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The Last Cafe In Pakistan: Moderates Voice Quiet Resistance In The Face Of Islamist Assassinations

Following the assassination of two political leaders campaigning to change Pakistan’s Islamic blasphemy law, those who dream of a more open society and an enlightened Islam are trying to fight back.

Evening in Karachi
Evening in Karachi
Frédéric Bobin

KARACHI - Situated smack in the heart of this huge port city, the Second Floor Café (T2F) is a haven for the enlightened thinkers, a refuge against Karachi's urban sprawl and simmering tensions. Tucked away in a building on a back street, T2F is unique. Posters of John Lennon and Pablo Picasso hang on the wall, folk or blues music plays in the background, and on any given night Urdu poetry recitals or debates on Charles Darwin might take place. An oasis of resistance, it is where free thinkers can take a stand against the dark cloud of Islamic intolerance now looming on Pakistan's horizon.

Are these free thinkers a tiny minority, on the margins and out of sight? The answer is probably yes, something the owner of the establishment, Zaheer Kidvai is ready to admit. "We are a very small community here," he says. "We do what we can to react against the current climate of fear, although I do wonder whether it will change anything."

An old sea dog – he was a captain in the merchant marines – Kidvai has a mischievous glint in his eye. When he retired he decided to start a blog called "Windmills of my Mind," through which he celebrates his personal freedom but also reveals his contempt for states based on a theocracy.

Inspired by TF2's band of supporters, liberal circles across Pakistan are trying to form a united front. They do so in the face of dark times: a political climate in which radical Islamists can freely assassinate their opponents in broad daylight.

On March 2, Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minorities minister and a Christian himself, was gunned down in Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad, in a hail of bullets signed by the "Punjabi Taliban." Two months earlier, on Jan. 4, again in Islamabad, the governor of Punjab, Salman Tasser, was shot and killed by his own bodyguard, a policeman of Islamist persuasion.

Blasphemy law as catalyst

The two political figures were not chosen randomly. Both were liberals and advocates of an Islamic Pakistan tolerant of its religious minorities (2.3 percent belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, 1.6 percent are Christians and another 1.6 percent are Hindus). Both men had been campaigning for a change in Pakistan's blasphemy law.

The current penal code imposes capital punishment for anyone found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the prophet Mohammed. The code was introduced in 1986 during the period when dictator Zia ul-Haq began his "Islamisation" of Pakistan. Before that, during a period that began with its bloody birth out of the ruins of the British Empire, Pakistan had proceeded on a more of a secular path. Even if Pakistan's "Founding Father," Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), envisioned his country as being a refuge for the Muslim ex-occupants of the British Empire, he too was hostile to the notion of a theocratic state.

That vision of a secular Pakistan, however, is fading fast. The country's blasphemy law is just one example of how far Islamic ideology is permeating the structures of state. Religious minorities, being accused of ‘blasphemy" at the drop of a hat, are obvious victims.

Concerned about the direction Pakistan is taking, Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti championed a vision of a more tolerant country. How was it possible, they said, that an illiterate Christian country girl, Asia Bibi, could be condemned to death in autumn 2010? It was too much for them. They took up her case and denounced the blasphemy law, regarded until then as sacrosanct. They paid for their actions with their lives.

Today, liberal Pakistanis are out in the cold. Beyond the assassinations of Salman Taseer and Shabbaz Bhatti, killing a ‘blasphemer" is gaining wider support across many sections of Pakistan society. Doing so is no longer regarded as the preserve of the country's traditional extremist circles.

Intolerance seems to have permeated even the Sufi community, usually regarded as the most peace-loving of Islam's sects, and one that reaches high up into the urban and educated strata of Pakistan society. And yet, according to an opinion poll, 40 percent of students at Islamabad's Qaid-e-Azam University approved of Salman Taseer's assassination.

"It's like another partition," says Marvi Sirmed, a high profile member of the city's liberal circles, citing Pakistan's partition when Bangladesh seceded in 1971. "On the one side, you have a small number of people who believe you cannot kill in the name of religion, and on the other, a large number who believe you can kill – who would even kill themselves in the name of the prophet."

"Ideologically speaking, Pakistan is becoming ever-more polarized around the role religion should play in its institutions," adds Taimur Rehman, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a communist "rocker" among other things. "Supporters of a secular Pakistan are still present, but the space within which we can operate has contracted dramatically."

Getting organized, taking risks

The liberal advocates for "another Pakistan" have been attempting a coordinated response over the last few weeks. They have clustered themselves around a small movement called Citizens for Democracy (CFD), created in mid-December, at the height of the controversy about Asia Bibi's death sentence. Confronted with this new atmosphere of intimidation, they decided to take a stand. In Islamabad, at the site where he was murdered, Marvi Sirmed organized a rally in mid-January to pay tribute to Salman Taseer. She then launched into a public war of words with a senator from the religious party Jammat-e-Islami (JI), who had said Governor Taseer "deserved his fate."

In Karachi, CFD members lodged a complaint against a mullah who had called for a hate campaign against a deputy named Sherry Rehman, now the only political figure left still campaigning for the blasphemy law to be changed. In Lahore, other CFD militants are approaching local authorities, asking them to take down banners in public gardens that applaud the courage of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who shot Mr. Taseer. These may well be tiny gestures, but liberals believe they at least honor those who believe in this "other Pakistan."

One of the most notable features of this resistance movement is the gender of many of its members. Like Sherry Rehman, who has become a champion of the liberal cause at national level, the movement's leaders in Islamabad (Marvi Sirmed) and in Karachi (Beena Sarwer, Naveen Navqi, and Sabeen Mahmoud) are all women. "It is no surprise," explains Farzani Bari, head of gender studies at the Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "Women know they will be the first victims when Islamic extremism takes hold politically."

In the northwest regions of Pakistan, the Pashtun tribe heartland controlled by the Taliban, girls are forbidden to continue past a certain grade in school (between the ages of eight and 10), and women cannot visit marketplaces without a male chaperone. It hasn't yet reached that stage in Pakistan's main cities, but a feeling of encroaching menace is beginning to hover in the air.

The country's liberals are currently debating the way forward out of their present state of isolation. "We do not have a direct link with the people," admits Asad Jamal, a lawyer in Lahore.

The whole thing would have been easier if these little pockets of CFD members could rely on the support of the Pakistan People's Party (The PPP), the political movement founded by the Bhutto dynasty. Yet the PPP, currently in power in Islamabad, has preferred to keep its distance from the controversy, even though it claims to subscribe to a liberal ideology. "We have been abandoned by a party that has betrayed its ideals," laments Farzani Bari, the Gender Studies head at Qaid-e-Azam University.

Sherry Rehman is affiliated with the PPP, as were Salman Tasser and Sahbaz Bhatti. Nevertheless, the party has chosen not to participate in the blasphemy debate, leaving them all to face the death threats alone. "The State has failed in its role," says Shehrbano Taseer, Salman Taseer's daughter and a journalist at Pakistan Newsweek. "These Islamist groups don't just fall out of the sky; they have been given the green-light to proceed."

Although the future looks bleak, the liberals are not ready give up hope quite yet. "I do not believe that liberalism has died in Pakistan," says Naveen Navqi, the founder of a Karachi-based liberal website called Gawaahi. "Fascism in Pakistan today is above all an urban phenomenon. The rural majority does not believe in this kind of radical Islam."

Bosses challenged by pious employees

At the T2F cafe in Karachi, Zaheer Kidvai, the granddaddy of the city's liberal tradition, would also like to believe that reports of the liberal tradition's recent demise in Pakistan are premature. Yet he too is skeptical. "Sadly, I fear this new Islamist Pakistan might well be the real Pakistan today. Sixty years after its creation, we have arrived at this. This is what happens when you found a state on religion."

It is a state where, as Mr Kidvai explains, a security guard working at an evening reception recently intervened and admonished his bosses for serving alcohol to guests. The establishment's owners acquiesced and the bottles were quietly removed. It is an unsettling example considering Salman Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard.

Zaheer Kidvai has also had to deal with this kind of pious onslaught. One day he organized for an artist to come and exhibit work at his home. The man caught site of a painting of a naked woman hanging on his wall. Issuing a sharp rebuke, the man insisted Kidvai take the picture down. The old sailor, who has weathered more than one storm in his life, refused point blank. But how many others today, without a captain's courage and the haven of his tight-knit community, would dare brave such fundamentalist fury?

Read the original article in French

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