Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pakistan's impending clerical tsunami...

The assassination of Salman Taseer and, perhaps more importantly, the reaction to it, has raised questions about Pakistan's "silent majority" (see earlier posts here, here and here). It has always been assumed that this group is liberal and sympathetic to a secular form of government etc. But so far what has been heard (or the continued silence in the wake of educated people celebrating the assassination), suggests otherwise. Or - people are quick to blame something or somebody else. Media is the new bogie man. If it is not the media, then it is the US involvement in Afghanistan - and that it is the reaction that is responsible for it. Even if all of this has played a role, people still have to stand up and condemn the assassination, those behind it, and those celebrating it. There are indeed some who have voiced criticism. There have been some excellent articles in Dawn and The Express Tribune, but is hard to know how representative these voices are. For present, here is an interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy, where he talks about the current situation in Pakistan. Before I start getting the usual e-mails or comments, no - he is not Pakistan's enemy nor does he hate Pakistan. The fact that discussion on his articles usually start with vitriol, is troubling to me. He has a keen sense of Pakistani politics. Sure one can disagree with views - that disagreement has to be based on his arguments and not ad hominem. He is also a part of Pakistan and I deeply appreciate his views - even when I disagree with them. I think he is mostly on the mark in this interview with Viewpoint:
The murder of Governor Salman Taseer, who opposed Pakistan’s blasphemy law, has shocked the world. But in Pakistan the killer has become a hero for a sizeable section of society. Why?
In a society dominated by traditional religious values, heroism often means committing some violent and self-destructive act for preserving honor. Although Governor Taseer was not accused of blasphemy, his crime was to seek presidential pardon for an illiterate peasant Christian woman accused of blasphemy by some Muslim neighbours. Taseer’s intervention clearly crossed the current limits of toleration. With no party support, he went at it alone.
Malik Mumtaz Qadri – the official security guard who pumped 22 bullets into the man he was deputed to protect – is not the first such hero. The 19-year old illiterate who killed the author of the book “Rangeela Rasool” in the 1920’s, and was then executed by the British, was held in the highest esteem by the founders of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. It is reported that Iqbal, regarded as Islam’s pre-eminent 20th century philosopher, placed the body in the grave with tears in his eyes and said: "This young man left us, the educated men, behind." Ghazi Ilm-e-Deen is venerated by a mausoleum over his grave in Lahore.
In his court testimony, Taseer’s assassin proudly declared that he was executing Allah’s will. Hundreds of lawyers – made famous by the Black Coat Revolution that restored Pakistan’s Chief Justice – showered him with rose petals while he was in police custody. Two hundred lawyers signed a pledge vowing to defend him for free. Significantly, Qadri is a Barelvi Muslim belonging to the Dawat-e-Islami, and 500 clerics of this faith supported his action in a joint declaration. They said that those who sympathized with Taseer deserved similar punishment.
Significantly most of these mullahs are part of the Sunni Tehreek and are supposedly anti-Taliban moderates. Indeed, one of their leaders, Maulana Sarfaraz Naeemi, was blown up by a Taliban suicide bomber in June 2009 after he spoke out against suicide bombings. But now these “moderates” have joined hands with their attackers. Jointly they rule Pakistan’s streets today, while a cowardly and morally bankrupt government cringes and caves in to their every demand.
Pakistani voters have always voted for secular-leaning parties but it appears that today the religious parties actually represent popular discourse. Do you concur?
Yes, I do. Those who claim that Pakistan’s silent majority is fundamentally secular and tolerant may be clutching at straws. They argue that the religious parties don’t get the popular vote and so cannot really be popular. But this is wishful thinking. The mullah parties are unsuccessful only because they are geared for street politics, not electoral politics. They also lack charismatic leadership and have bitter internal rivalries. However the victory of the MMA after 911 shows that they are capable of closing ranks. It is also perfectly possible that a natural leader will emerge and cause an electoral landslide in the not too distant future.
But even without winning elections, the mullah parties are immensely more powerful in determining how you and I live than election-winning parties like the PPP and ANP. For a long time the religious right has dictated what we can or cannot teach in our public and private schools. No government ever had the guts to dilute the hate materials being forced down young throats. They also dictate what you and I can wear, eat, or drink. Their unchallenged power has led to Pakistan’s cultural desertification because they violently oppose music, dance, theatre, art, and intellectual inquiry.
To be sure there are scattered islands of normality in urban Pakistan. But these are shrinking. Yes, the Baluch nationalists are secular, and so is the ethnically-driven MQM in Karachi. But these constitute a tiny fraction of the population.
The government has capitulated. The prime minister has announced not to touch the blasphemy laws. Does this mean that religious fanatics can dictate their terms even without any parliamentary representation?
It is indeed a complete abdication. When the bearded ones brought out 50,000 charged people onto the streets of Karachi, a terrified government instantly sought negotiations with them. Even before that happened, the current interior minister – Rahman Malik, a venal hack and as crooked as they come – promptly declared that he’d personally gun down a blasphemer.
The government’s pants are soaking wet. In fact, so wet that the ruling party dumped Taseer – who was their own high-ranking member – after the murder. There’s talk now of getting American guards for Zardari since his own guards may be untrustworthy. Sherry Rahman, the brave parliamentarian who dared to table a bill to reform the blasphemy law, is now bunkered down. She is said to be receiving two death threats an hour. Significantly, the Army high command has made no public statement on the assassination, although it is vocal on much else.
On the role of US occupation in Afghanistan:
Many in Pakistan like Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician, blame the recent rise of extremism on the US occupation of Afghanistan. Is that the root cause in your opinion?
If the US had never come to Afghanistan, Pakistan would not be the violent mess that it is today. So there is an element of truth in this claim, but no more than an element. Let me give you an analogy: imagine lots of dry wood and a lighted match. The US-led anti-Soviet war was that match. But the combustible material is that dangerous conservatism which accumulated over time. The strength of the Islamist parties vastly increased after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto kow-towed to them after 1973-4. This was 5-6 years before the Soviet invasion so one can scarcely blame America for that.
Yes, the West did set dry wood on fire. But the staggering quantity of wood comes from the rotting mass of Pakistan’s state and society. Ours is an apartheid society where the rich treat the poor like dirt, the justice system does not work, education is as rotten as it can be, and visible corruption goes unpunished. Add to all this a million mullahs in a million mosques who exploit people’s frustrations. You then have the explanation for today’s catastrophic situation.
Of course I would love to see the Americans out of Afghanistan. The sooner they can withdraw – without precipitating a 1996 style Taliban massacre – the better. But let’s realize that US withdrawal will not end Pakistan’s problems. Those fighting the Americans aren’t exactly Vietnamese-type socialists or nationalists. The Taliban-types want a full cultural revolution: beards, burqas, 5 daily prayers, no music, no art, no entertainment, and no contact with modernity except for getting its weapons.
And here is the crux of the matter. Perhaps, I'm not surprised by his downer answer below...and currently I don't see an easy way out of this impending mess:
What do you think is the way to stem the rising tide of religious extremism in Pakistan?
If you want the truth: the answer is, nothing. Our goose is cooked. Sometimes there is no way to extinguish a forest fire until it burns itself out. Ultimately there will be nothing left to burn. But well before the last liberal is shot or silenced, the mullahs will be gunning for each other in a big way. Mullah-inspired bombers have already started blowing up shrines and mosques of the opposing sect. The internet is flooded with gory photographs of chopped-up body parts belonging to their rivals. Qadri, the assassin, admitted his inspiration to murder came from a cleric. So you can also expect that Muslim clerics will enthusiastically kill other Muslim clerics. Eventually we could have the situation that prevailed during Europe’s 30-Year War.
To save Pakistan, what miracles shall we ask of Allah? Here’s my personal list: First, that the Pakistan army stops seeing India as enemy number one and starts seeing extremism as a mortal threat. Second, that Zardari’s government is replaced by one that is less corrupt, more capable of governance, and equipped with both the will and legitimacy to challenge religious fascism. And, third, that peace somehow comes to Afghanistan.
Read the full interview here. Also check out more articles on Viewpoint.

9 comments:

Mohamed said...

That was a good article, Salman. I also think Dr.Hoodbhoy is right on the money here. It's a shame what's happening in Pakistan, and I don't know what the solution is. Maybe many years and many bloodbaths later Pakistanis will realize extremism is a losing policy, and then things will change. So sad.

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Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Tsunami of religious intolerance...well it all depends upon your memory of writing this article after a decade, as the situation will be no different from what it is now. Religious parties will be an insignificant minority in Pakistan as always, not unlike more secular societies who vote and send extremist hindu militant outfits to legislative assemblies not once but in every election in world's largest circus of democracy just a border away from the "disgraced" society of Pakistan.
I mean, sky has always been falling over Pakistan since its creation.
How many decades will I need to forget Dr. Hoodbhoy's hateful article against the youth of his own country in Dawn newspaper, in immediate wake of 9/11, I don't know. For his talking on Pakistani society is like Adnan Oktar talking on Darwinism.
And yes, religious intolerance is there in the deepest roots of our society as a real problem. And media is showing it by magnifying and glorifying lens to make profitable stories...it has to attract spectators and audience by any means in this world of competition. Media is business, not service. Get over this confusion, the sooner, the better.
And finally lawyers. Their role to bring judicial issue on streets was as abhorrent back then too. They knew no law and civility then, and they know no law or civility now. This is nothing...keep expecting more from them.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussian said...

Correction:
"not unlike more secular societies...",
'not' here is out of place.

Atif Khan said...

As usual, Hoodbhoy is right spot on.

Snuze said...

Frightening development, this. The silent majority is often drowned out by the vocal minority, but a loud enough banging can make one deaf.

What can be done to alleviate this worrisome scenario?

Salman Hameed said...

Akbar:
"Tsunami of religious intolerance...well it all depends upon your memory of writing this article after a decade, as the situation will be no different from what it is now."

Hmm...but things are not the same as they were two decades or three decades ago. How many suicide bombings were taking place in the 70s, 80s or 90s? How many shrines were bombed during that time? Yes, there was intolerance then also - but to think that nothing significant in the society has changed - wow - that boggles me.

"Religious parties will be an insignificant minority in Pakistan as always, not unlike more secular societies who vote and send extremist hindu militant outfits to legislative assemblies not once but in every election in world's largest circus of democracy just a border away from the "disgraced" society of Pakistan."

Aah...our India obsession will never die.

"How many decades will I need to forget Dr. Hoodbhoy's hateful article against the youth of his own country in Dawn newspaper, in immediate wake of 9/11, I don't know"

He wrote about the celebratory reaction of his students at his university. Those celebrations were also as despicable as showering rose-petals at Qadri. Writing about that - and condemning that - is not writing "against the youth of his own country". Critiquing our own society does not translate into being "against" his own society. The article was a warning that if this is the sentiment we are seeing amongst students at an elite university in Pakistan, we may be in trouble. And guess what? Ten years on, Pakistan is in trouble. Oh wait. You actually don't think any thing has changed in Pakistan - or will change. But back to the point of your objection: You will probably disagree with the celebrating students (at least I hope so), but you don't want people to wash their dirty laundry in public. Okay - I can see the point - even though I completely disagree with it. But to translate that into an "article against the youth of his country"? Well - that is a bit of a stretch.

Salman Hameed said...

Snuze,

"What can be done to alleviate this worrisome scenario?"

Don't know. The biggest reason for my pessimism is the fact that we are not even looking at the right causes of the problems. Solutions will be really hard - but at least first we have to identify the source of the problem. But there seems to be an alternative universe in Pakistan: conspiracy theories are everywhere and everything is the fault of US or Israel, Blackwater, or India. Even the suicide bombers and the floods were all being sent by America to destabilize Pakistan. Now - such crazy ideas are always present in societies - but usually those who believe in these things are relatively small in number and are not usually influential. On my last visit to Pakistan, I heard some of the most outlandish things from highly educated and sometimes people at influential posts. The problem is that there is some element of truth to some of these claims (for example, yes, there are secret US operations taking place in Pakistan). But to describe "all" events as cause of a conspiracy can only make things worse.

The "Lawyer's Movement" of a few years ago was a ray of hope against the creeping extremism. But that now seems like a distant memory. The lack of a strong central government is a serious issue of concern - especially since each part of the country is facing a different set of challenges: Karachi has its own traditional brand of chaos, Lahore has seen its share of suicide bombings, North and South Waziristan are battlegrounds with the Taliban, and Baluchistan - is a whole other mess, with a Baluch insurgency and meddling from US, China, Iran and India. Oh - and the capital of Baluchistan, Quetta, is supposed to be hosting Mullah Omar (and his Quetta Shura) also.

So no. Pakistan's geography - sharing a border with India, China, Iran, and Afghanistan (with US presence) - is not being very kind to us right now.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Salman:
Anatomy of your response from the footend:
1. A BIT OF A STRETCH
That depends upon the motive of Dr. Hoodbhoy's article. His artcle was totally unnecessary at that time. Whatever he wrote in the article and the conclusion he drew may have been correct. But the timing of the article was meaningful. This was like asking the US..."would you please come and bomb these b45t4RD5 too?". The conclusions drawn by him were a bit of a stretch than otherwise.
2. OUR INDIAN OBSESSION:
I gave an example for your information and I didn't need to go too far. Otherwise I can fetch examples from far and wide, for the same things you criticize Pakistani society for. A couple of examples I have already mentioned from more "civilized" countries in my previous replies. And you are not the first to use this escape route of using this "obsession" phrase after running out of reason and objectivity.

...and finally
3. THAT BOGGLES YOU
So finally you have inferred that the current wave of terror in Pakistan is actually orchestrated by the PAKISTANI SOCIETY, its youth, its students, its teachers, its office workers, its shopkeepers, its farmers, its labourers, its fishermen, its coal miners, its bus drivers, its passengers...and so on. Now that is convincing. I am on your side now :-)