Sabeen Mahmud assassinated: A devastating blow against freedom of thought
I was devastated when my friend and colleague, Sheharyar Hasnain, emailed me to tell me that Sabeen Mahmud had been assassinated in Karachi as she and her mother were going home from her bookstore/café/salon. As of the latest updates, Sabeen’s mother is in critical condition. I am an unlikely person – an Americam Jew – to be touched personally by the targeted killing of a social activist in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country. And yet I am, and deeply so.
Sabeen came into my life because while taking my MOOC on Understanding the Brain she followed me on Twitter. On January 31 of this year, she tweeted, “@neuroMOOC Hello Prof Mason. I live in Pakistan and am a huge fan of your work, especially empathy in rats” and then a follow up tweet, “@neuroMOOC >> I’m coming to Chicago next month and wondered if I could come say hello. It would be a dream come true. Hope to hear from you.” I tweeted back and we arranged to meet on Feb 24th in the University of Chicago Bookstore Café. Her Twitter picture:
led me to believe that she was a man. I thought she was the man in the photograph, who clearly doted on his daughter. Consequently, when I went to meet Sabeen on the appointed day I was totally surprised to see a woman. In any case, we spent a delightful hour together that afternoon. Sabeen was on her way to Berkeley, CA to participate in a conference on Pakistan: Beyond the Security State. She was slated to give a talk entitled, “PeaceNiche: Finding Space for Contested Issues.” Sabeen had not found a niche for peace, she had made one:
The coffeehouse that Sabeen created in Karachi, named T2F, provides “a platform for people to engage with each other. A community space for open dialogue… hosts readings, meetups with writers, talks, debates, theatre performances, film screenings, open mic nights, jam sessions, and standup comedy.” As Sabeen told me about the coffeehouse and I looked at the pictures, I wanted to go there and experience the intellectual and artistic vibrancy first hand, Karachi style. Meeting Sabeen was fun. She was easy to talk with and hugely interesting, a person who I’d be friends with given the right circumstances.
Sabeen was intrigued by my laboratory’s work on helpful, empathic rats. As it turns out, I was recording a segment for the NPR podcast The Adaptors earlier today, just before I found out of Sabeen’s assassination. For the show, we were talking about an apocalyptic time when climate change has ended humanity’s supremacy, bringing……rats to the fore [I always thought insects would rule when our dominion ran out but the futurists contacted by the show predicted that rats will inherit the earth from us.]. I was asked how a society of rats would behave toward each other. Would the rats of the future be as helpful as our laboratory rats? Would they live in socially cohesive groups, free of the cultural baggage that so many humans use as an excuse for intolerance and hateful violence?
I don’t know how the rats of the future will behave but I am more convinced than ever that if humankind wants to avoid its own demise, we need to live up to our name and to our mammalian roots. Sabeen lost her life, gunned down earlier today shortly after hosting a discussion about Balochistan, the largest (in area but not most numerous in population) province in Pakistan which is home to activists who have gone missing and in some cases been killed and their bodies dumped. Sabeen’s final tweet reads, “Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2) with Wusat Ullah Khan, Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch and Mir Mohammad… https://instagram.com/p/13RnOLnFzq/ “. The murderous discomfort with dissent and political opposition is highly reminiscent of this year’s Paris attacks.
Today a passionate light in the quest for social and political justice has gone dark. I am devastated by our loss. I am thankful for who Sabeen was and what she did for all of us in her short time with us. A postcard from a collection given to me by Sabeen expresses the hope that exists for Karachi and indeed for all of us.