Silencing LUMS, Resilencing Balochistan


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

“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”

Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.

Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.

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However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:

“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”

While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.

Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.

To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.

It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.

Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.

The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.

More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.

In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.

This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.

Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.

People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.

And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.

Balochistan is bleeding.

And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.

And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.

As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.

Thus, the ‪#‎ShameOnLUMS‬ trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today

In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.

While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:

“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.

 However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.

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Youhanabad and the Language of Prejudice


*Originally published in The Nation.

Less than four months since the Peshawar tragedy and Pakistan has seen the Shikarpur bombing, the Peshawar Imambargah and Youhanabad attacks.

Blood does not seem to stop flowing in this land.

Much has been said about attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan, and it is often that the violence against them is explained by brushing it into the general epidemic of terrorism afflicting the nation and country; violence that raging yet indiscriminate. Certainly, attacks on religious minorities do add to and reinforce the plague of violence in Pakistan yet they are not one and the same thing. The danger of this explanation is that it is a narrative which blurs a gory reality; that religious minorities face fatal focus from terrorists and extremists; specially targeted and massacred. From the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to Shikarpur, from Kot Radha Kishan to Youhanabad, there is a cold-blooded calculation behind this blood-letting, and these are truly besieged communities.

Ali Sethi’s recent article in The New York Times on the Youhanabad attack states:

‘According to one estimate, in the last two years there have been 36 targeted attacks on Pakistani Christians, 265 Christian deaths from suicide bombings and 21 “persecutions” of Christians under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

What we have, then, is the peculiar despair of a people who are unable to articulate their real grievance, a people who have no political parties or voting blocs of their own, who have only churches and pastors and the eternal motifs of suffering and deliverance to see them through this dark period.’

Moreover, although Youhanabad falls in Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif’s constituency; he hasn’t visited it once since the attack. This does much to demonstrate the crass neglect and disregard prevalent in the ruling party’s leadership on the issue, aggravating the spiralling state failure at the cost of numerous Pakistani lives.

The extremist intolerance and hate that set off bombs in Youhanabad also bred further violence as two men were burnt alive by the resulting angry mob in broad daylight to the glare of photos being snapped and videos being captured through mobiles by the perpetrators.

As gruesome and reprehensible was the lynching, it is important to view the incident clear of the inevitable and intense emotions clouding it. Waqqas Mir, writing for The News on Sunday, offered the needed perspective:

“A mob is a mob and its violent actions need to be condemned for that reason alone. The religion to which violent individuals belong is not helpful in explaining the violence or, more importantly, controlling it.”

Religion can certainly not be held culpable in cases such as these which are clearly not specific to certain groups in the society if we are to recall that the savage lynching of two brothers in Sialkot happened not long ago.

However, the violent turn of events after Youhanabad revealed an equally important aspect contributing to the dismal position of Christians in the country: cultural and social.

The Youhanabad bombing and the mob that horrifically took the lives of two men spurred a rush of reactions. Soon some sentiments morphed into degradation of the Christian community in Pakistan.

Many expressed shock, outrage and despair at the incidents, yet a flurry of tweets and comments also ran along the lines of “chooray chooray hi hotay hain”. The attachment of choora as a disparaging and condemnatory label for the entire Christian community is neither new nor uncommon, and this was put to ample display during the ugly turn many comments took as the news of the mob murder emerged. Such is the extent of its use and commonality that choora rings synonymously with the Christian community in the country for many.

Language is the vehicle of culture, and inevitably, cultural prejudices.

Choora, a pejorative to belittle and degrade Pakistani Christians, is rooted in the utter lack of respect and recognition associated with those who have menial occupations in the society. The comments sought to shamelessly demean the Christian community by way of the label since socially and culturally, little respect is lent to the work of those who toil after the dirt and filth we leave in our wake, not quite different from this filth spouted at the Christian community; a religious minority whose members included illustrious individuals like Cecil Chaudhry, Mervyn Middlecoat, Justice Cornelius and Samuel Martin Burke who lived their lives for Pakistan.

The application of choora in its cultural context therefore ‘others’ Christians by degrading them as some sort of second-class citizens who are unequal to the rest. This is similar to the linguistic treatment of khawaja sira or khusras which is reflective of our societal treatment of them; in the form of exclusion; subjection to humiliation and jokes.

While to some these may ring only as mere words, they are nonetheless expressions of the deep-seated beliefs prevalent in many segments of the Pakistani society; cultural crutches for the bigotry that perpetuates prejudices against the cornered Christian minority. These reflect and reinforce prejudices that manifest as apathy towards their problems, grievances and pleas, and in the most extreme of cases, as bloody sores as in the form of Joseph Colony, Shama and Shehzad’s cruel murder and the Youhanabad bombing.

The white in our flag is soaked red and it is time it is reclaimed; but for that the state and society must work and change in unison; the latter must rid itself of cultural beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that sustain and perpetuate prejudices against religious minorities in Pakistan.

And for a start, we can all begin by challenging and changing the language of prejudice.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

~~

Hollow Healing


*Originally published in The News.

Newspapers recently reported that a group of students and teachers who survived the Peshawar massacre had been sent on a trip to China ‘aimed at healing the mental scars of their ordeal’; and that the bereaved parents of the 130+ children killed would be sent on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Although officials maintain that the trip was borne out of suggestions and consultations done with psychiatrists regarding the process of healing, reality offers a far difficult road to recovery for Pakistan.

With 50,000 massacred – yes massacred, not sacrificed; let us not romanticise the bloodletting that consumes Pakistan; for a sacrifice is willing and conscious, but a massacre is plain butchery – the sigh between mourning countless tragedies and the breaths heaved between cries is the only peace the nation can prise.

The Shikarpur slaughter that took away 60+ lives has revealed the empty change the Peshawar tragedy spurred in Pakistan in the form of standard hollow condemnations, promises and eyewash.

Palliative measures such as the lifting of the moratorium on death penalty and hangings of convicted terrorists may satiate national vengeance, but do not and should not dampen the need for national justice; for which a solid anti and counter-terrorism policy is essential.

Furthermore, there has naturally been no shortage of the absurd since the KPK government’s decision to allow teachers weapons inside schools stands glaring. As shocking is the decision, it is also a tragic testament to the state’s loss of its monopoly on violence, cruelly emphasised by terrorists, and its reaction to it which seems to border on surrender and acceptance. Such an acquiescent attitude clearly signifies the state’s indifference and inability to protect the lives of its citizens and guarantee their liberty, safety and security. And from the KPK government’s decision, it appears that the solution to this loss of state monopoly has been found in compounding the problem by doling out more and more shares of the monopoly to segments of the violence-ridden society.

More recently, arrests were made of the members of the civil society, which included the dauntless Jibran Nasir, protested in Karachi by holding a sit-in against the Shikarpur imambargah bombing and the ‘outlawed’ ASWJ. The protesters’ demands included naming all banned organisations on media; closing the offices of all the banned organisations, removal of their flags, erasing their wall chalking; taking action against Aurangzeb Farooqi, ending his police protocol; and providing treatment to patients who need care in Shikarpur, Sukkur, Larkana hospitals in Karachi and Hyderabad. Abbas Nasir, while reflecting on the hopelessness prevalent in Pakistan, penned in Dawn:

“The party in power at the centre never staked a claim to any progressive mantle. But the party in power in Sindh claims to be the keeper of the legacy of pro-people, even secular, politics in the country. Look at how it has capitulated to the religious ultra-right.”

The arrests of the protesters served, yet again, as shameful reminder of the state and government being held hostage to non-state actors and organizations such as the ASWJ and SSP; committing complicity in the crimes perpetrated by these individuals and organizations by way of pandering to them and putting up frequent shows of spinelessness when it comes to them.

The persecution and troubles tormenting religious minorities such as the Shias in Pakistan are very much a part of the problem of terrorism and extremism; dealing with which cannot be discounted if Pakistan is to overcome this crisis. The blood that was shed in Shikarpur was in the name of the same ideology that shed blood in Peshawar. Therefore, to ignore or separate the sectarian angle from terrorism and extremism in Pakistan would be to have a blurry and weak vision of the danger the country faces.

Buried under palliative measures, national amnesia, short-lived bouts of outrage; and the empty promises and deliverance that have become the crowning glory of the PML-N government, which seems to be competing against the records of cluelessness and incompetence set by the previous PPP government, are the concrete steps that remain far from being taken in Pakistan’s fight against terror. Concrete steps that disturb the long-cherished equilibrium and existence of policies and trends in Pakistan including the establishment’s notoriously duplicitous policies, the ties of patronage and alliance Pakistan’s political parties pride themselves on with sectarian outfits; and the cowardice that crowds the corridors of powers in Pakistan from taking on extremism and terrorism with sincerity and tenacity.

The trip to China may temporarily divert the children’s attention, but the usurpation of their childhood, that no child should ever have to bear, is consummate and irreversible.

Comparing the response and reaction in Pakistan after the Peshawar Tragedy to the reaction in France and Jordan after the Charlie Hebdo killings and Muath Al-Kasasbeh’s barbaric murder by ISIS of a nationwide outpouring of solidarity and grief coupled with government resolve, the Pakistan Votes page on social media commented with a quote from Waseem Altaf:

“A fractured polity, polarized political entities and a divided crowd of people, with a security establishment which wants exemptions for certain groups (read proxies) and a spineless leadership is what we have to fight the menace of terrorism.”

Sending the children on trips will not suffice, providing them a future better than their past will. And for that, a lot more needs to be done. Until then, all is hollow healing.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

The Wedding, the Media and Us


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


Tu ghanti big ban di, poora London thumakda
Oh jaddo nachche pehn di, poora London thumakda..

Kabhi kabhi mere dil me khayal aata hai, kee jaise tujhko banaya gaya hai mere liye….

Bollywood classics and the latest romantic songs rung loudly against the images of Imran and Reham Khan as a sense of festivity occupied most channels yesterday owing to the couple finally tying the knot. As lowkey and simple was the marriage ceremony, it managed to kick up an even bigger storm in Pakistan.

Jon Boone of the Guardian noted and wrote:

“For Pakistan’s news channels it was the equivalent of a starting pistol fired on a sudden royal wedding, but with no footage to satisfy the audience.

They did their best, overlaying with fireworks the few available stills of the couple while traditional wedding music played over video of impromptu celebrations thrown by Khan’s supporters around the country.”

Features on the new Mrs. Khan and her biographical information ran as tickers on several channels along with footages and pictures, astrologers were called in to foretell the future of the marriage; Imran and Reham’s faces were morphed onto pictures of gaudily dressed bride and groom, relatives of the couple were contacted and of course, social media also ran amok.

From following Imran Khan sisters and issuing news of their absence at the Nikkah, which journalist Shiraz Hassan aptly called ‘Phuphu Journalism’ on Twitter; to inviting astrologers to argue over the strength of the new union between the two individuals, going as far to predict when a khushkhabri will come; Pakistan’s media once again succumbed to the temptations of trashy sensationalism. And once again, it has thrown light on the long way it has to go before being a beacon of real, responsible and mature journalism.

As much as the crazed response to Imran Khan’s marriage and judgmental comments on Reham Khan are deplored, they are but nothing new in a culture in which privacy is an alien concept and prying is a popular practice and norm. Unfortunately in Pakistan, where many hold the audacity to foresee God’s will and declare people bound for hell, anyone’s business is everyone’s business. It is therefore little wonder and slightly understandable that Imran Khan’s marriage was made subject of such a reaction and response.

However, it has still been shocking.

For a nation that saw the coldblooded, barbaric murder of 140 children less than a month ago, a mood as jolly and celebratory as that espoused by the media and the obsession sparked within the people was nothing less than abhorrent. Yet it signaled the quick shifting of priorities, focus and heart in Pakistan. Pakistan seems to have internalized and entrenched the norm of apathy in the form of temporary outrage, temporary outpouring of grief and temporary empathy which are proudly shrouded in the glossy garb of ‘resilience’. Any hope that the Peshawar Tragedy would strike and shake the lifeless body of emotion, reaction and empathy in Pakistan with horror and fury into galvanization dims in the face of this reality. Our apathy has become complicity in the bloodletting.

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In view of which, maybe it is too much to expect Pakistan, institutions and people in it to put up a show of sobriety and solemnity; to, for once, hold a monstrosity alive in head and heart and drive a stake through the monster once and for all.

It is often here said that USA had one 9/11 but Pakistan has one every day; yet such a spectre as was witnessed after Imran and Reham Khan’s wedding would never have been witnessed in America less than a month after 9/11. They never forgot, and we already have, as always.

 ~ Hafsa Khawaja

Let Us Count No More


*Originally published in The Nation.
Unedited version below:

Some tragedies are difficult to erase from national memories.  Some wounds are difficult to heal. What happened in Peshawar was a monstrosity beyond evil, a calamity beyond tragedy. The calculated, cold-blooded murder of helpless, defenseless, innocent children will always remain, neither a wound that heals, nor a stain that fades, but a scar right in Pakistan’s heart that shall only deepen with time. It will remain forever.

Women mourn their relative Mohammed Ali Khan, a student who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar

In an air of seething anger, mourning and vengeance, the government decided to lift the moratorium on death penalty. As understandable as this is for the savages who have torn through Pakistan’s soul, it must be realized that the lifting of the moratorium is once again a cosmetic attempt to defeat terrorism.

Pakistan can no longer do without recognizing that the monster of terrorism has multiple heads and tackling it honestly.

For once, the state and military establishment must end the dubious, contradictory and damnable distinction between the “good” and “bad” Taliban, for the advancement of ‘Strategic Depth’ that has become the death of us. It is important to mention the late Eqbal Ahmad, whose prophetic warnings regarding Pakistan’s future vis-à-vis the policy in Afghanistan during and after the Afghan war were made little use of, penned in an article, titled ‘What after strategic depth?’ in Dawn on 23 August, 1998:

“The domestic costs of Pakistan’s friendly proximity to the Taliban are incalculable and potentially catastrophic The Taliban are the expression of a modern disease, symptoms of a social cancer which shall destroy Muslim societies if its growth is not arrested and the disease is not eliminated. It is prone to spreading, and the Taliban will be the most deadly communicators of this cancer if they remain so organically linked to Pakistan.”

The scourge of extremism and terrorism cannot be defeated if Pakistan’s military establishment pursues policies of duplicity; with a selective fight instead of an all-out war against all terrorists without distinction and second thought, since the alternative is clearly at the expense of Pakistan’s peace, stability and future.

As vital it is to battle the Taliban physically, it is even more crucial to battle them ideologically, culturally and socially.

Pakistan’s mosques must be regulated and rid of the hate speeches made against other religions, religious minorities, sects and the West, that pass for sermons. These have converted the country’s mosques into sanctuaries breeding hate, bigotry and intolerance with bloody repercussions.

Jibran Nasir: The quiet lawyer and activist who is taking on Pakistan’s Taliban (The Independent, photo taken by Mosharraf Zaidi)

The people must reclaim their mosques, just as the brave Jibran Nasir led people in Islamabad rallying for FIR against and the arrest of Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid for his audacious refusal to condemn the Peshawar massacre in clear words live on television. It is hoped that this spirit inflamed by rage and sorrow crystallizes into a sustained campaign and movement by the citizens to reclaim Pakistan; for any ‘maulana’ or ‘mufti’ whose tongue stutters to clearly condemn extremists and terrorist acts of atrocities must be taken to task by the people and state; and if the state does not take them to task, the people must take it to task too. Let it be clear today that a lack of condemnation is an act of complicity. Pakistan has paid enough for terrorist apologists in its midst.

The media must also stop the sensationalist and luxurious provision of airtime to such men in the guise of interviews and calls; offering them opportunities to shamelessly propagate their views and promote the cause of the extremists in turn. Pakistan cannot and must not tolerate any terrorist apologists from any sphere, be it religious, social or political since they are in abundance.

Furthermore, Pakistan cannot envision the eradication of extremism and terrorism unless the political patronage of militant organizations like the SSP, LeJ and ASWJ are explicitly ended. It is this country and nation’s misfortune, that not only does it have leaders who are spineless and irresolute in the face of a cancer that continues to consume Pakistan; but also have links; concede, pacify and pander to organizations that are proud ancillary warriors to the ideological evil.

Death penalties may satiate our desire for justice, but these cannot compensate for the alarming flaws plaguing Pakistan’s judicial system that is unable to prosecute, convict and punish terrorists. Mentioned in Chris Albritton’s Daily Beast article, the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2013 states:

“Intimidation by terrorists against witnesses, police, victims, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges contributed both to the slow progress of cases in Antiterrorism Courts and a high acquittal rate.”

According to Dawn, since 2007, over 2,000 alleged terrorists have been freed by the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) and even re-joined terrorist outfits. Therefore, as long as Pakistan’s courts are not empowered and let murderers like Malik Ishaq walk free with the blood of hundreds of Shias on his hands; death penalties will only remain a superficial step taken in the stride for serving justice.

Moreover, the curriculum and textbooks taught in Pakistan must be reviewed and revised to replace the patchwork of intolerance, hate, bigotry, xenophobia and jingoism it has currently bred by one which fosters a pluralistic national mindset of tolerance, inter-faith, inter-sect, inter-ethnic harmony. The distortions and crass obfuscations in the textbooks may have served the state well but they have certainly not served the country and nation well.

Pakistan must also recognize that the disease of extremism and terrorism is home-grown. The hordes that attended Arshad Mehmood’s funeral after his hanging were our people, they were Pakistanis. Those who fund, abet and sympathise with these are Pakistanis. Arshad Mehmood and his ilk was Pakistani. The hundreds of children slaughtered in Peshawar were Pakistani, this is Pakistan’s war.

Lastly, as a people, we must rupture our resilience. Let us let it be known that we will not forget nor forgive; we will neither recover nor rest until we win this war; a war within us. We must no longer be quiet; we must let the pain of Peshawar never subside if Pakistan is ever to remain alive. Let us feel the loss that can never be undone. Let us walk on the blood-splattered shards of Peshawar, let us never forget what happened there; let us not wash this away from our hearts and minds by the flimsy cloth of resilience.  Let us know that our silence and resilience is now complicity.

Let us find it difficult to sleep every night knowing this soil is fresh with the splattered blood of its beautiful children. Let us count the 50,000 which 140 more have joined.  Every inch of this land is soaked with the blood of its own.

Let us be resilient no longer if we are to count no more.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Catharsis.


There seems to be a great deal of skepticism and cynicism among members of some older generations in Pakistan regarding vigils and shows of protests, especially by the youth. They question what difference does it make, what point is there to it to such a ‘superficial’’ western’ cultural import?

What happened in Peshawar is a monstrosity beyond evil, a calamity beyond tragedy. It has rattled us to the very core and shook our souls. Grasped by grief and suffocated by helplessness, it now seems difficult to breathe.

In times of unbearable grief mocked by helplessness; of screaming anger silenced in the wails of mourning – coming together is sometimes the only way to help restore some semblance of power to us, in a land and time where it is bloodily usurped through guns and bombs tearing through our bodies, lives, souls and spirits.

Coming together in the form of a vigil or protest is not just a gathering. It is much more.

It is an effort, no matter how inconsequential, to express solidarity and support; to be counted and to be heard; to mark the persistence of resilience. It is a clamour amid attempts to be silenced.

The candles we light are not just in remembrance of the lost, but also in sight and light of hope. Hope, letting go of which is too much of a risk for us to take since that is all we have.

Some tragedies are difficult to erase from national memories. The deliberate, cold-blooded murder of helpless, defenseless, innocent little children will always remain, neither a wound for that heals, nor a stain that fades, but a scar in Pakistan’s memory. It will remain forever.

Therefore, let us not imbue Pakistan with further negativity by criticizing acts and gestures that express our collective sorrow and grief, our support and solidarity, our resolve and resistance. To collect the smithereens of our sanity and sense, our strength, our hopes and humanity from the shards of grief and barbarity.

In the grasp of grief and the suffocation of helplessness, maybe this is the only catharsis we have.

That we are in this together. That in throbbing with pain, we still throb with life.

Rest in peace, flowers of Peshawar.

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Every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its own,

Every corner with fear and ordeal;

Peace left long,

Abandoned us with scorn;

From death and violence there is no respite,

Helpless screams our plight;

Bodies pile in heaps,

From this land of green, only red seeps;

Grief marches,

And suffering strides,

But bravery reigns,

And resilience still resides;

The sigh between mourning,

The breath between cries,

The time between two calamities;

Is the only peace, out of life, that we can now prise;

They say there is a world beyond,

They say there is a heaven,

And we believe, for we’ve seen hell;

For every inch of this country is soaked with the blood of its own,

Every corner with fear and ordeal.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Blasphemy in the Name of God


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently visited the family of the Christian couple burnt alive by a mob in Kot Radha Kishan for allegedly desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. He announced Rs5 million as compensation for the bereaved family as well as 10 acres of land. A three-member committee has also been ordered to investigate the matter. Although commissions and committees in Pakistan have come to represent a confirmed course for consigning an issue to oblivion, the inadequacy of the aforementioned measures resonates for larger reasons.

Earlier this year in Gujranwala, an angry mob set fire to a house killing three Ahmedis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.  From Ahmedis, Hindus to Christians, religious minorities in Pakistan are vulnerable and widely exposed to threats, intimidation and violence. This is a reflection of not just crass state failure but an alarming societal disease.

Shama and Shahzad Masih

Pakistan faces an underlying, entrenched disease that can neither be cured with ‘compensations’ of millions nor commissions. A disease that has been manifesting itself as several bleeding sores on the national body in the form of Gojra, Joseph Colony, Gujranwala and now Kot Radha Kishan.

It is astounding how, in a society as intolerant and violent as Pakistan’s, where the state is impotent in its protection of citizens, individuals of religious minorities can even gather the audacity to commit blasphemy in this glorious bastion of Islam where pious believers are ever eager to reconstruct hellfire as done with Shama and Shahzad Masih.

The brutal murder of the couple, which has left behind three little children, has all the elements that perpetuate such cruelties; which are ironically, blasphemy itself in the name of God.

It is reported that the mob was incited by a local cleric, much in line with what is the custom in such cases. Just as PM Sharif has instructed the revision of curriculum in national institution to inculcate values of constitutionalism and democracy in order to defeat the dominant narratives resulting from decades of military dictatorships; narratives of hate and extremism emanating from the loudspeakers of mosques and teachings at madrassahs must also be countered. State-licensed campaigns and clerics united by an ideology and purpose of fostering harmony, tolerance and inter-community peace must also be considered. Pakistan’s madrassahs and masjids have become breeding grounds of hate, bigotry and intolerance which, until effectively monitored, checked and combatted, will only lead to need for further Zarb-e-Azbs in the future.

Writing for Dawn, Cyril Almeida points out another important aspect of the victims of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: ‘Blasphemy victims are disproportionately the marginalised: often poor, mostly the wrong denomination and always vulnerable.’ Almeida further mentions that those in the national and social mainstream are not threatened by such instances, which is why ‘the system doesn’t need to swing into action and correct a perversion.’

More importantly, Hassan Javid’s article, published on the 9th of November in The Nation, on this recent blasphemy case echoes with the banality of evil in Pakistan:

‘However, focusing solely on these actors [the military, government and extremist organizations] obscures the fact that there is a ‘banal’ aspect to the bigotry and hatred that we are witnessing around us….it is ‘normal’ people who are increasingly complicit in these unspeakable acts of evil. Shahzad and his wife Shama were not burnt alive by Taliban fighters or sectarian extremists; they were tortured and killed by the people who lived and worked around them. The mobs that attacked Gojra and Joseph Colony were not comprised of foreign fighters sent to Pakistan by Al-Qaeda; they were ordinary villagers and citizens who presumably went back to their families and homes once their dark deeds were done.’

pakistan blasphemyThis 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 confronting Pakistan.

Pakistan faces a glaring reality marked by discrimination, bigotry and blood that screams to be seen; which the state and society both deal by averting gaze from. Therefore, to constitute commissions, order probes and register FIRs is merely to bandage an infected gash than treating it. The country can no longer do without systematically addressing and reviewing laws, chief of which are the Second Amendment and the Blasphemy Law (a proposal which is seen as blasphemy itself in Pakistan’s increasingly intolerant and polarised society), which sanction or condone such wanton violence and barbarities. The murders of Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and the dangerously absurd allegation grounded in blasphemy recently hurled at Khurshid Shah for his remarks on the term muhajir merely emphasise the wide dangers to which this law and its ideological popularity open doors to. Pakistan can also not ignore the urgency to battle extremism and bigotry on the ideological, societal and cultural fronts. Until that happens, the murders of Shama and Shahzad will perish in the same old cycle of media coverage, commissions, committees for investigations, muted protests and outrage; and eventually, collective national amnesia. Until then, Pakistan shall continue to be disfigured by a diseased society with deceased humanity committing blasphemy in the name of God.

~ Hafsa Khawaja