Monday, August 14, 2017

Pakistan at 70: A better country?

So it’s been nearly five years since I was regularly writing These Long Wars. Why am I returning to blogging after 5 years? It feels like things have changed, only in the most slightest way for the better in Pakistan, because the Pakistanis decided they wanted a better country.

Do blogs even matter that much any more? They remain a place for people to post extended thoughts but that fascist hold-out Facebook, is where people now seem to do this, with extended groups of their friends seeing it. Facebook and the fascism that blossomed on it in the wake of Salman Taseer’s murder made me realise the futility of trying to argue with some people. The murder of the Governor of Punjab, at the hands of a lunatic guard of his, inspired by some nut-job preachers, whilst the man tried to show mercy to a condemned woman, and the subsequent inhuman response is what made me reconsider how many people are even reachable by rational argument.
That fascist response by people baying for a man’s blood and trying to justify his murder came as a shock on the internet but it has been digested and unfortunately absorbed by a lot of people now. Pakistanis on Facebook opened fan pages for the murderer of the Salmaan Taseer the Governor of Punjab. That is beneath disgusting. It was shocking then, but it is now just contemptible. The murderer, Mumtaz Qadri was a lunatic who was already considered unreliable by the Punjab police and had spoken with Taseer’s security detail of his plans to harm or assassinate the governor.

At some point, going on Facebook began to feel like going with Nazis to the Holocaust museum. Speaking of which, politics has been insane over the last two weeks. Generally, late July and early August are slow news periods, unless something terrible is going on and quite a few terrible things have happened.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Titan's Fall: Rest in Peace Abdul Sattar Edhi

Credit: Hussain/Wiki Commons
When a tree falls in the forest, the ground shakes. Edhi grew to hold up so much of Pakistani society with his independent ambulance network, whilst the government of Pakistan provided none that, well, people literally owe him their life. And now when this tree has fallen, the ground shook. The number of children who did not die from infanticide because they were left in the cradles outside his charity’s offices, the poor patients provided medication and treatment, the mentally disabled he housed and the waves upon waves of orphans that Abdul Sattar Edhi raised from childhood to adulthood in his orphanages…makes everyone from the Pakistani citizen to the Pakistani state look small.
Credit: Sabir Nazir
Abdul Sattar Edhi leaves this world with a patch of humanity that is thankfully alive because of this man, his family and his foundation’s dedication.
Abandoned children live because of the cots outside his office, patients draw breath because they were taken to hospital in his ambulances, orphans have roofs over their heads and a reasonable life expectancy compared to if they lived on the street.
In junior school, I had to write an essay on a person I admired. Growing up in the disaster of Karachi in the mid-1990's I had no idea who to reach for as a real life hero.
And in desperation I wrote about Edhi, because that was all I could reach for. Abdul Sattar Edhi was a catch-all hero for Pakistanis. Now that he is gone words fail me on who to describe as a Pakistani who is a hero living in Pakistan. Abdul Sattar Edhi’s kidneys shut down over three years, refusing treatment abroad at the offer of former President Asif Ali Zardari. Edhi trusted Pakistan and Pakistanis dying from natural causes at 92. This titan has now fallen and even his natural death feels like a loss.

Credit: Zia Mazhar/Associatd Press
With so many of them dying, 2016 has been a bad year for beloved celebrities, and Edhi counts as one of Pakistan’s beloved heroes. The week since Edhi passed has seen a great deal of news, but I think Mr Edhi deserves acknowledgement for setting a precedent where so many others (like numerous Pakistani governments across his lifetime) have failed to do so.  Mr Edhi and his organisation embodied humanitarianism, with their ubiquitous nation-wide ambulance service, and their total willingness to take care of anyone stricken by emergencies, with no questions asked of the victim about their religion, sect, ethnicity or gender.
By now Mr Edhi’s quote about his ambulance has been repeated everywhere he has memorialised, but it bears repeating in an age when sectarianism is being openly peddled across the Muslim world.
The quote is that when Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi was asked “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in you ambulance” and Mr Edhi responded “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
Credit: File Photo/Aaj.TV
This lack of discrimination and follow-up proselytization stuck in the craw of a number of religious and ethnic crypto- (and open) fascists. Mr Edhi’s son, Faisal Edhi has had to reiterate in a visibly apologetic tone to the dangerous, murder-prone power brokers of Pakistani society that he will continue to use the Edhi Foundation to provide services on a universal basis. This is the sick, disgusting point that Pakistani society has reached: when there is peace, those who provide services to the poor and the stricken have to be terrified when they promise that they will provide services without any discrimination. Powerful people in Pakistan want discrimination, they want this society to be ghettoised and to be divided so that their power is not challenged society, and in fact society itself does not give the impression of even being able to challenge them.
Credit: Feica
A final note about societal divisions and Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi, would not be complete without mentioning the spectacle at his funeral prayers.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was given a state funeral and slightly unexpectedly, the Pakistan military took over and turned the funeral into a militarised spectacle.
Credit: AP
The funeral prayers for Mr. Edhi saw the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, the Governor of Sindh Province Ishratul Ibad and the President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain present. The divisions became apparent, with these VVIP diginitaries in the first row of the funeral prayers, on all sides of that row and the two rows behind them were full of officers, soldiers, sailors and members of Pakistan's bureaucratic, political and military elite.
Credit: Xinhua/Masroor
A giant empty space capable of holding four rows of mourners was maintained between the VVIP's and the security and the rest of the mourners at National Stadium, were kept at the back at Edhi’s funeral prayer. This visibly conveyed the social and class division that Edhi had so obviously spent his entire life fighting against.
  Credit: Reuters
The divisions witnessed at Edhi’s funeral prayers, and the all-military controlled event it became was very strange. We have to consider how all of this was to pay homage to a man who had to scrimp for donations to run an ambulance service for Pakistanis because the government would not provide one whilst the most well funded part of Pakistan’s state was now honouring him in death. The division between the first three rows full of soldiers, sailors and Pakistan’s military and political elite and the rest of the mourners in the overview photos of the funeral prayers just drove home why Pakistan needed Abdul Sattar Edhi and why it will continue to need someone like him.
Credit: Sabir Nazir/The Friday Times

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sabeen Mahmud's Murder: Another Killing Amidst Pakistan’s Democratic Trappings

How Sabeen Mahmud's murder reveals the limits of Pakistan's democracy.

A protest against the murder of social activist Sabeen Mahmud. She was killed after hosting an event for the relatives of missing Baloch activists.

Sabeen Mahmud was killed on Apr. 24 after hosting an event in Karachi about the brutal suppression of an ethnic nationalist insurgency in the restive province of Balochistan. The murder of another leading Pakistani social activist has drawn attention to the systematic elimination of the few liberal voices in the country. Beginning with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, several outspoken critics of Pakistan’s jihadis and their backers within the state apparatus have either been killed or silenced by intimidation. Yet Pakistan also continues to maintain the trappings of democracy, making it difficult for many both inside and outside Pakistan to understand the method in the violent madness.

Pakistan’s notorious and ubiquitous ‘deep state’ — personified by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — had blocked a similar event on the suppression of the insurgency in Balochistan at other venues but Mahmud allowed the event to take place at her café and arts space. She was killed soon after she left the talk. Although some critics have pointed the finger at ISI, others have raised the valid question that killing Mahmud right after the event was bound to attract attention to the agency and could be the work of those who wanted precisely to direct blame at the ISI. Unexplained murders in Pakistan are often blamed on ‘foreign hands.’  In most democratic countries, speculation about who murdered Sabeen Mahmud would end with a proper investigation and a credible trial. But Pakistan is not like most other democratic countries.

Pakistan has an elected parliament and a diverse media. It allows contestation for power among an assortment of political parties. Many Pakistanis are able to criticize their government and debate the corruption of politicians. This creates an illusion of Pakistan’s freedom glass being half full.

On the flip side, there are unsolved murders of public figures and journalists; bodies of Baloch nationalists dumped after being killed by security services; and the attacks and threats of violence by as many as 48 Islamist terrorist groups.

Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has recorded the killing of 56 journalists in the country over the last two decades. Several journalists, like Hamid Mir  and Raza Rumi have escaped death after being shot at in what were clearly attempts to silence them.

Violence in Balochistan is endemic. Last year 153 bullet-riddled bodies were recovered in Balochistan, according to human rights groups, which blamed security services for systematically eliminating suspected Baloch militants as well as their sympathizers. Baloch militants, too, have been responsible for killing members of other ethnic groups whom they see as encroachers on their traditional tribal homeland.

There is little discussion of Balochistan in the national or international media. Foreign journalists are not allowed to visit the province except with special permission. Some, like the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall, have been beaten up upon arrival in Quetta, the provincial capital, to dissuade them from looking for stories there.

The attack on Hamid Mir followed his attempt to discuss Balochistan on his television show and now Sabeen Mahmud’s murder has also followed an attempt to talk about the situation in the province.

From an international perspective, Balochistan is deemed less important than the challenge of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan. Jihadis, some of whom have been supported by ISI in an effort to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan and against arch-rival India, have wreaked havoc in Pakistan for years. Several thousand Pakistanis, have died in terrorist attacks across the country.

The Pakistani military is engaged in battling some jihadist terrorist groups in the country’s northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan. But other internationally designated terrorist groups continue to operate openly in Pakistan’s cities and their leaders are even able to appear on national television.

The systematic elimination of liberal voices in Pakistan can best be understood in the context of red lines set by the ‘deep state.’ Arrogant in the assumption that they alone know what is good for the country and what should or should not be publicly discussed, Pakistan’s spooks allow only a ‘circumscribed democracy.’ This explains why some ostensibly liberal Pakistanis survive while others do not.

Subjects that incur the wrath of the ‘deep state’ and its terrorist allies include their atrocities in Balochistan and the persisting ties between the ISI and jihadis. Other topics that upset them include suggesting normalization of ties with India without resolving the Kashmir dispute or proposing curtailment of the military’s role in policy-making.

The killing of Sabeen Mahmud is most likely meant to be a warning to others not to publicly discuss state enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Pakistan’s liberals are tolerated as long as they stay within their prescribed limits. They may discuss gender inequality and politicians’ corruption, even religious intolerance. But questioning the ‘deep state’ and its myopic vision is where the line is drawn.
(This post was published at