Less than a day after Sabeen Mahmud was killed, the obfuscation has begun. We are told the attack was the result of a ‘personal enmity’ even though the identities of the assailants remain unknown and the investigation has barely begun. The broader context of the case is being studiously ignored, with the threats that were sent, and the significance of the event that had been held, simply disappearing from the emerging narrative.

Online, amidst all the grief and anguish, anonymous keyboard warriors have started to spring up out of nowhere, renewing their campaign of hate and vilification. Traitor. Anti-state. ‘Liberal’. Foreign Agent. The message is loud and clear: any deviation from the official orthodoxy, and any attempt to voice disagreement, is sufficient grounds for a swift and deadly response. Unsurprisingly, and not unexpectedly, it is once again the victim who is being blamed for what happened.

In the media, the usual suspects are it again. What happened is a tragedy, they claim, but one that is easily explained; shadowy external actors and their pawns inside Pakistan duped a good woman into aiding their cause, only to target her afterwards in an attempt to malign the state and its agencies. In a cruel and ironic twist of fate, this particular tactic turns everything Sabeen Mahmud stood for on its head, using her death as a means through which to strengthen the very attitudes and ideas she fearlessly sought to challenge.

I never met Sabeen Mahmud, nor have I ever had the opportunity to visit T2F, the platform through which she sought to promote debate aimed at creating a more progressive and pluralistic Pakistan. Nonetheless for me, like many others in the country and around the world, the depressing news of her death was yet more confirmation of a fact that has become abundantly clear over the past decade; the space for free expression and dissent in Pakistan is growing ever smaller, and those who police the boundaries of what can or cannot be said will ruthlessly punish any who fail to adhere to the rules they set.

In recent years, dozens of activists, journalists, politicians, and others have been targeted for simply speaking out against injustice and bigotry. Those drawing attention to the violence perpetrated against minorities, the discrimination experienced by women, the exploitation of the poor, and the arbitrary despotism of the state, can reasonably expect to be abused, attacked, and even killed for simply standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens. Speaking truth to power has always been a dangerous endeavor in Pakistan; to ask too many questions or highlight too many inconvenient truths is to risk incurring the ire of powerful forces invested in the preservation of the status quo.

It stretches credulity to believe that the timing of Friday’s attack was coincidental, coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of a talk on Balochistan that had been prevented from happening at LUMS just two weeks earlier. That the event went ahead, despite reports that T2F had been receiving threats about it, is testament to Sabeen Mahmud’s bravery and her willingness to stand up for her principles. It is precisely for this reason that the attack also served to act as a warning, demonstrating the costs of defiance to those who would seek to emulate her example.

At this juncture, it would be understandable to succumb to fear and intimidation, and to disengage from the work required to build a more inclusive and tolerant Pakistan. It would also be tempting to give in to cynicism, simply abandoning any hope of ever changing anything. To switch off and forget would perhaps be best of all, going through each day buffeted by news of economic corridors, lawn launches, the spectacle of sport, and harmlessly trivial showbiz fluff, all of which might lull us into believing that things are not so bad.

This would all be convenient, but it would not necessarily be easy. And therein lies the rub. Silence will not help those who continue to be persecuted and oppressed, just as looking away will not make them disappear. To not extend our solidarity and support to those who need it, and to deliberately turn our backs on those who will keep on fighting anyway because they have no other choice, is to concede that our principles are not worth the breath it takes to state them. To pretend that we can ignore the suffering of others, and to believe that their struggles are not our struggles, is to simply deny our own humanity. We might be safe, but we would also be complicit, and our consciences would be far from clear.

As can be seen from the tributes paid to her by those who knew and loved her, Sabeen Mahmud was clearly a woman of remarkable talents who also possessed a tremendous capacity to inspire those whose lives she touched. She was also someone whose courage should shame those of us who continue to remain silent in the face of oppression. Allowing her death to become a means through which to further stifle debate in Pakistan would be a great disservice to her memory, and would be nothing more than craven capitulation to the forces she opposed.