In Pakistan, any debate that has a religious component will be numerically skewed. Those dwindling few who oppose the use of Islam for murder and oppression will be limited to angry screeds on the opinion pages of English-language newspapers that are read by few, and head-scratching bewilderment on blogs and Twitter, which have an even smaller audience. Media that is accessible to a majority —Urdu TV stations, newspapers and radio — is dominated by rationalisations of violence.
Still, the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, because of his public wish to amend the country’s blasphemy laws, has, at least, spurred a debate, even if it is limited to a hermetic subset of the country. Most of the English-language media has been vocal in its condemnation, both of the assassination as well as the retrograde laws that sparked it.
But along with accepting the inevitably limited reach of these voices, liberal Pakistanis have thoughtlessly restricted the scope of their critique. The pernicious influence of those using religion to advance a murderous ideology does not start and end with blasphemy.
Sectarian violence, for example, usually initiated by the dominant Sunni sect, has virtually disappeared as a topic of discussion in the media. Just in December, there were two attacks on Shias observing Ashura in Hangu and Peshawar, as there have been nearly every year in the past two decades. Apart from the now commonplace Sunni-on-Shia violence, 2010 also saw a rise in violence against the Ahmadi community, which dominated the news cycle for a few days and then disappeared, as if all was well again.
Meanwhile, terrorist violence has continued without pause. According to research done by a website that tracks terrorism incidents, 1,796 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2010, as compared to 2,324 in 2009. The decline in killings was small but the drop in media coverage astounding. Even those who supported successful military operations in Swat and South Waziristan have been mute about taking on the latest Taliban sanctuary: North Waziristan.
The bulk of attention has been paid to high-profile terrorist attacks at shrines in Punjab and Karachi, while terrorism in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where the bulk of attacks take place, has been bumped off the front pages. In its critique of religious violence, liberals have written off a large swathe of the country. It is hard to dispel the impression that the value of human life in Pakistan is determined by geography.
The problem with this lopsided debate is that the liberal role is purely reactive. Right-wingers are not only in command numerically, they also set the terms of the debate. They are able to magically manufacture controversies at whim. It is the retrograde forces who decide that the Danish cartoons, for example, are worth creating a violent fuss over. The liberals are left to impotently respond.
We shouldn’t have needed to wait for the Aasia Bibi case and Salmaan Taseer’s assassination to rail against the abuse of blasphemy laws on a daily basis. Unjust laws and societal repression are worth fighting against, even without a news peg. It would not be surprising if a month from now, the blasphemy debate has been conceded by an act of commission, with us summoning up fresh outrage against the latest newsworthy, telegenic atrocity.
There are a lot — perhaps too many — fronts to fight on: blasphemy, rape, the Taliban and on and on. Carrying on a piecemeal struggle without a unified ideology that positively states what we are in favour of, is sure to be unsuccessful. Liberals have always been the permanent opposition in Pakistan. It is time to go beyond that.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2011.