Progressive activism under attack

Meriam Sabih underscores the perils of being an activist in Pakistan

Progressive activism under attack
28 year old activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir recently travelled over 7,000 miles to speak at over twenty-five US universities and colleges to mobilize the Pakistani American diaspora on how they can help make Pakistan a more tolerant country. “Pakistanis [living abroad] can be more vocal because there is no threat to their lives,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Recent years have seen scores of progressive voices marginalized and targeted in Pakistan.

According to the 2015 Human Rights Watch report freedom of expression has continued to come “under severe pressure from both state and non-state actors” in Pakistan last year. Yet in a country where progressive voices are silenced, clerics exposing extremist ideologies often unabashedly roam free.

The extremists are “infiltrators” Nasir says, who made headlines in December when he led protests against the Red Mosque’s Abdul Aziz who refused to condemn the terror attack that killed over 130 school children in Peshawer. “This hate is not innate in Pakistanis…” Despite threats from the outlawed groups and extremist clerics thus far Nasir has stayed in the limelight and safe.

But not all have been as fortunate.

During the tour he learned of the murder of his mentor back home. Progressive activist Sabeen Mahmud was founder of The Second Floor, or T2F, a cafe which served as a safe haven for debate and open dialogue. Her cold blooded murder sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan and around the world.

“Her dream is my dream. A Pakistan for all. Sabeen was an institution. We lost not just a person or an activist, we lost a school…” says Nasir. Like Sabeen, he aims to pass the torch on to others to carry on the struggle for a more progressive tolerant Pakistan.

This is ever more important as banned sectarian outfits and terror groups seek to “cleanse” Pakistan from all sects and sections of society which they feel are against their version of Islam, that includes the nation’s Shias and progressive and secular voices.

Sectarian groups such as Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat openly sloganeer not only against Shias being kafir or infidels worthy of being killed, but also crush dissent and instill fear by claiming any Sunni who disagrees with their claims are infidels as well. Under the newly formed National Action Plan banned groups such as Sipah-E-Sahaba and others should not be operating under different names and should no longer be allowed to spread sectarianism nor call for the killing of fellow Pakistanis.
Pakistan can no longer afford to lose its bravest and brightest

Yet analysts point to a continued and systematic silencing of not only minorities but of rational and progressive voices. “This indicates shrinking of space for freedom of expression and independent thinking,” writes Professor Khadim Hussain in the Dawn.

Sabeen was targeted by gunmen after she had hosted an event on “Unsilencing Balochistan.” The same lecture had been cancelled at Lahore University of Management Sciences due to government pressure. This was amidst exacerbated fears in Pakistan that neighboring Indian spy agencies may be behind the separatist movement in a bid to setback Pakistan’s development, along with growing resentment against Baloch separatists who recently killed 20 labourers.

Four suspects have been arrested who police say allegedly killed Sabeen among them former IBA student, Saad Aziz. Though confusion exists as Aziz’s motives, this highlights the fact that intolerance and extremism are not restricted to rogue madrassas.

In fact mainstream hate campaigns by commentators and popular leaders against those who have differing progressive views is another alarming trend that puts the lives of activists at risk. A dangerous precedent was set when popular leader Imran Khan called the liberals in the country fascist “scum” at a time when terrorists were already targeting members of liberal and secular  political parties. Interestingly fascism itself entails suppressing criticism and dissent, and hence is a word better suited to those silencing liberal and progressive voices than to activists espousing a differing viewpoint.

Moed Pirzada recently blogged making reference to the civil society activists as the new “anarchists of our times” accusing them of following a foreign agenda. When the popular Khan and Pirzada imply that those they may disagree with them must be working for the interests of outsiders they are feeding into existing hate-mongering campaigns which label well meaning activists as traitors and curtail dissent. Whereas in a vibrant democracy, disagreement does not make one any less of a patriotic citizen of the country.

In fact Nasir, Sabeen, and their friends are not separatists, nor traitors, they are patriots who firmly stand for a united Pakistan but feel for the Baloch and other minority groups because they are Pakistanis. The empathy they show is in hopes of unifying them into the Pakistani fabric not to further alienate factions who feel subjugated.

This same sentiment was reiterated at a recent Judicial panel that heard the case of missing persons.

“We do not need protected walls if we take care of our citizens,” stated Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja at the hearing of the petition filed by Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, Chairperson Nasrullah Baloch.

On February 10, Pakistan’s Supreme Court urged joint efforts on behalf of both the federal and provincial governments to cooperate in identifying missing persons. But Balochistan’s chief minister confessed he was ‘helpless in resolving the missing persons’ issue,” reported the Express Tribune.

The remarks by the Chief Minister and judgements by the judiciary further highlight the fact that the state seems either apathetic or unable to adequately tackle the problem and there remains an increasing need for accountability.

But in most cases the state has been unable to identify or bring the perpetrators to justice even in high profile cases such as the attack on Pakistan’s most popular television anchor Hamid Mir. “In recent years, scores of human rights defenders, public intellectuals, journalists and secular politicians have been attacked or killed in Pakistan. Perpetrators are rarely, if ever, put on trial,” writes Raza Rumi in the New York Times.

For Pakistan to fight this stigma that it has turned a blind eye to the violence engulfing the country, it must protect its citizens, name the perpetrators of such attacks, and bring them to justice. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed that “no armed group will be allowed to operate” and “decisive action would be taken against elements spreading sectarianism.” Many in the country were hopeful of the renewed resolve but clearly much more needs to be done to show the government is actually serious about implementing the twenty-point National Action Plan.

At New York University Nasir reminds his audience that “...ideas are bulletproof.” Silencing voices which gave a platform to the voiceless has failed to silence their struggles.

Nasir asks tough questions of the country’s politicians which he said must know they are accountable to the people not to the military establishment. “Every politician is also an activist” he says. “Why haven’t the members of the assembly walked out because Abdul Aziz has not been arrested or when he refused to condemn the murders of 140 school children...whereas they walk out when their leader is criticized….”

Pakistan must now strengthen and stabilize its democracy and demand more from its elected officials. Ultimately Nasir explains Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must know that under no circumstance will the citizens of Pakistan accept a military coup, then he will have more confidence to make tough choices instead of being confined to the failed policies of the past, many which can be traced back to a decade of General Zia’s dictatorship.

In the meantime, Pakistan can no longer afford to lose its bravest and brightest journalists, politicians, and activists if it is to win the war against extremism and intolerance and prosper as a vibrant democracy. Nasir is hopeful though. “Things will change eventually,” he notes. “Martin Luther King struggled but Obama has benefitted from that struggle.”

Meriam Sabih is a freelance journalist and contributor to Al Jazeera America. She can be reached at or on Twitter @meriamsabih