Hassan Raza is a journalist, blogger, human rights activist and a fellow at South Asian Center of Atlantic Council, a Washington based American think tank. He writes about regional peace, religious harmony and human rights. He has written for some of Pakistan's leading English newspapers including Dawn and The Nation. Associated with Al Jazeera Network in the past, he has also blogged for The Huffington Post, one of the top American online news magazines.
Through his writings and public speaking, he works to promote a moderate and better image of Pakistan and bridge gaps between various religious communities. He aspires to see a peaceful and progressive Pakistan.
He tweets @imhassanraza
He graciously agreed to speak with Clarion Project Dialogue Coordinator Elliot Friedland about Pakistan and the difficulties faced by activists who are speaking out there.
Clarion Project: Why did you first get involved in speaking out about Islamism?
Hassan Raza: 5 years ago while at university. There was a wave of Shia killings as well as the assassination of Salman Taseer. I personally lost relatives in Karachi due to Shia killings by anti-Shia militant outfits. I was just looking at the news, retweeting and sharing. But I realized as a citizen of Pakistan I had to do more with the resources I had.
So I started writing about what’s going on and using different mediums to spread information.
We are fortunately living in an era where people have been empowered by social media and are not reliant on mainstream media. Together with other activists I used posts, pictures and memes to attract the attention of common people. Many Sunni activists are also vocal against Sunni extremism.
Over the past ten years there has been significant progress in getting Pakistani people to acknowledge what is going on. Now there is not just state-controlled media, so a counter-narrative has developed.
There was another wave of Shia killings in the 1990s but it was largely ignored because there was only state-controlled media.
You can see the results of this diversity in the attitudes of the people. A lot of Pakistanis used to be in favor of the Pakistani Taliban and have since changed their minds because now they have access to accurate information via social media.
Through social media I have changed my mind about Israel, for example. I used to have “Death to Israel” on my Facebook, but since changed my mind after interacting with Israelis on social media and meeting them in the US.
I do believe of course that, just like any other country, the state of Israel also has problems, but those problems should be pointed out, debated and discussed in a civilized way instead of supporting annihilation of an entire country
Clarion: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to defeating Islamist extremism in Pakistan is?
Raza: The biggest obstacle is that since 1947 the elite have been misusing religion for their own gain. A bigger problem in general is that people who claim to be the custodians of religion and manipulate it for their own purposes and make territorial issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Kashmir into religious issues, when they are really not.
At the creation of the state Pakistan had a 25% non-Muslim population. Now it's only 5%.
Pakistan underwent a process of state sponsored "Islamization" and began imposing the Saudi form of Islam over Pakistan. The school curriculum was changed, madrassas (Islamic religious seminaries) were made compulsory, and Islam was forced into every aspect of education.
Former Pakistani dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq implemented blasphemy laws in Pakistan in the early 1980s. Since then Pakistan has been unable to recover.
Salman Taseer is the best example – he said there was nothing wrong with discussing the blasphemy law since it was made by the dictator Zia ul-Haq. He called for it to be discussed and amended because it is frequently “misused.” for this reason he was assassinated. The massive investment of 50-60 years cannot be reversed overnight.
But progress is gradually happening.
Pakistani Muslims are now going to Christian and Hindu festivals, something that never happened before, showing that tolerance is increasing.
There are activists trying to change the education policy to remove the hatred of minorities. They have successfully passed a bill to allow Hindus to marry and register their marriages. Before 2016 there were no registrations of those marriages.
So progress is being made.
Clarion: Recently actor Hamza Ali Abbasi has spoken out on national television in defence of the Ahmadi community. Do you think this will make a difference in how minorities are treated in Pakistan?
Raza: He has received a big backlash, including from people who used to support him. He has a reputation as being right wing and said that religious people are more open minded than liberals. But there are many Pakistanis supporting him and the Ahmadi community. He did not pass any judgment he just raised an issue, the situation for the Ahmadis in Pakistan is not good and he raised that.
Some people are supporting him and others are against him. One of the religious political parties may take people out to the streets to demonstrate and liberal people just can’t get that many people out onto the streets.
For me, anyone who says they are Muslim is Muslim. Obviously I think any sect other than Shia is not the best form of Islam, otherwise I would change my sect. But it’s not anyone’s job to decide whether anyone else is a Muslim or not – whether I accept their beliefs or not is irrelevant- it’s between them and Allah.
I think how you treat Ahmadis is a litmus test for whether or not you are really a progressive. There are some people who claim to be progressive but as soon as you mention Ahmadis they become extremely conservative.
Clarion: How do you think those who value human rights need to change their approach to make more progress in Pakistan?
Raza: I do not think they can really be asked to do more.
As much as we are working for civil rights we have to remember the realities on the ground. We have to remember we are a small minority.
You can only fight if you are alive.
The issues can only be talked about in a calm way because people become offended very easily and may possibly kill you. I go over all my pieces several times to make sure it is phrased carefully and that there is nothing that could be misconstrued or taken offensively.
People who are activists in Pakistan are risking their lives and you have to make sure you stay alive.
There has to be a change of mindset to focus on what is being said rather than who is saying it, because people can’t look past what sect (Ahmadi, Shia, Jew etc) someone is in order to hear what they are really saying and listen.
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Clarion: What is your favorite thing about Pakistan?
Raza: Oh, so many things. I love the food, I have been to many countries but I have never had food as good as in Karachi, it has the best spicy food.
Also the natural beauty, Pakistan has incredible natural beauty – forests, desert, mountains etc. If the security situation is solved, we could have incredible tourism. The cultural diversity is incredible, we have so many people from different backgrounds including people who came from India after partition, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and many different ethnic groups. I also particularly love the Urdu language because it is so lovely and civilized. Even if someone is fighting with you they will say it in such a nice way.
I must also mention my appreciation of the Sufi culture which has existed for centuries in this land by the saints who promoted the message of peace, harmony, religious pluralism and tolerance.