Who should be lecturing who on strategies to de-radicalise youth?

This week an invitation was delivered to Vice Chancellors of every University in Pakistan summoning them to Army Auditorium, GHQ for a seminar on ‘Role of Youth in Rejecting Extremism’ organised by ISPR.

Email to University Vice Chancellors from GHQ

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate because it was delivered the same day that a major newspaper published a blank space in the place where there was supposed to be a piece on the threat of extremism by Mohammad Hanif, once again showing that when it comes to discussing the problem of extremism, certain quarters have their limits.

blank page newspaper

It is commendable that Army leadership recognises the important role of young people in ridding the society of the curse of extremism. However, if the military wants to demonstrate its ‘unprecedented support to Education’, the obvious answer is not to invite Vice Chancellors to be addressed by the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff, but to invite the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff to be addressed by actual educators who have developed an expertise on education and extremism. People like Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who has been lecturing on roots of extremism and strategies for de-radicalising youth for years.

If Army is serious about eliminating extremism and the role of youth in rejecting extremism, GHQ should be inviting Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr Salman Haider and other educators and experts to educate ISPR on what is needed. Then, maybe ISPR will arrange for Dr Hoodbhoy to give a special interview on TV, and not the spokesman for TTP.

Arrest Militants Not Scholars

Protest release Dr Riaz AhmedIn January, several bloggers including Professor Salman Haider mysteriously disappeared. After initial outcry about the fate of the disappeared persons, soon they were facing allegations of blasphemy. Soon later, the missing were returned just as mysteriously as they disappeared. There has been no official report of what happened to these bloggers and activists, but according to Ahmad Waqass Goraya there is no question that he was picked up and tortured by state agencies. The state has never admitted any involvement in the incidents, however even after the international embarrassment the Islamabad High Court has now instructed FIA to investigate the victims further and if possible bring them back to Pakistan to prosecute them under laws. While the entire nation was distracted by this case of kidnapping and torture of liberal activists, terrorists carried out a bomb attack that killed 25 and injured almost 100 innocents.

In February, terrorists struck again, this time killing at least 99 people including innocent women and children in a week of bloody attacks across the country.

Week of deadly attacks

Soon after these attacks, Defence Minister demanded a Parliamentary Commission to investigate an article by Husain Haqqani, and Pakistan Rangers arrested two Karachi University professors who were preparing to give a press conference. One professor Dr Riaz Ahmed has been remanded to jail on accusation of supposedly possessing an unlicensed weapon but the real issue was mentioned by SI Shahid Pervez Khan who told the Court that the professor was advocating on Facebook for the release of so-called ‘blasphemous’ bloggers even though the bloggers have faced no charges and no evidence has been given against them. So why security agencies are arresting these scholars?

There have been at least 17 terrorist attacks already so far this year, over double the number during same period last year. Civil and military leaders are on the same page and both claim that terrorists have been defeated even though they are ramping up attacks. Worst, both civil and military leaders have shown more interest in harassing and targeting scholars than actual militants who are carrying out attacks and killing people. If terrorism is going to be defeated in reality and not just in slogans, state agencies will have to carry out operations against extremist militants, not scholars.

Bhensa, Blasphemy, and the Role of the Court

After several liberal activists including a professor of Fatima Jinnah University mysteriously disappeared, state security agencies once again found themselves facing negative international attention. Critical statements from international human rights NGOs and foreign governments began pouring in. Then came the ultimate trump card. The ‘Ace of Spades’. Blasphemy allegations.

The allegations began from right-wing hyper-nationalist websites and social media accounts like so-called ‘Pakistan Defence’.

defence.pk postThere is no proof that any of these missing are responsible for any blasphemy. There is not even any proof that any of these activists is behind the ‘Bhensa’ account that is being accused! Actually, they were originally accused of being anti-Army, not anti-Islam. Now that the blasphemy accusation has been made, though, it has also been formalised under the law as application has been submitted to register blasphemy cases against the missing activists.

However, this could be a test case not only for the democracy but for blasphemy law as well. Civil Rights activist Jibran Nasir is calling for arrest of Pakistan Defence admins for inciting violence against the activists. At first it sounds like fantasy, but on second thought there may be something to his thinking. No less than Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council Tahir Ashrafi has called for extreme care in handling of blasphemy cases and has even called for death penalty for those leveling false allegations. I personally do not support death penalty, but Maulana Ashrafi’s view shows how serious the issue is. Therefore, everyone can agree that such cases should be decided in court based on all the evidences.

In order for a court to evaluate, both the accused and the accusers should be made to appear before the Court to be questioned. The disappeared activists must be produced and also the admins of Pakistan Defence and other social media accounts that are making such serious allegations should be produced before the Court also. Otherwise, isn’t it those leveling such allegations from behind anonymous accounts who are making a mockery of the Court as well as the blasphemy law?

Perhaps there is someone who has committed blasphemy. We cannot know unless the case is heard by an impartial Court. There is also the question whether someone has tried to misuse blasphemy allegations in order to distract attention and cover their tracks. This also cannot be known unless all the actors and evidences are examined by the Court.

They can kidnap a blogger, but they can never disappear the truth

bhensaFour missed calls from my sister. I knew why she kept calling, and I didn’t want to talk about it. When the phone rang the fifth time, I put my phone in my bag and went out for a smoke. I finally called her back when I was able to get alone.

“You need to call Baba.” I expected the usual harassment, but this time my sister was calm. She didn’t sound angry, she sounded tired. I asked her was he upset, but she said he was acting strange. He had seen the news report about Salman Haider and this was bad enough, but it was the rumours about others – some say four, some say nine, some are saying the numbers are still growing. And they’re being targeted for their social media accounts. “I know,” I said, “I’m pushing my luck.” My sister laughed. “You were pushing your luck a few years ago. Now? Now I just think you don’t even care about your safety.” I sat and listened to her silently, watching at an ant as it crawled across my shoe. “If you don’t care about yourself, that’s your problem. But think about how you’re affecting the people around you. It’s not fair.” I promised her I would talk to my father and hung up.

I called my father later that night. We talked for a while, but he didn’t say anything so I finally said, “Baba, I don’t want you to be worried. I’ll quit everything. I don’t really know why I do it anyway.” He was silent. He said, “You always told me you were very careful. Are you worried about something?” I told him, no, I’m very careful. Sometimes I think I’m paranoid, even. But I don’t want him to worry. He snapped at me. “Beta, if you make yourself disappear, then what was the point?” I was stunned. “Listen to me,” he sounded angry, “You are a man, no? Will you hide yourself? Will you wear burqa? No! Be a man! I don’t always agree with you. Sometimes I think you are foolish. But it is your right to be foolish! When I was your age we sat around for hours arguing with each other and no one cared because no one heard us. Now, it is the internet and people are hearing you.” I said, no, no one listens to me. This only made him angrier. “And they will listen when you stop talking? Don’t be stupid! Whatever is happening is only because all of you on the internet must be making some difference.”

There was a moment of silence, then my father sighed deeply. “Beta, listen to me. You are my son. I will worry about you for trying to make a difference. It is my right as your father. However, I will worry about you more if you give up.”

Honestly, I do not know what to think of this situation we are in. It’s easy to believe that agencies are involved. History does not give them a clean chit. But the sad truth is it could be anyone that is behind these disappearances. Extremist groups have also tried to silence secular activists. Can we ever forget the words of Sabeen Mahmud’s killer?

“There wasn’t one particular reason to target her: she was generally promoting liberal, secular values. There were those campaigns of hers, the demonstration outside Lal Masjid [in Islamabad], Pyaar ho jaane do (let there be love) on Valentine’s Day and so on.”

There are forces that are out to silence anyone who challenges their ideology. They are well armed with guns and bombs, but is truth and ideas that will defeat them. They lurk in the shadows, trying to make us silence ourselves. If not, they will reach out from the shadows and silence one of us to send a message. But theirs is an impossible mission. The truth is not a fragile flower than bruises and wilts so easily. It is a hearty plant, deeply rooted and native to this soil. And it has grown into a forest that provides shelter to those who embrace it. They can kidnap a blogger. They can shut down a social media account. But they can never disappear the truth. In the end, we will win.