What we have lost with the murder of Sabeen Mahmud

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It is four years since I met Sabeen Mahmud. Salman Taseer had been shot dead in Islamabad for his stance on blasphemy and The Sunday Telegraph wanted a piece on Pakistan’s small band of liberal activists. I had heard of a place called The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi. It sounded like it would fit the bill.

I arranged to meet Sana Saleem, a blogger and activist, there. And she introduced me to the small band of writers and campaigners – on everything from the environment to gay rights – who used the coffeeshop as their second home. (Haven of sense – a post I wrote at the time.)

It felt like it stood in the glorious line of radical coffeehouses extending back to the Enlightenment. The sort of place where a novelist and a comedian used a backroom as a work space. You never knew who you might meet.

And then there was Sabeen. Inevitably she chastised me for the Western media’s Orientalism, as she saw it.

“Why do you always write about the John Lennon poster?” she said, as I asked her about the John Lennon poster. “You wouldn’t if this was a coffeeshop in London.”

In one sense she was right. But the whole point of me sitting there was that this wasn’t London.  This was Pakistan, a country forged from intolerance and kept together by sectarianism. Not just that, she was operating in  a city riven by violence, where murders were barely investigated and where the Taliban ran Sharia courts. That is why her coffeeshop, the scene she encouraged and the questions she cultivated were so important.

And it is why she is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She knew the risks. She knew how this could end. She knew when she arranged a talk on Friday about the silencing of activists in Pakistan’s troubled region on Baluchistan there would be powerful people who’d rather she kept out of it.

“Someone has to do it,” she had told me that first time we met.

She was one of the people who gave you just a little a bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things could get better.

On Friday she was shot dead. We will probably never know who did it. We will probably never know whether it was because of Baluchistan or some other cause.

But the reason is clear. The woman and the ideas she represented were a threat to somebody or something. In Pakistan there is never a tipping point, watershed or backlash.

I hope T2F lives on. But it can never be the same. And another public space, where ideas can be honed and shared, is lost.


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