Sabeen Mahmud was killed for her liberal views

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

JUST a few weeks ago there was an example of the inter-related fragility of our political-religious equilibrium. The wording of the oath for elected representatives was altered. The drift of reaction was that the reworded version insulated avowal of the finality of prophet-hood.

The previous wording was rapidly restored before cries of heresy and the like gained violent momentum. But the matter gave clerical-conglomerate cause for a rally; and the fact of the cancelled alteration is there to be referred to by those who choose to find Islamic intent deficient in the way persons or parties of their naming practice politics.

‘Nizam i Mustafa’ was the cry that helped level PM Z.A. Bhutto  at the peak of the PNA movement; and General Zia seized on the principle of using reformative political power in quest of the right Islamic compass in Pakistan to justify his usurpation.

The General has come and gone and so have many others, but exploiting religion as a political and social lever remains in practice; and his rule left behind some legislation that is almost impossible to revoke as political rather than genuine religious sentiment could ignite ‘Islam is in danger from or is being disregarded by politicians with secular compliant agendas’ tactics to wrest away incumbency.

By now it should be apparent that temporal power rather than Muslim spiritual rectitude is the prime objective in many calls for Islamisation: But may we say so without fear or favour?

Nonetheless, we ought to be able to see how the interpretation of the Hadood ordinance disadvantages if not downgrades  women; and that the invocation of Blasphemy laws lends itself to injustices alienating minorities and rendering them fearfully insecure: which is antithetical to the principles of toleration and dissent which even the most fervid of zealots cannot deny Islam endorses.


Our society, which started off as a tolerant healthy Muslim polity, has retrogressed into extensive xenophobia and obscurantism. There is more and more emphasis on appearance and ritualization. Socially, the concept of hegemonic clerical guidance has been inflated at the cost of the adult’s direct apprehension of Quranic statement.

Experience should have taught us that Islam is not easily threatened. To say nothing of the fact that there is no consensus over the centuries Islam has been with us that every other fiqh but the one of ‘my’ chosen nomination is un-Islamic.

This is not to overlook that political landscapes and actual governance in secular non-Muslim post Christian society also display an ugly aggressive intolerance, moral hypocrisy and manipulative dualities. But the existence of bigotry elsewhere is no justification for our own bigotry. Nor should we let it exacerbate our own narrow-mindedness, misperceptions and distrust. Reaction to politicized western treatment of Islamism would do better taking the form of shunning the sort of sanctioned-when-convenient militarism the western alliance allows itself in the context of variable goals in the Muslim Middle East and the equally Muslim Persian-Arab worlds. Sectarian divides there, stressed to fuel political dissension and Muslim polarization, should make us in Pakistan the warier of divisive sectarianism in our own pan-Muslim approach. We live with murderously active cultural and religion-based reactions in our own towns and villages. We cannot forever be tugging at our delicate national fabric from destructively exclusive points of ethnic, provincial, sectarian choice and priorities without tearing a collective self apart.

The undergraduate student, Mashal, was murdered by his peers. The horrific attack took place on campus in KP. As commonly understood what maddened his fellows was his free-roving spirit of scientific argumentation. Another version, or an appendix, is that this was not just a ‘monkey-trial’ kind of resistance to Darwin.

Mashal’s spirit of inquiry also extended to exorbitant fees and possible grave administrative mismanagement at the university. Those supposedly endangered, if they did invoke religious outrage as tinder to rid themselves of a troublous student, let it develop and express itself. Either or both narratives could be true.

Before we begin to fulminate over tribal traditions of rough and ready justice; we should remember that KP is also the land where the politics of non-violence were once successfully advocated and honoured. That is a tradition that has lapsed or rusted. And the prime cause has been diverse unscrupulous political ambitions rather than innate and ineradicable violence and ‘jihadism’.

What context could be more urban and closer to the cosmopolitan in Pakistan than Karachi? Yet the social climate has come to exist where Sabeen Mahmud a young female liberal, who organized and provided the space for a cultural salon was targeted and shot dead on her way home.

It was what we love to call a ‘posh’ area and not that late in the day. The assassin was young, educated ‘English-medium’, and found her kind of ‘alien’ cultural liberalism intolerable. He did not find taking the law into his own hands or murder repugnant. His moral judgment justified it for him. Equally disturbing is the fear that Sabeen may have been the victim of exemplary punitive deterrence. Her salon had offered to serve as a forum for a discussion on missing persons with emphasis on Balochistan that academic institutions were shying away from.

Exploitation of the otherwise laudable sentiments and structures of religion observance and national security are destructive to the polity: As are political reliance on provincial grievance and ethnic domination and suppression: Or the political misuse of the right to free speech and assembly. There are forms of intellectual corruption more deadly and insidious to a polity than money lust.