Dawn News

Speaking truth to power

AS I was researching this article, reading scores of emails and writing to friends and contacts about the reported threat to Asma Jahangir’s life, something odd happened to my Gmail screen.

Now, whenever I open my email account, a red strip appears at the top with the following announcement from Google: “Warning – We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.”

Following the link to security advice, I duly changed my password and switched to Chrome, a Google browser that’s supposed to be more secure. But so far, the problem persists. Any advice from tech-savvy readers would be welcome. I understand Google has recently taken to warning users of such attempts from intelligence agencies to hack into their accounts.

As I am often sent emails by sundry discussion groups, I get a sense of what the topic of the day is on the Internet. Several participants have questioned the authenticity of the threat to Asma Jahangir and its source. One, a certain retired Colonel Jafri asked why the redoubtable lawyer and human rights activist did not register an FIR with the police, and let the law take its course, instead of levelling charges against our spooks.

Clearly, the good colonel has little first-hand knowledge of how our law-enforcement actually functions if he thinks the police would register a case against the Inter Services Intelligence or Military Intelligence. On another online site, Saira Minto accuses Asma Jahangir of ‘sensationalism’.

Now Asma Jahangir hardly needs the publicity generated by this recent story. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that she is probably one of the highest-profile Pakistanis around. Especially in the world of human rights activism, she has become known as a fearless defender of the voiceless and the victimised.

Here, for the sake of full disclosure, let me declare a personal interest in the whole saga: Asma and her husband Tahir Jahangir (better known as TJ ) have been my friends for 40 years. Over this period, I have watched with admiration and respect as Asma has taken on successive governments in her crusade for human rights. In the courts and on the streets of Pakistan, she has campaigned courageously for women and minorities targeted for their gender and their beliefs.

She has been in detention for her activism, and has stood up — all five feet of her — to the might of the Punjab police while demonstrating for the many causes she has supported over the years. For anybody to now suggest that she is somehow putting on an act to get attention is to insult the huge contribution she has made.

When I called her to ask for the source of her information about the death threat, she said if she named whoever had tipped her off, she would be putting the person’s life in grave danger. However, she confirmed that the information was from an impeccable source.

Given what we know of how our spooks behave, Asma’s decision to protect her informant is surely prudent. All too often, brave voices that have spoken up against the establishment have been permanently silenced. Saleem Shahzad’s brutal murder is still fresh in our memory. Many others have been beaten, kidnapped or threatened. More have been simply bribed.So why Asma, and why now? Here, I can only speculate. Perhaps her consistent demand for a dialogue with Baloch nationalists, and an end to the state-sponsored disappearances in that deeply troubled province, touched a raw nerve. Her staunch defence of Husain Haqqani, a bête noir of our generals, could be another reason. Or it could just be her gutsy attacks on the military’s constant interference in politics that annoyed somebody powerful.

A recent editorial in the Friday Times alerted us to the danger of the ISI taking over the upper echelons of the army.

According to the leader writer, the established practice had been for senior generals seconded to the intelligence service for a stint to be kept away from army command positions for fear of contamination. But after Gen Kayani moved to his present position of army chief from running the ISI, this deliberate policy of insulating the high command from cloak and dagger activity has broken down.

I am in no position to confirm this thesis, but it does make sense. And if it does, the implications for our security state are dire. As it is, our defence establishment commands the political, military, industrial and diplomatic high ground. While this overstretch has taken it far from its mandate, the encroachment of its intelligence outfit on mainstream policymaking is dangerous for civil society.

It is specially threatening for those who, like Asma Jahangir, have chosen to speak truth to power. As it is, the space for secular, liberal discourse has been shrinking steadily. Increasingly, Pakistani women and minorities are being marginalised, and those who stand with them are at risk. My old friend, Salmaan Taseer, paid with his life for his commitment to humanity and common decency.

Over the last quarter century, since Zia seized power, extremism has come to permeate every facet of society. In homes, schools, madressahs, offices, courts and TV studios, shrill and often violent manifestations of religiosity have taken hold. It seems that zealotry has taken the country by the jugular.

The fact that nobody is arrested and convicted for the many crimes committed against journalists and human rights activists casts a further shadow. With the state unwilling or unable to act against these faceless thugs, ordinary people have no recourse to justice. With the notable exception of the cases of those who have been disappeared allegedly by security forces, the judiciary is too preoccupied with high-profile political cases to pay much heed to the plight of citizens.

Asma Jahangir did not need to place her life in jeopardy by fighting for the weak and the dispossessed. She is comfortably off, and could have lived the lifestyle many upper class Pakistanis lead. But to her credit, she has chosen the more difficult and dangerous path, and we should respect her for it, rather than suspecting her motives.

Oh yes, before I close, could I ask whatever agency is trying to mess with my email account to please back off?

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.


Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

Comments (19) Closed

Jun 15, 2012 11:59pm
'nobody is arrested and convicted for the many crimes committed against journalists and human rights activists' Mr. Husain can you kindly confirm is any one convicted who did crime against ordinary citizen of pakistan. Why you are crying foul only for human rights activists and media personal.
Jun 16, 2012 12:25am
Asma Jahangir is the conscience of Jinnah's Pakistan -- what it could have been and what it can still be -- she is among the most civilized things that have happened to Pakistan -- and it is for the likes of Asma Jahangir, I.A. Rehman and Irfan Husain that the world still respects the intelligentsia of Pakistan despite the Talibans and despite Our hearts still ache for the brutal murders of journalist Salim Shahzad, for governor Salman Taseer and for the Minority minister Mr. Bhatti -- now they are threatening Asma Jahangir? -- nobody will dare to harm Asma Jahangir -- the world will be watching very closely. Thanks Irfan Husain for your courageous column calling a spade a spade - we are with you and with Asma Jahangir. All hell will break loose all around the world if Asma Jahangir is harmed - in any way.
p kumar
Jun 15, 2012 11:54pm
india should offer citizenship to moderates from pakistan
Jun 16, 2012 02:30pm
Novel thought. If, hypothetically, offered and becomes a successful program then the only people left in Pakistan would be zealots, oppressors and enemies of democracy. A sure fire recipe for disaster on top of prevailing disaster.
Abbas Nasir
Jun 16, 2012 02:29pm
Great piece, Irfan. Shame Asma has to put up with so much nonsense in the land she so loves and has served with distinction..
Jun 16, 2012 02:27pm
I agree that the people of Pakistan were brainwashed and bullied in to, first, cower to religious zealtory and the violence perpetutated in it's name but, secondly, they did not fight and became used to it and, sort of, have accepted it as the norm (a force and dysfunctional norm but the norm, none the less). Till the people realize that they are partially responsible for bringing this on themselves, nothing will change. Till they realize that their silence is exacerbating the violence, lawlessness, murders with impunity and oppresion of women and minorities and destroying their country and take action to fight it; Pakistan is on it's way to Hell in hand basket. Kudos and respect to Asma Jahangir and salute to Irfan for keeping the fight alive.
Agha Ata
Jun 16, 2012 01:41pm
You said "Back Off." You did the right thing Mr. Irfan. But I have a question . . . What would you do if they don't?
N Memon
Jun 16, 2012 01:37pm
And who would offer the citizenship to moderates from India?
Jun 16, 2012 12:41pm
Once again, a great piece. Thank you, Irfan Sahib.
Observer (UK)
Jun 16, 2012 11:17am
Their is dearth of, in true sense, an independent minded anchors and journalists. If a programme was being shown in which Malik Riyaz was the guest then why should it be criticised?? The off the air segment of programme to be posted on you tube was unethical. That is what I think. The only positive fall out of such episode was exposure of true face of Mubashar Lucman who, in my opinion, is devoid of conscience. This man is avowedly pro Mush and has been on the record insulting CJP in 2007 when Mush had sacked the CJP. I think that is the only positive development from this saga. In my opinion Ms Meher Bokhari was coerced to sit with Mubashar Lucman and therefore feeling the heat of the fall out. It is unfair to push her to the wall.
Jun 16, 2012 11:09am
The sad thing is that We don't see anyone more beyond ASMA, COWASJEE & YOURSELF, is this the end of world for liberal, democratic & secular forces of Pakistan now?
Umesh Bhagwat
Jun 16, 2012 11:01am
The brave die only once but cowards die every day! If you love your motherland then you have to be prepared to pay any price for its glory. Freedom loving people all over the world are fighting a tough battle to preserve freedom of expression and thought. There are powerful vested interests who are against the victory of truth and justice.What the world needs today is more idealists than pragmatic statesmen.
Jun 16, 2012 07:16am
"the state unwilling or unable to act." which state is IH referring to? as he himself points out: "our defence establishment commands the political, military, industrial and diplomatic high ground." Long live Asma
Jun 16, 2012 08:43am
Asma has tried to regain the shine she has lost by defending Haqqani and corrupt PPP. Atleast she is no more a hero that she used to be for me.
Jun 16, 2012 09:02am
Asma jehangir is second to none in her courage and committment .Threats to her life are not new.Her struggle is for the people of pakistan and she cannot be intimidated.Thanks for raising the issue.
Komal S
Jun 16, 2012 04:27pm
Kind of scary to see how individual freedom has been trampled with by the state actors. May the Asma's and Irfan's show courage and not buckle to these pressures. Pakistan and the free world needs people like them.
Jun 16, 2012 04:45pm
Taslima Nasreen has been desperate to get Indian citizenship for a while. The Indian Gov't as well as political parties have not dared to as they want to maintain their vote banks. Shamefully, not even the intellectuals from West Bengal gave her support, lest they be called communal. India and Indians have always been dishonest over such issues.
Jun 18, 2012 06:12am
How does Asma's conscience allow her to defend Hussain Haqqani, who has not spoken a word of truth in the entire saga of Memogate. Some one high in the military intelligence is fully aware of behind the scene drama and has problems with Asma providing legal aid to HH
Jun 19, 2012 08:49am
Thanks you Irfaan Sb - very good article and good that you have keot th fight alive. We support all of you and can only hope that one day people with courage and who speak the truth will be supported in Pakistan.