During the course of reporting about the ever so tumultuous events and developments in Pakistan over the past nine years, I have often encountered very poignant and moving moments. One such moment was in December, 2005. I had gone to Sangla Hill, a dusty farming village in central Punjab where angry Muslim mobs had gone on a rampage, after reports of an alleged desecration of the Holy Quran was reported. They had burnt down three churches, a convent school, a nun’s hostel and half a dozen houses.
My guide in the town was Boota Masih, an earnest looking man with thick reading glasses and subdued, deferential manners. As he showed me the trail of destruction in his village, his eyes would well up with tears and his voice would quiver.
While standing on the debris of a razed-down church, he finally lost his composure and started to sob. All of a sudden, he seemed extremely vulnerable and insecure, as if made of paper. He epitomised the vulnerability that runs through every minority member who has to live in a constant state of fear, behind the crumbling walls of their dwellings and dreading any incident of alleged blasphemy wrecking their lives instantly. Such feelings have only been aggravated over the years, as more incidents of carnage and destruction have taken place. An ordinary Muslim citizen is so oblivious to this plight that it is lamentable.
None can deny that, in most cases, charges of blasphemy made against people are based more on vendetta than the person actually having committed such an act. Either it is a personal slight or some financial or real estate dispute that leads to a sudden charge of blasphemy.
I admire the bravery and courage of Salmaan Taseer for taking a stand. I detest the cowardice of other political leaders who have shied away from effectively voicing condemnation and back-pedalled from alleviating the sufferings of the downtrodden.
One agrees that issues surrounding blasphemy are bound to be ultra-sensitive and easily inflammable. Any move or campaign to amend the laws needs to be much more calibrated with much more sophistication.
But I have also come to the grim realisation that the so-called silent majority in Pakistan is just silent and not a majority. Protest rallies organised by rights groups are almost always small, fragmented and leave little or no impact.
In a nation of around 180 million, a motley crowd of a hundred, or even less, attending vigils and holding hastily-prepared placards means nothing. A change can only come when those who claim to be progressive, liberal and in majority come out — with force and determination — instead of cowering in their homes. This change is also dependent on those followers of the faith who need to reclaim their religion from the clutches of the extremists and the militants.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2011.
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