Five years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.
The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”
You can read the full interview over at The Pool.
As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)
I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.
For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.
The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.
During a long trip to Pakistan last year, I visited Gwadar, a remote coastal town in the far reaches of Balochistan. This province is huge, underdeveloped and home to a long-running separatist insurgency. Gwadar, a remote outpost of a remote region, is the unlikely centre of geopolitical machinations. As part of a huge programme of economic cooperation, China and Pakistan are seeking to develop Gwadar’s deepwater port into a major shipping destination. This forms one part of the ambitious “China Pakistan Economic Corridor”, which will see a new trade route – stretching thousands of miles – go through the length of Pakistan, connecting China to lucrative Middle Eastern markets.
The area is tightly controlled by the military; I was on a press trip organised by the army. While the trip was designed to show that Gwadar is open for business, it was difficult to escape the disjunction between the language used by officials, and the anxieties of local people, who have a deep-seated – and well-justified – concern about displacement and about the resources of their province being stripped away. I wrote about the trip, and the troubled history of Balochistan, in a long essay for Guernica magazine.
He clicked onto the next slide, a circular chart detailing the military strategy in Balochistan. It was a crudely drawn dial under the title “People Centric Approach,” with a caption below reading, “Love Begets Love.” There were seven points on the dial. The first six all read, “Love,” in green lettering. The final point was in red. It read, “Selective Use Of Force.”
You can read the rest over at Guernica’s website.
“The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write” is a fantastic anthology, published by Saqi and edited by Sabrina Mahfouz. It contains writing from a wide range of women – poetry, short stories, essays, plays – from established writers like Kamila Shamsie and Ahdaf Soueif, as well as from young spoken word poets published here for the first time. I’ve got an essay in the book, a personal piece about the first time I travelled to Pakistan as an adult with my mother. It’s in good bookshops and, obviously, on Amazon.
There’s a big schedule of events planned for the book; the launch at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in April was a joyful occasion full of laughter and brilliant women. I spoke at Asia House, and will also be appearing at the Hay Festival on 3 June with Sabrina (the editor) and Aliyah Hasinah Holder.
Late last year, I travelled to Karachi to spend a week with Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver for the Edhi Foundation. This is a huge charitable empire which fills many of the gaps left by the state – including the world’s largest voluntary ambulance service. In Karachi, a city that for years has been riven by gang crime and terrorist violence, the job of an ambulance driver can be perilous. The Edhi Foundation also tends to unidentified corpses, along with a dizzying array of other services.
Karachi’s ethnic conflict and violent gang war was in full flow. On his first day, Safdar went with another driver to collect one of the unclaimed bodies frequently found on the streets. He couldn’t look. The other driver slapped him in the face. “What do you think this is?” he said. “It’s a human being. What are you? A human being. Why are you behaving like this?” Safdar picked up the corpse.
“It takes time to get used to this work,” he says. “A lot of people leave after a week or so as they can’t take it. They have fear in them.”
The profile of Safdar and the Edhi Foundation was originally written for Mosaic, a magazine run by the Wellcome Trust. It was syndicated by the Guardian’s long-read section, and will be appearing in Esquire Malaysia along with a few other places. It’s accompanied by wonderful photos by Akhtar Soomro (a full gallery is available on the Mosaic website).
During my latest trip to Pakistan in spring of this year, I traveled around the country and reported on different aspects of extremism. I recently wrote a long feature for the New Humanist (Summer 2016 issue) looking at the country’s notorious network of madrasas (religious seminaries), examining their relationship to terrorism and the reasons why successive attempts at reform have failed.
Mohammed Ishfaq and Naeb Amir, two of the teachers, stepped outside to talk to me. “Things were good before this, but now there are problems teaching and praying here,” said Amir. “The number of students – even boys – has decreased. People are afraid to visit. Many don’t want to send their kids here.”
Ishfaq jumped in. “We are teaching an approved syllabus to the boys, but we don’t know what Halima was teaching the girls. There’s no evidence that she changed the syllabus, and we didn’t know about it if she did. We never heard her mention Syria or ISIS or sectarianism. Everyone was surprised.”
I asked what they thought of Cheema’s actions: had she done the wrong thing in going to Syria? “She did wrong,” Ishfaq said, immediately. “Women cannot travel without the permission of their husband. She went against Islam.”
The full piece is available at the New Humanist website and the clipping is below.
Out on patrol with Karachi police in the former militant stronghold of Sohrab Goth
The second part of my project for the Times, looking into support for ISIS in Pakistan, came out in the paper on 21 June.
This piece focused on ISIS cells and supporters in universities and amongst the intelligentsia: a very different profile to the usual militant in the country, who are traditionally drawn from lower income backgrounds. I met with several students who openly professed their support to ISIS. Rather than direct involvement in violence, the majority focused on fundraising, propaganda and logistical support. Most had links with other terrorist sympathisers overseas, both in the Middle East and in Europe and in some cases in Britain. The full piece is available at the Times website (paywall-ed) and the clipping is below.
A street in Johar Town, Lahore. Three women left for Syria from this area in December 2015.
My most recent trip to Pakistan (from March-April this year) was with the Times newspaper, under the auspices of the Richard Beeston Bursary. As well as covering general news, I was researching support for ISIS in Pakistan. The authorities have been keen to downplay any threat from ISIS within their borders, claiming that it is non-existent as a political force there – but there have been numerous attacks claimed by the group’s supporters. I was surprised by what I found; while there is currently little evidence of an organisational presence of ISIS in any meaningful sense – for instance, a fighting force with the capability of capturing territory – there are significant pockets of support. Those that I met did not fit the stereotypical demographic of militants in Pakistan, who are stereotypically rural and from lower income backgrounds. The first of my pieces on the topic for the Times came out on Saturday 11th June, and looked at support for ISIS (and other terrorist groups) amongst educated women. You can read the piece at the Times website here (link behind paywall) and the clipping is below.