Protest in reaction to the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti
by Salman Hameed
Another top official gunned down today in Pakistan for his support to reform the Blasphemy law. Shahbaz Bhatti was the federal minister for minority affairs. The only Christian in the Cabinet.
Science breathes in open societies. It thrives in regions that allow multiple voices to be heard. There are exceptions - but over all, the pattern is there. The pre-Socratics encountered a variety of sea-farers docking on the ports and islands off the Aegean coast. Samos. Miletus. Ephesus. The Abassids brought the world to their courts in Baghdad. The translation movement brought scholars from the world over. Christians. Jews. Nestorians. If there was no Hunayn Ibn Ishaq - there would be no Ibn Sina.
Then we have Pakistan in the 21st century (at least temporally it is the 21st century).
Pakistan is setting up an example of counter-culture. At a time when numerous Arab countries are standing up to demand their individual rights and a democratic system, Pakistan is seeing rallies for the defense of an assassin. Whereas Egypt saw Muslims come together to defend their Coptic citizens, Pakistan is spiraling into an abyss of intolerance. Salman Taseer was killed in January - because he had proposed reforms to the much abused Blasphemy Law and had stood up for Aasia Bibi - a Christian mother of four - who has been sentenced to death under the law. Shahbaz Bhatti also supported the cause and was killed today. And then we have Sherry Rehman - the brave former minister and one of last voices in the government still advocating reform. She has received death threats and has been living under heavy protection. The only religious scholar to speak up against the blasphemy law and the assassination was Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. He left the country last year, after threats to his life and family. I disagree with him about evolution, but I'm so glad he is speaking out.
There is definite uncertainty in the Middle East at the fast-turning events. Libya has turned bloody. But there is also hope in the relatively peaceful and secular uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt. The Egyptian cabinet is already seeking focus on science and education. How can science be a focus in Pakistan - when officials are being gunned down because of their views and, some times, their religious background? Science values difference of opinions. It thrives in environments where people can speak their minds and can think freely. There are no ideal places - but some places are better than others.
It pains me to say that, but Pakistan of today is not such a place. In fact, Pakistan has the world's largest out-of-school population, but it spends 7 times more on arms than on primary schools.
This is not an indictment of the whole Pakistan - which I'm sure is going to be interpreted in the comments. Sherry Rehman is also a Pakistani. So are some of the bravest women I know of: Human rights activists, Asma Jahangir, Hina Jilani (Asma's sister), and Mukhtaran Bibi. There were also brave people protesting today's killings - a few hundred people showed up. But there has to be a visceral reaction against religious intolerance. No ifs or buts, or the reliance in the mythic 'silent majority'. People have to speak up against religious intolerance. That is, if they are indeed against religious intolerance. The rallies in favor of Mumtaz Qadri - the assassin of Salman Taseer - makes me wonder about the views of the 'silent majority'.
So science? Yes. First speak up against religious intolerance!
Please also see Nidhal's post on Monday, that recounted the treatment of Usman Hasan in a Muslim community in UK for speaking out in favor of biological evolution.
Also read George ka Khuda Hafiz - I (tip Saleem H. Ali). George Fulton was unlikely hero of a unique and poignant reality show in Pakistan. British by nationality, he ended up staying in Pakistan and became a Pakistani citizen. After nine years, he is leaving Pakistan. Here are some of his final thoughts. Talking about Pakistan, he says:
She embraced me like no other gora post-9/11. I appeared in a documentary/reality series titled “George Ka Pakistan”. It allowed me to explore the country. I ploughed fields in the Punjab, built Kalashnikovs in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (probably couldn’t do that now), and mended fishing boats in Balochistan. The culmination of the series saw the then prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, confer Pakistani citizenship upon me, after the viewing public voted overwhelmingly to make me one of them. I was their George. Fame and affection followed.
But that love was conditional. Conditional upon me playing the role cast — the naïve gora. The moment I abandoned the Uncle Tom persona and questioned the defined establishment narratives — whether through my television work or columns — excommunication began. No longer a Pakistani in the eyes of others, my citizenship evidently was not equitable to others.
So, as I depart, I could go with my reputation tarnished, but still largely intact. Or I could leave you with some final words of honesty. Well, true love values honesty far more than a feel-good legacy. So here goes.
Pakistan, you are on a precipice. A wafer-thin sliver is all that stands between you and becoming a failed state. A state that was the culmination of a search for a ‘Muslim space’ by the wealthy Muslims of Northern India has ended up, as MJ Akbar recently pointed out, becoming “one of the most violent nations on earth, not because Hindus were killing Muslims but because Muslims were killings Muslims”.
The assassination of Salmaan Taseer saw not only the death of a man but also represented for me the death of hope in Pakistan. I did not mourn Taseer’s death. I did not know the man. But I mourned what he represented — the death of liberal Pakistan. The governor’s murder reminded us how far the extremist cancer has spread in our society. A cancer in which I saw colleagues and friends on Facebook celebrate his murder. A man murdered for standing up for the most vulnerable in our society — a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. He committed no crime. Instead, he questioned the validity of a man-made law — a law created by the British — that was being used as a tool of repression.
In death, the governor was shunned, unlike his killer, who was praised, garlanded and lionised for shooting Taseer in the back. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero overnight. But Qadri is not just a man — he’s a mindset, as eloquently put by Fifi Haroon. Fascism with an Islamic face is no longer a political or an economic problem in Pakistan, it’s now become a cultural issue. Extremism permeates all strata and socio-economic groups within society. Violent extremists may still make up a minority but extremism now enjoys popular support. As for the dwindling moderates and liberals, they are scared.
Pakistan does not require a secret police, we are in the process of turning upon ourselves. But then what do you expect when your military/intelligence nexus — and their jihadi proxies — have used religious bigotry as a tool of both foreign and domestic policy. It is ironic that the one institution that was designed to protect the idea of Pakistan is the catalyst for its cannibalisation. Christians, Ahmadis, Shias and Barelvis have all been attacked in the past year. Who will be next? Groups once funded and supported by the state have carried out many of these attacks. And many jihadi groups still remain in cahoots with the agencies.
So as I leave Pakistan, I leave her with a sense of melancholy. Personally, for all my early wide-eyed excitement and love for the country and its people, Pakistan has made me cynical, disillusioned and bitter over time. I came here with high hopes, adopting the country, its people and the language. I did find redemption here — but no longer.