A public stand against ex­trem­ism

Hu­man rights ac­tivists in Pak­istan risk death in speak­ing out against sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence and in­jus­tices.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Sa­her Baloch Baloch, a re­porter from Pak­istan, is a vis­it­ing jour­nal­ist at The Times spon­sored by the Daniel Pearl Foun­da­tion in part­ner­ship with the Al­fred Friendly Press Fel­low­ships.

Pin- drop si­lence fol­lowed as so­cial ac­tivist Ji­bran Nasir, 28, screened a doc­u­men­tary on sec­tar­ian and re­li­gious vi­o­lence in Pak­istan. Nasir, who was on a six- week speak­ing tour of the United States, is among the few out­spo­ken voices in Pak­istan when it comes to re­li­gious ex­trem­ism.

But the over­all sit­u­a­tion ap­pears bleak. A few hours af­ter Nasir’s talk last month at Pomona Col­lege on sec­tar­i­an­ism and ap­a­thy, 45 mem­bers of a sub­sect of Karachi’s Shi­ite Mus­lim com­mu­nity were killed in an at­tack by Sunni Mus­lim mil­i­tants.

In re­cent weeks, a string of slay­ings in Karachi and be­yond has pre­sented a grim pic­ture for mi­nori­ties in Sunni- dom­i­nated Pak­istan, as well as for Pak­istani hu­man rights ac­tivists and oth­ers who speak out against in­jus­tices.

In late April, ac­tivist Sabeen Mah­mud, 40, was struck and killed by four bul­lets af­ter she left a Karachi meet­ing on miss­ing peo­ple in Baluchis­tan, the strife­torn, min­eral- rich province in western Pak­istan. The ses­sion, ti­tled “Un­si­lenc­ing Baluchis­tan: Take 2,” had been sched­uled to be held ear­lier in the month at the pres­ti­gious La­hore Univer­sity of Man­age­ment Sciences but was called off, re­port­edly af­ter pres­sure from the gov­ern­ment. Sabeen, who agreed to hold it in­stead at her Sec­ond Floor fo­rum, was killed.

Sev­eral days later, a pro­fes­sor in the Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Depart­ment at Karachi Univer­sity, Syed Wa­heed- ur- Rehman, was gunned down. His slay­ing re­mains un­solved.

Mean­while, a se­nior ed­u­ca­tor and mem­ber of the gov­ern­ment ad­vi­sory board for text­books and cur­ricu­lum in Karachi, Ber­nadette L. Dean, f led Pak­istan af­ter re­ceiv­ing death threats from peo­ple she has re­ferred to as “mem­bers of a po­lit­i­cal party.”

“We must give credit to peo­ple in Pak­istan who are still will­ing to stand up and be counted,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, for­mer di­rec­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch in Is­lam­abad, the cap­i­tal. “But we must not over­es­ti­mate their num­bers or un­der­es­ti­mate the risk to their lives. They are still a be­lea­guered and be­sieged mi­nor­ity.”

In an ar­ti­cle he wrote in Guer­nica mag­a­zine in April 2014 af­ter his friend and jour- nal­ist Raza Rumi sur­vived an at­tack in La­hore, he re­ferred to the term “lib­eral ex­trem­ist.” It is a ti­tle given to those who pub­licly con­demn prej­u­dice and abuse or are touted as “Western agents,” said Hasan, now a fel­low at the United States In­sti­tute of Peace in Washington.

“But I have an aver­sion to this term lib­eral or pro­gres­sive,” he said in a phone in­ter­view with The Times. “Be­cause these are the uni­ver­sal val­ues of tol­er­ance and plu­ral­ism that are un­der at­tack. These val­ues are not and should not be lim­ited to a par­tic­u­lar group of peo­ple to speak for.”

“Pak­istan — and the cities, in par­tic­u­lar — are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous for lib­eral thought,” said Zohra Yusuf, chair­woman of the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan. “The in­tel­li­gentsia is be­ing tar­geted. The space is shrink­ing for lib­eral think­ing while those prop­a­gat­ing ha­tred to­wards mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties carry on their cam­paigns unchecked.”

Author­i­ties re­cently ar­rested four highly ed­u­cated Pak­istani men who they said were re­spon­si­ble for sev­eral tar­geted killings in Karachi. The as­sailants, the author­i­ties said, had all grad­u­ated from col­lege, with de­grees in en­gi­neer­ing, busi­ness and Is­lamic stud­ies.

The an­nounce­ment drew sus­pi­cion from some quar­ters that the ar­rests had been made hastily be­cause of mount­ing pres­sure. Pre­vi­ously, of­fi­cials had blamed the spate of killings on “in­ter­fer­ence by ri­val states, par­tic­u­larly the In­dian in­tel­li­gence agency, RAW.”

“There might be per­haps some truth to this fact,” Hasan said. “But it does not take away from the fact that the state per­sis­tently fails to pro­tect its cit­i­zens. If the state doesn’t wish to be seen as a failed one, it must en­sure se­cu­rity.”

The ar­rests were also met with shock in some quar­ters, that well- ed­u­cated, tech­savvy young adults would turn to a life of mil­i­tancy.

Af­ter show­ing the video and con­clud­ing his talk, Nasir was asked by a mem­ber of the au­di­ence: “What are you do­ing for your se­cu­rity and how should we help you?”

Nasir re­sponded that he doesn’t be­lieve in per­sonal se­cu­rity. He ap­peared frus­trated by a sim­i­lar ques­tion dur­ing an in­for­mal dis­cus­sion later at the home of one of the event’s or­ga­niz­ers.

“That’s the prob­lem,” he said. “Don’t help me. Just be there when some­thing hap­pens and be counted. It’s as sim­ple as that.”

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