n March 28 in Lahore, my friend of almost thirty years, Raza Rumi, journalist and much else, survived an attempted “targeted killing.” Miraculously, he emerged unscathed from the hail of gunfire intended for him. Raza is now in a secure location—outside Pakistan. He had no choice but to leave as the authorities felt no embarrassment in letting him know that they could not guarantee his life if he stepped outside his Lahore home. Some weeks later, the police “caught” the would-be-assassins who belong to the dreaded Taliban-affiliate Lahkar-e-Jhangvi. But police custody curtails neither the power of these terrorists nor the impunity with which they kill. The fact is that nobody can do anything to stop them and nobody will. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have already been killed by the same terrorists. On April 19, Hamid Mir, another journalist, was shot in broad daylight and survived. He too will live. But his attackers too, even if identified, will escape accountability.
I should just be grateful that my friend Raza is alive. I was. I am.
But then, to come to terms with my relief, I engaged in an act of self-destructive rebellion—foolhardy, irresponsible and potentially fatal. I went for a long drive through the streets of Lahore, alone. As people often do. As I did often until “security-related restricted movement” became an embarrassing part of my life. As Raza could have possibly, until recently, when the price of life became self-imposed house arrest or exile for him.
But in Pakistan today, publicly arguing for relatively prosaic standards of sanity, however inoffensively, earns you the title of “liberal extremist.”
Raza is a political analyst, a TV anchor of late. I’m a human rights activist. My problem is, I am told, that I follow a “maximalist position” in my advocacy of basic human rights standards. I am unable to see how you can perform my role otherwise.
But as a television journalist, Raza had greater room for compromise. He could, and did, use more politic language, gloss over realities he found abhorrent, at times appease those who deserved his condemnation. But in Pakistan today, publicly arguing for relatively prosaic standards of sanity, however inoffensively, earns you the title of “liberal extremist.”
If you condemn prejudice, abuse and violence as categorically as those who perpetrate it, you are the other side of the same “extremist” coin. And the terrorist somehow is better because he is “indigenous and authentic” whereas the liberal extremist is a sinister Western Plant. This bogeyman is neither the creation of a state propaganda machine nor the murderous religious extremist. He is a creation of influential hate-mongering opinion-makers, their acolytes, apologists and understudies. It is a delegitimizing, dehumanizing term, and this villainous monster is made real by widespread social acceptance of his existence. This acceptance is no misunderstanding. It allows for a fictional place of ostensible social dignity, balance and moderation between sane humanism and nihilistic rage. It is also clearly nonsense. Unfortunately, it is murderous nonsense.
Liberal extremists love claiming they are under threat, they say. It is a hoax, pretention, paranoia, an attention-seeking device, a ploy to get donor funding. You almost want to believe it yourself. To be a fraud is easier than to adopt the lifestyle of constantly looking over your shoulder. But then it gets real. Raza’s 25-year old driver, Mustafa, did not survive the attack. Every one of the 12 odd bullets that hit him was intended for Raza. Mustafa supported an extended family of 10. Raza has elderly parents, young children—the usual web of family and responsibility that makes us all vulnerable and fearful and human.
Long, solitary drives are great for clearing one’s head.
I condemn the violent attack on Raza for what it is: an assault on freedom of expression and opinion. I condemn everything. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam. Yet, professional engagement with violence and living with the possibility of physical harm never prepares you for that moment when it enters the very personal domain—when it is you, your family or close friends and peers that are the “breaking news” horror of the day. I am not theorizing. It’s a lesson learnt over and over in the last few years.
There is of course, a withering critique of the Pakistani state, its political cowardice, incompetence and complicity in the mayhem that is Pakistan today. The Pakistani military and the ISI built Jihad Inc in the 1980s to wage war against Afghanistan and India. They mainstreamed Islamist extremism, used it as a national security tool and eventually allowed their creation to devour Pakistani society as they looked on. The Pakistani national security state is a two-faced callous bullying monster.
But this is not a political analysis. It is not even a human rights critique. One of the few rights we can still exercise unfettered is the right to sadness and sorrow.
There is also a counter-argument, an apologia, we know all too well. The Pakistani military and the ISI built Jihad Inc in cahoots with, and at the behest of, the United States in the 1980s. The US selfishly and myopically moved on, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself. It only returned after 9/11 to demand an unrealistic dismantling of Jihad Inc that has pitted Pakistan against itself. It is American drones that destroy Pakistan and make the Taliban butcher Pakistanis in the thousands. The US is a two-faced callous bullying monster.
There is truth in all of the above. But this is not a political analysis. It is not even a human rights critique. One of the few rights we can still exercise unfettered is the right to sadness and sorrow.
Raza was some years senior to me in school. We grew up during the Zia dictatorship watching a freak-show featuring the General and an arcane Islam that had nothing to do with the already Muslim lives we lived. This new Islam was as alien as the protagonist of the blockbuster movie of the period—ET.
On August 17, 1988, the day General Ziaul Haq died in a plane crash, Raza and I were together in Karachi. “For the rest of our lives, things will get better in Pakistan,” I remember him telling me. I believed my older and, certainly then, wiser friend. He absolutely convinced me that a glorious future awaited us.
And why should we not have imagined such a future? Like the child of any working professional does, we knew that the quality of our education was going to determine the quality of our lives. So, we were academic achievers. And later, we became highly regarded professionals, employable across the world. Our credentials were earned rather than inherited and were our passports to a good life anywhere. But the good life elsewhere was a distraction. Above all, we earned what mattered most—the right to a life of respect and consequence at home.
We, especially we who challenge murderers and torturers, are only alive at their discretion.
So it was inevitable that Raza preferred a public life in Pakistan to a successful and lucrative international career. Just as it made perfect sense for me to persist with Human Rights Watch for 11 years in Pakistan rather than pursuing a better paid, less stressful life abroad.
This is not a function of a crude, unthinking nationalism. Nor is it a favor to anyone but oneself. Who doesn’t want a life with family and friends close by, if a decent one is within grasp?
It is, of course, a privilege to have a public voice, to participate in the “Big Conversation” anywhere. And Pakistan happens to be our area of professional expertise. But as Pakistanis rooted in and engaged with our own culture, history, politics and religion, it is particularly fulfilling to engage in that conversation. It is also a conversation that ought to be ours to participate in with the greatest confidence and fearlessness. But it is not ours, as it turns out. Not any more.
People are killed everyday in terror attacks, or by the state. Poverty is rampant and rising. There is no electricity. Endless unemployment. Disappearances. Drone strikes. This is self-indulgent whining. Sure.
I guess that’s what liberal extremists do. For American dollars. Before they die. Or escape.
There is this monstrous reality that looms over everything. We gloss over it because we cannot face its immense ugliness.
The tragedy is that the “moderate,” the empowered and the affluent, are brazenly, smugly complicit in the mass cull of people and voices.
The horror is not just that terrorists kill on grounds of religion or opinion. It is not just that those who stand up against this inhumanity—human rights defenders, journalists, the odd politician, even schoolgirls—face exile or death. It is not just that we, especially we who challenge murderers and torturers, are only alive at their discretion. It is also not just that the state has given up even pretending it can save us.
The tragedy is that the “moderate,” the empowered and the affluent, are brazenly, smugly complicit in the mass cull of people and voices. The insurmountable obscenity is the ease with which the “respectable” can move from offering you cups of tea to rejoicing in the hateful, dehumanizing gaze of the killer upon you. It is the dead-end where blaming the victim is an act of compassion.
If you condemn targeted killings of Shias, goes the logic, then you must surely be Shia yourself. If you are not, you are a suicidal attention-seeker. You deserve even less sympathy than the Shia who could not help being killed because unlike him, you asked for it.
Raza Rumi asked for it.
Had Raza been mowed down, his death would have been met with broad acceptance—a regrettable but inevitable consequence of being himself. Condemnation would have given way to a social consensus on suicide-by-proxy. His family would have been looked upon pityingly as the victims of his stupidity, not of the killers’ murderous rage. It hardly matters that the same besieged islands of sanity scream in protest every time. And it hardly even matters anymore how we got here.
What matters is that we are here, at this ugly place of betrayal—choosing between, or forced into, silence or exile or death. And almost everyone looks the other way. Even our friends look the other way. We look away from each other. Even those who know they could be next look away. And then they are next.
Raza and I profoundly disagree on many things both personal and political. Ours is not a friendship without its fissures and tensions. I had a bad feeling about his foray into television anyway. As his TV persona unfolded, I found some of Raza’s inevitable concessions to the Pakistani media’s toxic paradigm troubling. But equally, I knew that he could only concede so much and no more. And it would not be enough. He cannot look at the world from a place of endless unintelligent parochialism, prejudice, bigotry and delusion. This is not because Raza is a Western stooge, Indian agent or liberal extremist. Nor is it because he is a paragon of virtue and unyielding principle.
He’s just the wrong kind of Pakistani—the kind that is killed nowadays.