Dawn Editorial 22 February 2021

Student unions’ ban

THE damaging effects of the Zia-era stigmatisation of student unions can be felt acutely in the current political atmosphere. The ban on student unions — which successive governments have failed to revoke — created a big vacuum in the political and ideological education of our youth, and gave space to many narrow-minded individuals who use politics as a means to attain money and influence. Indeed, as Senator Raza Rabbani recently pointed out at the annual Asma Jahangir Memorial Lecture, student unions allowed ideological nurturing of aspiring politicians. The senator was also correct in pointing out that participation in student politics was one of the key ingredients of the democratic struggle, which was stifled during the dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq, along with labour and intellectual activity. The ban on student unions was institutionalised via an interim court order in 1992 that restricted all student political activity in the wake of deadly clashes on varsity campuses. This was followed by the apex court ruling of 1993 that allowed very limited student activity. Over the years, for those opposed to the idea of student political activity, this ruling has served as a pretext for not allowing the unionisation of students. However, old ideologues, including Mr Rabbani, believe that this interpretation is flawed as Article 17 of the Constitution stipulates that the forming of associations and unions is a basic right.
Clearly, the argument that student unions pave the way for violence is invalid since there have been several violent incidents on campuses despite the decades-long ban on student political activity. Although, when he assumed office, Prime Minister Imran Khan indicated he would allow student unions, his government’s response to the student march in late 2019 was nothing less than autocratic. There were reports of harassment and rustication of students while others were booked on the pretext of inciting violence when the rallies were peaceful and well-organised. The authorities should realise that the struggle for unionisation is a battle for independent thought and inclusivity.



Confronting Islamophobia

IN a globalised world, despite the shrinking of distances and the coming together of cultures, hateful ideologies persist. Discrimination and violence on the basis of race, religion, and sect continue to bedevil our seemingly modern world, as ancient tribal prejudices refuse to die down. Amongst the hateful ideologies that have affected a large portion of humanity is Islamophobia, where Muslims are demonised and isolated either due to their beliefs or the violent actions of a few wayward groups and individuals acting in the name of Islam.
In this regard, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, while virtually addressing a session of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, highlighted the issue of Islamophobia. Without naming India, Mr Qureshi denounced the “discriminatory citizenship laws … and repeated state-sponsored pogroms against minorities” while also calling for a “global alliance against the rise and spread of Islamophobic as well as other violent nationalist and racist groups”.
Read: UNGA adopts Pakistan-led resolution on ‘promotion of interreligious, intercultural dialogue’
Indeed, the virus of hate has spread far and wide across the world. The foreign minister has rightly made reference to India, where the Hindu hard right has made a mockery of Indian secularism by hounding the country’s Muslim minority. But even elsewhere in the world, for example in parts of Europe, anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner sentiment is high, with some states led by ultranationalist regimes echoing the poisonous rhetoric that their fascist forebears espoused in the mid-20th century, in the lead-up to World War II.
Therefore, there is a need for a global response to racist and fascist ideologies that threaten minorities. In many cases, foreigners and those declared the ‘other’ are easy scapegoats for society’s failures, with all ills blamed on ‘outsiders’. This conundrum has been succinctly summed up by Mesut Ozil, the star German footballer of Turkish descent: “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose.”
However, despite the deep-seated prejudice against Muslims and foreigners in many societies, the fact that extremist militants have greatly contributed to the discrimination against Islam must also be acknowledged. Transnational terrorist outfits such as Al Qaeda, the self-styled Islamic State group and others of their ilk, claiming to be working for the glory of Islam, have in fact done a great disservice to Islam and Muslims. Their large-scale slaughter of both Muslims and non-Muslims is antithetical to religious injunctions that place the greatest value on human life, and are in stark contrast with traditional Muslim thought.
Moreover, Islamist militancy is thoroughly a modern construct, a reactionary phenomenon born out of the injustice and repressiveness found in most Muslim states, and the colonial interventions of non-Muslim powers in places such as Palestine and Kashmir. The world community must therefore address both issues: the profound anti-Muslim prejudice evident in many societies, as well as the repressive systems in most Muslim states that help create the foot soldiers for religiously inspired militancy.



Token response

THE government’s conduct regarding its efforts to regulate ‘unlawful’ online content remains opaque and smacks of tokenism, notwithstanding attempts to appear otherwise at the prodding of the Islamabad High Court. On Jan 25, it promised the court it would consult with relevant stakeholders to revise the social media rules it had notified in January 2020 before the next hearing on Feb 26. To that end, a meeting was held in Islamabad on Friday during which the attorney general, as the government’s representative, agreed to the formation of a council to review ‘undesirable’ social media content, provided the prime minister gave his nod. The proposed body would include representatives of journalists, civil society and digital rights activists.
However, whether Friday’s meeting could be described as a meaningful consultation, of the kind that is necessary when an issue as important as the right to freedom of expression is at stake, is questionable. For one, while the invitees included a representative of the Asia Internet Coalition, missing from the list were reps of local industry associations and digital rights groups — both obviously relevant to the discussion. While the meeting was ostensibly open to all who wished to attend, it was not announced through a public notice, ensuring a limited input. A single meeting cobbled together in this manner a week before the next hearing does not meet the criteria of a thorough and representative consultation, even if the attorney general has promised follow-up meetings. There exists, for good reason, a trust deficit on the matter between the government and the stakeholders that has widened ever since the rules were notified without any warning. When that undemocratic step led to an outcry by local and international digital rights groups, the rules were ‘suspended’ by the prime minister, a meaningless action as he does not have the authority to overrule cabinet decisions. The ‘consultation’ with stakeholders and experts that followed included a questionnaire listing 10 questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options. When the new version of the rules was drafted, it was not shared with them; in any case, almost none of their recommendations were incorporated. With the prospect that the court, after hearing multiple legal challenges against the social media rules could declare them as being unconstitutional, the government has scrambled to appear conciliatory. As a good faith measure, it should first withdraw and de-notify the rules and then sincerely undertake broad-based consultations on the matter.

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