Out of Context

Out of Context

The Dilemma of ‘Free Speech’, ‘Hate Speech’, and ‘Threatening Speech’


MQM seems to be in the limelight of national and international media, recently. Over the past few months, the London-based Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard have expedited the investigations of the murder of Dr.Imran Farooq, incitement to violence by MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, and a related money laundering case that also involved Serious and Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), one of the UK’s major policing organisations. It is too early to predict the outcome of these investigations, of course, but this entire episode has created serious difficulties to the second-tier MQM leadership based in Karachi. On one hand, they have to take a careful stance on the investigation underway against their leader, and on the other hand, they have to defend a series of rather ‘irresponsible’ statements made by Mr.Altaf Hussain.


Mr. Hussain set up a new trend in the Pakistan’s political arena when he started addressing his thousands of workers and supporters in Karachi not from a political podium, but over the telephone – after he fled the country to the UK in 1992. His controversial telephonic addresses contain a mix of light entertainment (he sings songs, re-enacts movie dialogue, and so on), as well as discussion around some serious national issues. Mr. Hussain has been rather careless during his telephonic addresses and live interviews on the media – it is clear that he misses the difference between what constitutes free speech and hate speech.


Following the recent election in May 2013, Mr. Hussain surprised the whole world by his blatant and violent threats to the peaceful protestors against the election’s result. On 16 May 2013, he broadcast a live call to almost every TV channel in Pakistan. The BBC quoted his threats in these words:



‘Those people who are protesting – and grandstanding – near Three Swords – I don’t want to fight or quarrel, but if I order my supporters now, they will go to Three Swords and turn them into a reality.’



It seems that people may have listened to him, as well, although of course we should not suggest that there is a direct link: a senior political figure of the rival political party was assassinated in Karachi soon after these threats. This was not the first time that Mr. Hussain has irresponsibly engaged his ‘free speech’ in this way. Towards the end of last year, he directly threatened the judges of Pakistan, as reported by GEO News:



“The Judges and the bench who gave the remark against MQM (for voters verification and delimitation), I (Altaf Hussain) warn them that they will be eliminated if they don’t take back their remarks.”



The above statements are only a small sample of a long, long, pattern in Hussain’s rhetoric, one which has crossed a number of mediums which he frequently used various mediums to promote his hateful narratives. He even went one step further, letting down millions of Pakistanis around the world when on an event in India, he suggested cried out loud saying that ‘ the creation of “Pakistan was the biggest blunder in the history of mankind ..”



Whenever the MQM leadership is asked about to explain the origins of these rather provocative statements by their leader, they usually reply that his remarks are taken ‘out of context’. In order to understand what he truly meant, they claim, the critic needs to try to listen to the entire speech, and appreciate the background in which he had to take that aggressive stance to put across the message. Perhaps this might have been convincing the first few times, but it is an argument that is beginning to wear fairly thin..



Most recently, the UK Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg has commented that the UK needs to analyse the borderline between free speech and hate speech very carefully before taking any action on the statements of Mr. Hussain. Britain does indeed specific laws in place against hate speech and ‘public order offences’, that may incite violence against an individual or group, but at the same the country tries to ensure that everyone enjoys the same freedom of expression, and liberty to express their thoughts.



As far as the matter of Mr. Altaf Hussain is concerned, this is up to the judgment of the relevant authorities. It is their call to analyse whether or not he has crossed the line of free speech or not. To an ordinary bystander, however, it is not very difficult to see that some of the statements of Mr. Hussain are fairly vile screeds that clearly incite violence, encouraging his supporters to attack rival political groups, and generally promote narratives of hatred. Given the contemporary circumstances of Karachi – where targeted killing of common people by party-affiliated militia is a routine occurrence -, such irresponsible statements from the head of a political party are certainly not helpful – no matter what the context of those statements are …

Rehman Anwer

A Project Manager for an international conflict resolution organisation and is focused on the organisation’s Pakistan chapter

  • Peter Pan

    I agree that political leaders should demonstrate better judgement in what they say.

    However, I am a bit surprised that nobody seems to be worried when Imran Khan says as part of the election campaign that he will give the ”Sher a phainty – aka thrashing” with his bat.

    Nobody accuses Shabaz Sharif of inciting violence when he says in his election speeches that he will drag the PPP political leadership by their neck and recover every penny they have stolen. In fact the party goes about their business at an increased pace as their reign comes to a close.

    Nobody bats an eye lid when a prominent ANP leader says in Peshawar that Mr. Shahi Syed, their representative in Karachi, has been effective in taming MQM by putting a putting a “Nakeel.”

    However, when Altaf Husain advises, “please be careful while crossing the street (politically) lest you get hurt”, Pakistanis from Khyber to Karachi cower with
    fear and 15000 people from across Pakistan call MAMA in UK to complain that Altaf is being naughty again!

    Nobody believes MQM when it says that large numbers of TTP
    and other militants have set up shop in Karachi. In fact, those in power in Sindh feel comforted that they now have a new counterweight against MQM. However, when the killings start and are not restricted to MQM, national politicians say that we need to negotiate with these misguided souls!

    Pakistanis talk incessantly about the US $ 400000 recovered from the MQM offices, and US $3-5 million worth of property that they own in London. I wonder whether the US$ 4.5 million dollar watch that Mr. Nawaz Sharif is reported to have worn to his inauguration would pay for all of the MQM assets taken together. I don’t even count the $ One billion plus wealth that the each of the leaders of the Country’s major political parties have accumulated as reported routinely by TV anchors, in Pakistan.

    (Here, I am not in any way implying that God forbid, this wealth was
    gathered by illegal means. I am just making a comparison of the scale size the wealth of the various political parties and their leaders- May God give them long lives to enjoy their booty along with their children and grand-children and great-grand-children).

    To an outsider, as I am, all this does not sound completely Kosher!

    To me Mr. Altaf Husain does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary in the context of Pakistan’s political scene. His speeches are often rambling and off point. He bursts into song from time to time. He throws tantrums like the rest of the political leaders and uses the same rough language. He talks about exploitation of the masses by feudal landlords and the well to so. All a rehash of the slogans we have heard before from Ben Bella to Lumumba, to Julius Neyere, to Mandela in the context of colonial rulers, from Lenin and Trotsky in the context of the struggle against the capitalistic State, from Ho Chi Minh, Allende and Che Guevara in the context of an occupying superpower.

    MQM was formed in 1984 after 15 years of violence perpetrated against the poorest of Karachi, starting from the victory March of Gauhar Ayub with truck loads of armed Pathans imported into Karachi, after his father won the elections against Mohtaram Fatima Jinnah and carried on through the 70′s with the help of similar patrons as these type of problems continued un-addressed over the years.

    At this time, and here I speculate, MQM took steps to ensure that when these
    incidents are repeated, then this activity would not be cost free to the

    At this strategy, the State and other political parties rose up in protest and labeled MQM as a violent ethnic group and created the MQM
    bogey man. It suited political parties to propagate the MQM bogey man stories and not accept that they should have the right to defend themselves.

    Unfortunately, since violence breeds more violence, some MQM
    activities gave credibility to these stories, as did the statements by some of their leaders made in “chest thumping mode” to their opponents as part of what passes as “routine political dialogue” in Pakistan.

    However MQM was not then and is not now the only armed violent group in Karachi.

    So in summary if we want to solve the problem we should not be selective in our criticsm of violence and violent groups and violent discourse.

    • Anonymous

      Hashim Sb

      Thank you for the sneak peak of your work in progress. Perhaps emphasis from ‘local government’ angle instead of less palatable and divisive ‘rural-urban’ emphasis. Local government worked relatively well looking at various cities (though the system needed improvements) – you may wish to go back to Naimatullah Khan as mayor of Karachi and subsequent mayors’ work as examples.

      • Peter Pan

        Thanks. for some reason, I cannot see my own comment in the discussion thread. I do not know whether you saw this before they deleted it.!
        Ayway thank you for the suggestion-this is exactly what i am doing .

  • Anonymous

    Hashim Sb

    You do realise that Altaf Hussain’s speeches are being gauged against the British Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. MQM seriously needs to get out of tge Altaf personality cult snd reinvent itself as a truly democratic progressive party rather than a rhetoric of convenience trying to play a victim card.

    Unfortunatly, Pakistan has no such law or half the mullahs will be in jail for inciting sectarian violence and plenty of ethnicist political party leaders will be with them too!

    It seems what goes round, comes round. General Zia may have used MQM as counter to the Sindhi nationalists and now perhaps a scenario where those nationalists’ interests align to some extent with the TTP. Another irony is PPP alliance with tge ANP considering what ZAB did to their leadership. I guess that’s politics – which explains PML-N and MQM’s looming blooming romance (or muta’a)!

  • M.Saeed

    Let us study some of the Altaf’s other tirades for their postmortem:
    - “Altaf Hussain should not be blamed if a war breaks out among the people,”
    - “Whoever attempted to conduct propaganda ‘will face a war”.
    - “We will see how many big shots come out to bully us”.
    - He warned the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to reach a decision with honesty or else, “they will not be able to find any shelter”.
    - He challenged that, anyone who is opposing his party to come up with evidence and warned that if opposition was not stopped, he would not take long to let his associates free to act on their own and added “How can I control them and for how long”.
    Some senior members of the British government took serious notice of the venomous utterances of Altaf and set the British authorities in top gear actions to dig deep into the root causes and take corrective actions. This has clearly turned the tide against Altaf Hussain, making him go into a defensive stance.