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Unsilencing Pakistan: A Symposium on Nonviolent Activism Against Violence 


Devin Finn for  Denver Dialogues 


Today marks the six-month anniversary of the massacre of 152 Pakistanis—133 of them children—at the Army Public School in Peshawar, in the Northwest Frontier province. On December 16, Taliban gunmen went from class to class, firing at students' heads. Approximately 120 people were injured in addition to the casualties. The remarkable brutality of the targeted attack spurred attention to the security of the most vulnerable.

On Friday, April 24, 2015, unidentified gunmen shot activist Sabeen Mahmud, who had just hosted an event called "Unsilencing Balochistan" in T2F, her bookshop café in Karachi and a rare space for discussion of social and political issues. In Pakistan, talk of forced disappearances and human rights abuses in the huge and embattled province of Balochistan is off-limits, and Sabeen paid with her life.

In a plural, fractured nation where mass social movements are unusual, some Pakistanis are investing in a kind of "everyday rebellion," organizing within a space that is distinct from the work of foreign-funded NGOs and the countering violent extremism agenda. Nonviolent organizers and protestors claim that state institutions, the military, and political parties have failed to protect citizens and hold non-state actors accountable for their involvement in violence. Pakistani activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir demands that the Pakistani government make its list of banned terrorist outfits public and enforce it – shut down the offices, rallies, and hate speech of these extremist groups. Organizers argue that institutions must be held accountable for their "collective silence" in the face of terror and violence against civilians and are working to catalyze this civil rights movement.

The movement's explicit political content sets it apart, as does the objective of making ordinary citizens aware that terrorist groups have made inroads in society, relying on religious invocation to persuade supporters. Nasir's aim is to make it known who the terrorists are, including publicizing violent groups' links to electoral contestation and direct support for political parties. This requires building a civil society that can generate awareness among ordinary people.

There are real obstacles to achieving the movement's goals: the formidable level of risk that individuals' participation in street activism entails; false propaganda circulated against civil rights activists; and the movement's limited resources to counter disinformation.

I asked an activist and a researcher to provide their insights on the politics of nonviolent activism and violence in Pakistan. My conversation with contributors Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and executive director of HIVE [Karachi], and Mubbashir Rizvi, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Georgetown University, follows.

FINN: What is the nature of resistance to violence led by civil society and domestic activists in Pakistan? Is this a concerted, coordinated effort, and what does participation in these efforts by ordinary Pakistanis look like?

ALI ABBAS ZAIDI: Resistance to violent extremism in Pakistan has many forms. It includes a broad set of activities like protests, online campaigns, workshops, study circles, cultural events, seminars, and so forth. It also includes intellectual and theological resistance to extremist messaging as well.

It is not a concerted or coordinated effort. After 9/11, due to heavy foreign funding, a lot of NGOs have sprung up in Pakistan. Each organization brings with it its own interpretation, interests, and methodologies. A broad-based social movement representing the different strata of civil society has not yet sprung up, which proves the point.

[The] ordinary Pakistani is aware of how violence affects him/her and society but ideological confusion, obfuscation by the media, the political process, and personal commitments prevent them from joining a focused movement challenging extremism. The "foreign funded" NGO- conspiracy theory also runs rampant in the masses which prevents them from owning many organizations and their ideas.

MUBBASHIR RIZVI: Pakistan is a diverse country that has endured tremendous violence and turmoil in the brief span of its existence. The problems facing Pakistan are complex and multifaceted, so there is no way to answer this question without generalizing a bit and also giving some historical context. In what follows I offer a brief political history of activism and offer concluding thoughts about everyday negotiation with violence that goes without notice in international media.

Historically, there have been few coordinated and concerted efforts by civil society to tackle violence at the national level. This is due to the fact that Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators and unelected bureaucrats in its formative years (1947-1970) and in every subsequent decade. This ruling elite distrusted mass-democracy and socialist alternatives that were popular with civil society activists and leftists at the time. The Army's shadow continues to hang over key governmental policies and priorities. Fiscally, the Pakistani state has spent a vast portion of its limited resources on military hardware and very little on domestic education, health and social welfare, the kind of social programs that create close identification, bonds of national belonging, and consensus. The lack of quality public education, healthcare, and social programs continues to perpetuate inequities that have grave implications for this very young country (the majority of Pakistanis are under 30).

The state's failure to cultivate a coherent and inclusive national identity has prevented a broad national consensus and collective national identity. Muslim nationalism has been used as a unifying symbol for the creation of the nation-state. The ambiguity of Muslim nationalism is highlighted by the state's use of Islam as a foil against land reforms, democratization, vernacular languages, and recognition of ethnic identities which created a wide sense of disenfranchisement.

Looking back we can see courageous efforts by activists, writers and intellectuals to redefine Pakistan's state narrative away from militarism and religious chauvinism. This can be seen in the mass-mobilization in the 1950s in East Pakistan and 1960s West Pakistan where political parties and student movements called for a democratic, pluralist (or multi-national) and socialist vision for Pakistan. This era saw the largest coordinated effort to reshape the meaning of Pakistan that was representative of its many ethnic groups and called for greater land reforms. However, these hopes were crushed in the aftermath of the "Basic Democracies" elections in 1965, won by cold-war dictator Ayub Khan, and again in the aftermath of the first real democratic election in 1970 when the Pakistani state refused to accept the mandate given by its Bengali citizens to Awami League Party that won majority of the parliament seats in the 1970 elections.

The mass unrest and genocidal violence in East Pakistan was a major setback for a pluralist, democratic and multi-ethnic vision Pakistan. To this day, Pakistan's inability to come to terms with the events that transpired in Bangladesh has been a major obstacle in promoting a larger conversation about recognition of ethnic, linguistic and even religious differences in the make-up of state/society relations in Pakistan. There is little written on the breakup of the country in 1971. In fact, Zulfikar Bhutto, one of the main architects of Bengal partition and former insider to military-bureaucratic regimes, emerged as a populist leader by championing the ascendant message of socialism and redistribution of wealth and power that had been popularized by wider social movements in the 1960s. Bhutto's party, the PPP, is seen as more center-Left in its orientation. However, Bhutto's term in power was marked by growing authoritarianism and growing dissension by leftists, ethnic-nationalist groups in Balochistan, and conservatives. Bhutto's government was cut short by a military coup led by Zia Ul Haq, and Pakistan's first elected Prime Minister was executed after being charged with murder.

From 1979-1988, Pakistan was ruled by Zia Ul Haq, a dictator who banned all political parties, student associations, and promoted militant Jihad with help from USA. The pre-existing ethnic divisions were once again covered over by calls for Muslim unity, the limited land reforms passed were deemed un-Islamic and nullified. Most dramatically, Zia's rigid Islamization program gave rise to sectarian tensions in Pakistan. During this time we see fierce resistance by pro-democracy activists especially in Sindh, Southern Punjab and leftists, civil society groups, and radical feminists. However, Zia's regime and multi-billion dollar war in Afghanistan further eroded the bonds of coexistence, and added sectarian strife to the intense ethnic polarization plaguing the country. These tensions boiled over in the cosmopolitan city of Karachi, a city that had been known for general coexistence and commensality up till the 1970s. Karachi was awash with weapons and embroiled in riots during the 1980s. During this time we see the creeping rise of sectarianism, targeting of religious minorities and a growing sense of disenfranchisement that resulted in the reassertion of ethno-nationalist politics.

Throughout this turbulent history, there were notable activists, poets, writers, artists, and activists who upheld a broader vision for Pakistan as a loose multi-ethnic federation, and dedicated to social-economic justice. It is important to note that this broad vision was not shared by all civil society organizations; there were strong conservative movements headed by Islamists (many of whom originally opposed the creation of Pakistan on religious grounds), and a community of Muslim migrants from India who came to Pakistan to build a new nation. These migrants saw calls for ethnic-linguistic pluralism as an affront to their vision of a new nation. The clashing visions and growing sense of disenchantment has resulted in the rise of ethnic-nationalist parties in Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Indian Muslim migrants to Pakistan (Muhajirs). These parties accuse the dominant Punjab province of theft of natural resources and authoritarian rule. Ironically, the Pakistan movement gained traction in Punjab until 1947, but the mass-scale violence and complete transfer of population has created a sense of deep injury, and communal violence created strong sentiments for Pakistan. However, within each province there are other cleavages between urban and rural communities, Northern and Southern communities over division of water resources, and uneven development and mutual suspicion that prevents a broader movement for social-economic equity. The breakup of the Soviet Union has been a major factor in the demise of class-based left politics that strived for broad solidarity across regions, and ethnic groups around class interests.

Currently, there is a small vibrant network of civil society organizations, NGOs, and political organizations dedicated to non-violence, dialogue and promoting peace in Pakistan. So far these efforts have had little traction in bridging the violent fault lines and healing the historical injuries that exist in contemporary Pakistan. These piecemeal efforts are widely seen as too small, too distant, idealistic, and disconnected from the day-to-day political realities of ordinary Pakistanis. However, these spaces offer valuable places for gathering and building a larger community of committed activists. The T2F cafe founded by late Sabeen Mahmud some eight years ago is one notable example of a cultural space that had a tremendous impact in fostering dialogue and opening up discussion in Karachi, a mega-city of some 20 million people. However, this little space of hope now struggles to carry on after Mahmud's assassination on April 24. Sabeen Mahmud was shot and killed minutes after hosting a panel "Unsilencing Balochistan" which had received threats. Thus, the violence that engulfs this country is also being directed at peace activists and bridge-builders like Sabeen.

Another important development in the past fifteen years is the unexpected rise and success of a peasant movement in the heart of Punjab, AMP [Anjuman Muzareen Punjab]. The AMP is a land rights movement made up of sharecroppers who defied Pakistan Army's attempts to commoditize land relations on its colonial era farms. The dramatic resistance by tenant sharecroppers surprised political observers who saw this region of Punjab as being amenable to state control. Secondly, the strong links forged between AMP leaders and civil society activists forced the Army to withdraw from using force against tenant sharecroppers. The tenants' movement highlighted the growing commercial and real-estate interests of Pakistan Army and it helped shaped the discourse of political accountability and raise the prospects for class-based politics in Pakistan that cuts across regional and ethnic boundaries.

Given the many divisions, violence and uncertainties highlighted in this brief history, it is remarkable that millions of ordinary Pakistanis are able to make valuable contributions at home and abroad. However, there are many attributes of resourcefulness and ethics of care that go without notice in international media and social science literature. One sees incredible generosity even in the face of great scarcity. According to the Charities Aid Foundation "World Giving Index," Pakistanis give a disproportionately high amount of money in charity donations; the amount given for children's education and health care ranks as high as government budgetary expenditure. Overall there is a broad sense of reciprocity that prevails in all aspects of life from market transactions, billions in remittance income, to the network of support built on familial networks even in spite of crippling state infrastructure. The traditional Islamic obligation to give Zakat—charity—and serve the needy has allowed philanthropic organizations like the Edhi foundation enough resources to run hospitals, ambulances, shelters, and orphanages. Other community-based trusts work through horizontal networks. Moreover, religion is often identified solely as a source of problems, and sectarian militancy is instrumentalized and used as political weapon or enacted as state law. However, one also sees another more subjective, flexible side of religion as an ethical system of belief, self-regulation, and action that is invoked by people when they turn to their faith for strength in moments of crises, and for prayers for a better day. To paraphrase a popular joke: one has to believe in God in Pakistan; how else can you explain that life goes on as it does despite the mess?

FINN: How do we understand the relationship between the state and citizens—particularly the government and civil society—given the high risks of taking political action?

ALI ABBAS ZAIDI: The relationship between state and citizens is one of mistrust. The government only encourages CSOs [civil society organizations] that follow the national-religio-political narrative that the state endorses. Any deflection from it causes the Government to harass the concerned organization.

MUBBASHIR RIZVI: Pakistan emerges out of a colonial context, where the state-form was configured very differently than it was in liberal states in Europe or America. In the colonial context there was no liberal conceit of Universal rights of man, or individual freedoms. In fact colonialism justified the general "state of exception" where liberal frameworks of rights and individual liberties were suspended for native populations. The "Rights of Man" and "Freedom" were used to justify colonial subjugation for populations seen unfit to rule themselves. We see a powerful continuity of this thinking in postcolonial Pakistan where the governing elite effectively denied elections and local representation till 1970.

The British colonial administrative policies, and institutions carried on in Pakistan to a far greater extent than in India, which went through broad constitutional national reforms and elections in the 1950s. For instance, the [Pakistani] state's relationship to the masses remains bifurcated between the VIP elite culture and subaltern public. To this day state officials offer great protocol and recognition to high-ranking officials, dignitaries, and officials of significance. However, ordinary folks or those deemed as part of the public, the masses, are subject to entirely different treatment and forms of rule.

Since colonial times the mode of governance of the colonial subject is done through indirect means. The public is slotted within an array of collective identities (ranging across caste, religion, tribe, ethnicity, regional identities) which hardened into politicized categories. These groups are governed by customary rights and claims, and their claims are made by a political representative, or an appointed chief. The anti-colonial nationalist elite was made up of this class of western educated lawyers, and doctors who were seen as spokesmen of their respective communities. This was the context in which a room full of men, many of whom had never held elected office decided the fate of a billion people as Britain decided to cut its losses and leave South Asia after ruling it for over 200 years.

The politicization of these identities should not be taken as pre-given or natural differences (or inversely, as just invented) but as articulations of bio-political governance of another kind. Citizenship in Pakistan is not a transactional relationship between the individual and the state as much as it is a contestation among ethnic groups, religious groups, and regional and linguistic groups. The lines of conflict can erupt spontaneously over a bus accident, a neighborhood spat can turn into city-wide riot as it did in Karachi in 1986. Similarly, people only get by through accommodation, lines of credit, and reciprocity. Here, most of society lives and is governed informally, outside the purview of legibility, and most people do not pay tax.

The authority of the postcolonial state in Pakistan remains provisional and contested. The Pakistani state routinely fails to provide the basic features of statecraft, that is, the exercise of the monopoly of violence in order to maintain law, order and security. As I mentioned earlier, another feature of statecraft as its ability to produce "atomized individualized" citizens remains weak (Trouillot 2003). The changes in the global economy in the last twenty years have also greatly weakened the semblance of sovereignty and ideological coherence in many postcolonial states, like Pakistan, that have been forced to undergo structural adjustment programs, liberal democratization, and government decentralization. These processes have profoundly weakened the effectiveness, if not the political authority in many Afro-Asian states to provide any substantial governmental social and economic interventions. The minimal certainties of the (monthly salaried) middle class have vanished in a time of growing risk and informal economies. Meanwhile, the military has reinvented its role as a public-private corporate entity.

FINN: How can activists and social organizations build effective campaigns and exert leverage on the government to demand change and accountability, in the face of violent threats and impunity?

ALI ABBAS ZAIDI: Pakistan has fought state oppression, dictatorship, and state violence many times. Brave activists have always stormed through difficult times with compassion. Activists led the ouster of General Musharraf and reinstated the judiciary of Pakistan. The current extremist threat is multi-layered, with sections of society, media, bureaucracy, army, and other state institutions either complacent or incompetent to handle it. The process is in place, but it will take time to de-radicalize the social fabric of Pakistan like it took decades to radicalize it.

MUBBASHIR RIZVI: The path towards building effective campaigns for progressive change and inclusive democracy requires a slow, protracted campaign to maintain and build the fragile democratic process in Pakistan. We saw the first peaceful transition of democratic governments in 2013 when PPP's government finished a full term in power. This was a first for an elected government in Pakistan which in the past have been overthrown by the Army or unelected bureaucrats in the past. The growth and deepening of democratic process will create greater inclusion and create a sense of empowerment among local communities to affect change in their lives.

Another major campaign and ambitious project has to be the widening of social spending through expansion of public education and education related public works projects that employ young graduates. The current global model of austerity has been a daily reality for Pakistanis from day one. The disproportionate rate of national resources that are given to military hardware and personnel can be slowly redirected to larger public works projects. This can be done by slowly expanding the definition of national security to include human security. This is by far the most challenging task ahead for civilian governments to convince the Army establishment to shed its role in the political and lucrative economic sectors. The last decade has been a major setback for prospects of such a paradigm shift in Pakistan as the war in Afghanistan and rise of militancy have created a rationale for dramatic increase in military spending for national security. However, this short term conditions will not alleviate the infrastructure of militancy that is ultimately created by a sense of deprivation and fuels the calls for militancy.

FINN: What is the role of the judicial and legal system in ensuring an environment in which meaningful resistance can take place? What more must be done?

ALI ABBAS ZAIDI: Judicial system has been breaching human rights of citizens and has been criminal in letting arrested terrorists off the hook. The activists do not trust it and do not engage with the judicial system at all. Lack of resources, corruption, allegiances with extremists, and the threat of being killed (within the judiciary and activists) gives rise to such an environment.

The entire judicial system needs an overhaul. It should become an independent system within the state structure instead of an instrument of deep state, state, or political forces.

MUBBASHIR RIZVI: The judicial system in Pakistan does not deliver to justice to ordinary Pakistanis who must wade through complex and slow legal proceedings for decades. This can only happen through major tribunals for truth, justice and accountability that might result in cultural paradigm shifts: for instance a tribunals on traumatic events in recent history of Pakistan like the 1971 war, the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

FINN: What is missing from this conversation? Is there an element of this debate that the questions leave out, or that prevailing discourse does not capture?

ALI ABBAS ZAIDI: The role of the state of Pakistan in promoting, patronizing, and propelling extremism ideas, movements, and organizations. When violence is romanticized and extremism becomes a socio-religious norm, it takes a long struggle to counter it and introduce pluralistic ambiance to the society.

The role of the establishment, the 'deep state' in harassing activists, NGOs, journalists, and opinion-makers reveals how it is complicit in the current scenario.

MUBBASHIR RIZVI: I think one of the key issues that is missing from this discussion is how the role of US foreign policy toward countries like Pakistan alters and reshapes the relationship between state/society. Throughout its history Pakistanis have seen US give support and aid to undemocratic dictators and prop up the regime of leaders and politicians with narrow gains in sight. Secondly, the massive costs of supporting militant extremists in the 1980s has become apparent in the aftermath of 9/11. However, this policy is still being repeated in different corners of the world where extremist organizations or sovereign states are being supported even as they export sectarian politics throughout the Muslim world.