The assassination of Sabeen Mahmud, director of T2F, a self-described community space for open dialogue in Karachi, is a desperate, tragic confirmation that Pakistan’s long slide towards intolerance and violence is continuing, and even quickening.
Profoundly troubling too are the circumstances surrounding Ms Mahmud’s murder.
On Friday, T2F hosted the Baloch missing-persons activist Mama Qadeer, after the Lahore University of Management Sciences cancelled an event with Mr Qadeer earlier this month under pressure from the intelligence agencies.
Mr Qadeer’s activism has been consistently opposed by the security establishment, to the point where few in the media or the activist community choose to interact with him now. Those who do engage with him often report threats.
But clearly, in the tumultuous city of Karachi and given the variety of causes Ms Mahmud championed, the security agencies are not the only ones perceived as suspects in her assassination. Ms Mahmud’s work had attracted criticism and threats in the past, particularly from sections of the religious right, which viewed her promotion of the arts, music and culture with great hostility.
While only a thorough investigation can get to the root of the matter, what is clear is that there is not so much a war between ideas in Pakistan as a war on ideas. Free speech, robust debate, academic inquiry, the promotion of individual rights — anything that promotes a healthy, inclusive and vibrant society is seemingly under attack.
Before Sabeen Mahmud there was Rashid Rehman, the lawyer and rights activist who was murdered for defending a college lecturer accused of blasphemy.
Before Rashid Rehman there was Perween Rahman, director of the Orangi Pilot Project Research and Training Institute, murdered in Karachi apparently for her work on behalf of poor people against the city’s land mafia.
Before Perween Rehman there was Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head as a young teenager by the Taliban for championing the cause of female education. Before Malala, there were Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, murdered for daring to question the misuse of the blasphemy laws.
Each one of those victims may have been attacked for different reasons and by different groups, but all of them have one thing in common: they were fighting for a better, kinder, gentler Pakistan. And all of them used words and ideas, never weapons, to champion their causes.
Pakistan is a poorer place for being without them — and in Malala’s case, for her being unable to return home.
Tragically, the state seems to have all but surrendered to the forces of darkness — that is when sections of the state themselves are not seen as complicit.
Dialogue, ideas, debate, nothing practised and promoted peacefully is safe anymore. Instead, it is those with weapons and hateful ideologies who seem to be the safest now. Sabeen Mahmud is dead because she chose the right side in the wrong times.
Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2015