Despite Fear Of Bullets, One Pakistani Minority Refuses To Stay Tight-Lipped

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In Pakistan, speaking your mind on some issues can cost you your life. But one small minority is refusing to be silenced.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In some countries, it's not safe to speak your mind. In Pakistan, talking about certain issues can cost you your life. NPR's Philip Reeves brings us this story of a small minority who refused to be silenced by bullets and bigotry.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Young men and women cluster around a food stall. They're drinking fresh mango juice and sheltering from the sun. These students are relaxing during a break at the University of Karachi. There's no hint of the anxiety beneath the surface on this campus. Seven academics have been assassinated in Karachi in less than three years. Four of those killed taught here.

SYED JAFFER AHMED: There was tension in the university. People were quite angry with it, and they protested.

REEVES: That's Dr. Syed Jaffer Ahmed, one of the university's most senior academics. The circumstances of each assassination differ. Some of the victims were advocates of a progressive form of Islam, says Ahmed.

AHMED: They were not against Islam. In fact, they were diehard Muslims, I would say. But they thought that a modernist approach to its religion would be more conducive for making the society more normal.

REEVES: Progressive academics, journalists and human rights activists are regularly targeted in Pakistan. Ahmed says extremists are holding his nation hostage and stifling debate.

AHMED: Unfortunately, the society is so heavily weaponized that there is no room left for a culture of dialogue.

REEVES: Over the years, free speech in Pakistan has been curtailed by military dictators, civilian governments, ethnic militias, intelligence agencies and hard-line mullahs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: These days, though, Pakistan has a highly competitive media that's sometimes very outspoken in its criticism of those in power. But activists say the killing of Pakistanis pressing for reform means some key issues can't be publicly discussed. Zora Yusuf chairs Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.

ZORA YUSUF: The environment is shrinking. Religion is taboo. Talking about Balochistan is taboo. I mean, you can talk, certainly, but there can be repercussions.

REEVES: Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province. A dirty war has been going on there for years between the government and separatist insurgents. Hundreds of Baloch nationalists have disappeared. Pakistan's intelligence agencies suppress public discussion of the conflict. In April, there was a seminar about Balochistan. It was here at a place in Karachi called T2F, a cafe, art center and community forum for open debate. Right afterwards, the organizer, Sabeen Mahmud, T2F's founder, was shot dead. Her assassin's motives aren't known for sure. If the idea was to silence people here, it failed.

ZAHEER KIDVAI: I think Sabeen's death has been terrible, but possibly one of the good things, maybe, that a lot more people will now speak up.

REEVES: Zaheer Kidvai was Mahmud's mentor.

KIDVAI: Initially, I think a lot of people were told not to speak up. I mean, the parents, probably of the younger generation, said don't speak up. But now, I think, from the mail that I received, from the telephone conversations that I've had, a lot more people are willing to speak.

REEVES: Activists responded to Mahmud's assassination by holding another seminar on Balochistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: And her supporters began popping up on Facebook, inviting people to a meeting of a new organization - Unsilence Pakistan.

KIDVAI: The Unsilence Pakistan group says that it's initially going to try and get people to talk. And they will have loads of seminars on things initially and probably then had - add more people do it. And so it'll be something that's going to be running all over Pakistan.

REEVES: Kidvai says it is good some people are talking. But ultimately, there has to be a change of approach by the people with power.

KIDVAI: They will change because they just can't hold people down. This is 2015. This is not 1300 and something.

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: What's the most important thing in the world? To have a society that has individuals who can think. Without thinking, we are sheep.

REEVES: Pervez Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist, university professor and leading voice for reform. Roughly half Pakistan's population are under 25. Hoodbhoy believes if there's to be progress, it's vital that young people learn to think independently. That means countering the dogma disseminated by mullahs in seminaries and mosques and by the hard-line religious right.

HOODBHOY: I - actually, I'm going to show you two. One is by myself. One is by my colleague.

REEVES: Hoodbhoy's on a mission to do that by making short videos in Urdu and English aimed at young Pakistanis and posting them online.

HOODBHOY: Take this one though - "Clash Of Civilizations."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Many people in Pakistan and other Muslim countries believe that Islam and the West are at war against each other.

HOODBHOY: We do attempt to challenge them. We need to engage with them in discussion, debate, argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: If the West is really at war against Islam, then the question is why is there so much religious freedom for Muslims living in the West?

HOODBHOY: Our backs are against the wall. This is a fight we may lose for now, but we'll win the long run.

REEVES: Those willing to speak out in Pakistan remain a small minority. They do so despite grave risks because they feel they have no choice.

YUSUF: You know, you can either just stop living and go into your shell or, you know, carry on.

REEVES: Zora Yusuf of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.

YUSUF: Because we believe that certain stands have to be taken otherwise it's a dead society.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.