting to just return home at the end of the day. I think of the love, warmth and hope plundered from multiple lives and generation with the robbery of a single life, in a single moment.

I wrote this before, I’ll say it again:

There are times when I want to escape Pakistan, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to the suffering in this land, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that its suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you, Pakistan, have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

It hurts, deeply.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Far From A Conclusion


*Originally published in Pakistan Today:

Mirrored by a decline in the number of terrorist attacks and incidences and the restoration of a semblance of law and order, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has recently begun to be touted as a story of success.

However, within the month of December alone, a number of developments occurred which question this assertion. There occurred a siege and attack by a mob of 1,000 people on an Ahmadi mosque in Chakwal, during which a 65-year old man belonging to the persecuted minority suffered and died of cardiac arrest. The Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Muhammad Yusuf also happened to present a “peace award” to apostle of peace and esteemed ambassador of inter-sectarian harmony Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, who is now a member of the Punjab Assembly after winning the PP-78 Jhang by-election. Furthermore, flocks of people were reported to be drawing to a site at the outskirts of the capital which was revealed to be the grave of Mumtaz Qadri that is now being turned into a shrine. News of the interior ministry’s preparation of the draft of a law which seeks to give military courts, whose term expired on January 7, permanent status also did the rounds. Lastly, while Jibran Nasir struggles to get a case registered against Abdul Aziz for his declared allegiance to ISIS and for incitement of hate against Shias, pressure from the Sunni Tehreek led to the registration of an FIR and a spate of death threats against Shaan Taseer, son of slain governor Salmaan Taseer, for conveying Christmas greetings to Christians in Pakistan and expressing hope of redressal for those subjected to the blasphemy law.

That these developments occurred within the span of a single month is an unsettling realization which also asks for the direction and narrative of Pakistan’s campaign against terrorism and extremism to be probed and reviewed.

A concrete answer to the question and status of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism is found in Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s inquiry report into Quetta’s Civil Hospital attack of 9th August 2016. The 110 page report provides extensive insights into the “monumental failure to combat terrorism and perform basic protocols” especially pertaining to the National Action Plan. It mentions not only a lack of action against proscribed organizations, that have freely held rallies in Islamabad, but also a brazen “cavorting” by key government figures with the heads of these organizations, as was demonstrated by the meeting between the interior minister and Ahmed Ludhianvi of Ahle Sunnat Wal Juma’at. The report further makes mention of lapses, limitations and inadequacies in terms of the tools and methodologies used to investigate attacks; along with sheer negligence in  “silencing extremist speech, literature, and propaganda” and the stark “shortsightedness” of the federal and provincial governments in thwarting terrorism and extremism.

The report is an act of Qazi Isa’s professional integrity and bravery, but it is also a damning expose and indictment of the government, the interior ministry and the failure and façade that is the National Action Plan.

The number of terrorist attacks and incidents in Pakistan may have registered a considerable drop in numbers but they are far from over. In fact, their focus in certain areas and upon certain communities remains as forceful and fatal as ever. The past year alone remains relevant in illustrating this. In 2016, a Shia majlis was attacked in Nazimabad, killing four. But denial about targeted killings of the beleaguered Shia community persist within the wider narrative of the population. Quetta was also frequently besieged by tragedies which have ceaselessly continued to devour and devastate the city. In August, the blast at the Civil Hospital killed an entire generation of the city’s legal community, while the attack on the police training academy took the lives of 61 cadets and guards. In September, suicide-bombers targeted a mosque in Mohmand Agency, and an Imambargah in Shikarpur during Eid prayers. Earlier in 2016, the attacks on Bacha Khan University and Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park took place. The sites for terrorist assaults may have shifted to neglected and orphaned “peripheries” like Quetta and FATA, but the danger and threat persist. And they will linger as long as state institutions remain divided on the matter and continue to keep in place dubious policies and doctrines that bar an unequivocal commitment to counter extremism and terrorism in all tints and tones. This is no longer a contention but a judgement officially articulated and validated by Justice Isa’s report.

On the other hand, the lifted moratorium on the death penalty, perhaps the only implemented measure of the much-hailed National Action Plan, continues to work in full force without any hindrance of transparency and accountability. According to the Justice Project Pakistan, an estimated 400 prisoners have been executed since the lifting of the moratorium, pulling Pakistan to the position of the third most prolific executioner globally. The JPP also states that a slim 16 per cent of the executions carried out since December 2014 were tied to charges of terrorism, while the rest involved juveniles and disabled inmates. The mockery and sham of justice continues at the courts and the gallows.

Moreover, the attack which gave rise to a national sense of urgency in dealing with terrorism has yet to be investigated. The APS attack, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the National Action Plan were predicated upon, has actually been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at the parents who have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack. Two years on, an inquiry into the APS attack has not been ordered but actively suppressed.

In light of these realities, as Pakistan steps into 2017 it is necessary to proceed with cautious optimism and realize that the calm engendered by a decline in terrorist attacks is relative and temporary as long as the roots and the many manifestations of the menace are not tackled.

This relative calm should not engender a sense of complacency among the federal and provincial governments whose approach to the issue already comprises craven surrender, prevarications and papering over the problem.

The scourge of terrorism and extremism doesn’t only need to be subdued but stifled and strangled to an end. There exists a dire for a fundamental change in the framework, direction, orientation and agendas of the state and the actors steering them. Neither declarations, nor a rhetoric of resolve and programs like the National Action Plan would suffice. Templates and infrastructures like the NAP can only aid and facilitate actual implementation on ground which demands political will, courage, vision and resolve that repudiate political expediency, cavorting, patronizing, pacifying and pandering to militant, sectarian organizations and the many faces and forms of extremism. Until then, Pakistan’s success against terrorism, drawn from a decrease in the number of attacks, must be recognized as partial success in a war with multiple battles and fronts, a war still far from a conclusion today.

-Hafsa Khawaja