December Issue 2016

By | Interview | Published 6 months ago

Jibran Nasir is a lawyer and political activist. He first became known for his relief work during national disasters and with victims of terrorism, but it was his stand against the militant clerics of the Red Mosque and the sectarian Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), formerly the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), that catapulted him into the limelight. In 2013, Jibran ran for a seat in the National Assembly as well as the Sindh Assembly as an independent candidate.

He was not successful, but remained undeterred: he would continue the fight against the extremism he saw devouring the country – in the courts, on the streets and in the media.

Nasir was among the hundreds of people outside the Red Mosque protesting against its militant cleric Abdul Aziz for his refusal to condemn the brutal massacre of children and teachers at the Army Public School in Peshawar. And when 60 Shia Muslims were killed in the bombing attack on an imambargah in Shikarpur, Sindh, Jibran Nasir led the protest against this terrorism, camping out with a group of others next to the official residence of the Chief Minister of Sindh.

Having quit his job in a law firm, Nasir currently works as the lead campaigner at ‘Never Forget Pakistan,’ an organisation engaged in social justice activism and disseminating legal literacy. He is also the founder of `Pakistan For All’ (an anti-extremism group that fights for minority rights) and the ‘Elaj Trust’ (a medical and disaster relief trust), and remains actively involved in waging legal battles against the Red Mosque’s Maulana Abdul Aziz.

Despite ongoing death threats, Nasir continues to raise his voice at every forum he can find for all the causes he espouses. Newsline caught up with him for his views on the latest bout of sectarian violence in the country – and on issues he aligns with.

 

Against the backdrop of the recent spate of targeted attacks in various parts of Pakistan, do you see an increasing upsurge of sectarian violence in the country?

There are certainly enough incidents to support this. Many members of the Shia Muslim community have been killed as Shia majlises have been attacked, and one incident even involved the target killing of a trustee of an imambargah. None of the people killed belonged to any proscribed organisations. They were ordinary citizens killed for their beliefs by members of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi – a view subscribed to by Karachi police. Members of the ASWJ, a proscribed sectarian organisation, have also been killed. However, the killing of ASWJ members cannot be said to be strictly sectarian. Banned outfit members have been killed due to infighting, as we have seen with the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which split into different factions. Furthermore, banned outfit members have also been killed in fake encounters in the past. Thirdly, a banned outfit member may well have been killed by a member of another sect, but that could be on account of revenge or a personal vendetta against that individual or his organisation, as opposed to his sect.

By my own study, a minimum of 2,600 Shia Muslims have been killed in Pakistan in strictly targeted sectarian attacks in the last 16 years, so at least 2,600 families have been affected as a result. And if there are 10 people in each family, that means 26,000 people have been affected by sectarianism. Out of those 26,000 people, 100 might pick up guns to avenge their fathers’ and brothers’ murders. What would that be? Sectarian motivated murder, or vendetta?

Do you concur with Shia activists who call what is going on a ‘Shia genocide?’ Do you endorse that term?

I endorse the term Shia genocide because there are a lot of categories of genocide.

Don’t just count those who have been killed. Count those who have hidden themselves away. Or left the country. People have sought asylum in the thousands. All these people have disappeared from our society. So they should be counted among those whom we have lost because of our failure to protect them.

Thousands more have been made homeless. People in the hundreds of thousands are being ghettoised. If you kill a cultural icon with the intention of sending a message that no one else can become a cultural icon, that nobody must dare to symbolise the identity of a community, if you try to kill a way of thinking or destroy a people’s identity, then you are committing genocide.

What is genocide? If a group is identified, and you attack them because of their identity, then that is genocide.

If a Shia Muslim youth removes his ceremonial bracelet or earring before going out, or grows his beard a certain way, or becomes clean-shaven, or switches from black clothes to white clothes, or shifts his home to a non-Shia neighbourhood, or shies away from condemning atrocities against Shias for fear he will be identified as Shia and targeted, or even just tries to distance himself from his own community, then that is genocide. We are allowing a group to systematically kill not just a community, but also their way of life.

This is the modern age, the age of the media. Is it really necessary for four or six million people to be killed before you can call what happened a genocide?

It began with the Ahmadis. They are not given jobs, are discriminated against in public places and are even threatened with death. As a result, they hide who they are. That’s a form of cultural genocide: the killing of the Ahmedi Muslim identity, and neither Shia nor Sunni leaders have condemned this.

Now Shias are being persecuted, not in an institutionalised manner like the Ahmadis, but life is becoming as difficult for them as it has been for Ahmadis in some parts of Pakistan.

Sectarian outfits like the ASWJ have found allies during military dictatorships as well as during civilian rule. Leaders from the PML-N, PPP, PTI, JI and JUI have publicly formed alliances with them and according to the ASWJ, even far-left parties like the ANP have aligned with them to garner votes.

Considering that Shias constitute 22-25 per cent of Pakistan’s population, and occupy offices of influence within the government, legislative assemblies, military, police and the bureaucracy, it makes this persecution of Shias even more troubling.

But the suffering of Shia Muslims has not been addressed by any political leader, not even those who amass support and votes based on their Shia identity. In fact they actually ally with outfits like the ASWJ to toe the government line rather than address the grievances of the people. Faisal Saleh Hayat, from a prominent Shia family and the gaddi nasheen of Shah Jewna, formed an alliance with the ASWJ for the local body elections in 2015. And the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) made a mockery of the grieving families of the Shikarpur imambargah blast. These families were brought to Karachi with the promise that they would be supported if they chose to protest outside the CM’s house to get their demands met, but when they came, they were forced to camp out several kilometres away – at Numaish Chowrangi – and the MWM ended up holding a political show of power rather than focusing on pressuring the government to implement security measures against sectarian militant outfits.

In a recent article, you pointed at state complicity by various state actors with different sectarian terrorist organisations. Could you be more specific?

The position of the state is comparable to that of a mother. A mother has to protect all of her children. But here, the mother allows some children to take up arms, and renders others increasingly vulnerable.

Have you heard of any major police or military operation having been launched in response to sectarian attacks in Quetta, Mastung, Shikarpur or Karachi? The state has conducted operations against sectarian organisations only twice. Once in Thokar Niaz Beg, during the 1990s to shut down the Sipah-e-Muhammad. And the other when the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) killed influential bureaucrats, including then Home Minister Chaudhry Shujaat’s relative, a police officer, SSP Ashraf Marth of Multan in 1997. Marth had been involved in the encounter murders of sectarian killers. His assassination set off Shahbaz Sharif, who allegedly had 36 people from across the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi killed. After that, the LeJ people ran to Afghanistan, where they took refuge in Harkat-ul-Mujahideen camps. Aside from these, there have been no dedicated operations against sectarian militants.

The dictator Musharraf, who spoke about “moderate Islam” allowed Azam Tariq, the then Chief of the SSP, to contest elections from jail, despite the SSP being banned. Later he took his support to cast the deciding vote, which gave Zafarullah Jamali the necessary one vote majority to become Prime Minister. In 2005, the SSP participated in the elections again. And in 2008, when they had been allowed to become a large political reality, the same Shahbaz Sharif, who had previously launched an operation against the party, went to Bhakkar to ally with them under their new banner: the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Sharif then contested unopposed and won the by-election on his way to becoming Punjab Chief Minister. When the country’s political forces and security agencies back up these outfits, you cannot expect the police to take effective action against them. What do you expect the police to do when banned outfit members openly collect funds for jihad outside mosques, as they did in Ramzan in the presence of the Rangers? Even in the courts, prosecutors, witnesses and judges legitimately fear for their lives. We have seen several terror attacks on courts and the target killings of lawyers, judges and witnesses in cases related to terrorism.

What is the situation vis-a-vis the Lal Masjid now?

The cases are pending and ongoing. It is a struggle to be the only one in the courts attending hearings and pursuing action despite the fact that there were other complainants in the matter as well. We need to keep the struggle and the cause alive for the media to cover it. It is not the other way round. For example, the FIR against the Lal Masjid only got registered because 400 citizens from Islamabad sat with their little children outside a police station in the freezing cold, saying, “We’ll sit here all night until the FIR is registered because it is our legal right.” I give salaam to those 400 people. After they took their stand, the media arrived, and then the police agreed to register our FIR. Meanwhile, the Lal Masjid brigade had already registered an FIR against all of us protestors without any administrative delays. It is important to note that the complainant from Lal Masjid’s side was the city chief of the ASWJ.

What is the situation with that FIR?

In the first few days, when we didn’t see the FIR moving forward ,we wrote to the investigating commission to change the investigation officer. After that we were informed that the police was taking the time it needed to gather evidence and take action accordingly. After one year, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, said no evidence existed against Abdul Aziz, and nobody in Parliament dared to stand up and question him. I flew to Islamabad, I gathered all the evidence that I could, resulting in a 77-page dossier and sent a copy to each MNA and any senator I could personally hand it to in the Senate lobby. I practically ended up doing the police and the interior minister’s job for them. Their complicity in the matter to protect Aziz is utterly disgraceful.

Luckily, after receiving the dossier, parliamentarians like Farhatullah Babar and Taj Haider took action and Babar proposed to move a privilege motion in the Senate. A couple of people from the PTI and MQM stood up and made speeches, but we didn’t want mere speeches. We wanted action to be taken against the interior minister for lying to the Parliament and violating its privilege. Unfortunately, the majority of the parliamentarians worry only about party positions and their positions within the party. They will only speak against terrorism if it’s good political currency at the time. Due to the Senate proceedings, Chaudhry Nisar was seen running everywhere, holding press conferences. After that, the noose was tightened around Abdul Aziz and he had to apply for bail – the same Aziz who had, up till that point, refused to acknowledge the constitution and the courts.

But the struggle did not end there. After almost two years, the police has failed to record a statement from any of the complainants, while submitting a report in court declaring Aziz to be innocent on the basis of statements of four of his followers. This is the level of investigation. This is how shameless the Islamabad police has been under Chaudhry Nisar’s supervision.

The charges framed against Aziz are not limited to this case. Another case involving Aziz was highlighted in my dossier. The charges were that Aziz attended a rally of the banned ASWJ in October 2014 and indulged in hate speech against another sect. The complainant of and witness to that crime was the SHO of the Aabpara Police Station himself. But when the case finally proceeded in court, the police dropped Aziz’s name from the FIR and the SHO retracted his statement.

In addition, I have been struggling since the past few months to get cases registered against Aziz for pledging allegiance to Daesh and for delivering a Friday sermon inciting hatred against Shia Muslims. I provided video evidence of both to the police, but they refused to register the case. I then took the matter to court and am still struggling to find relief, because of the actions of the state. In the Daesh case, the state submitted to the court that Aziz’s pledge of allegiance to Daesh and the demand of his students for Daesh to come and establish a caliphate in Pakistan and avenge the Lal Masjid operation by our forces, was not a crime.

In the Friday sermon case, the state has been trying to buy time at every hearing, making one excuse after another, and in view of all the factors discussed above, my expectations of any judicial activism from the judges is limited.

We need to strengthen our institutions and push them to deliver. Chanting slogans, burning tyres and dharnas cannot be sustainable solutions to our problems. It is a tragedy that our educated youth is forced to take to the streets to demand their legal constitutional rights.

I can only hope our struggle in the courts will bear fruit some day and we will be able to set the right precedent for activism in the future.