What should the liberals do now?

Published: January 19, 2011

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi and has worked for Newsline and The Express Tribune Magazine

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.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Usman Ahmad
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:35PM

    Media that is accessible to a majority —Urdu TV stations, newspapers and radio — is dominated by rationalisations of violence.**
    This is a gross misconception and simplistic over-generalization. Urdu media is also open to debates. But yes, most of the time liberals are merely reactionaries and only respond to what arises to become an issue. First of all stop insulting the general public. No matter how jahil, uncivic, and bigot this public is, we have to reach to the masses and with all the patience and courage must educate them.Recommend

  • Moazzam Ewing
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:44PM

    Go beyond it YES!
    But how?Recommend

  • Jan 19, 2011 - 11:51PM

    First.

    This.

    Why won’t they get it?Recommend

  • Jan 20, 2011 - 12:02AM

    Very well-put.
    It’s a battle to be won with patience and perseverance. It’s not as difficult as it’s made to look.Recommend

  • Javed
    Jan 20, 2011 - 12:35AM

    Thanks for a very balanced and precisely focused piece. This is the bigger picture that everyone should keep in view.Recommend

  • nasir
    Jan 20, 2011 - 1:07AM

    The author certainly does not have a career in writing.
    Is he being paid to write such nonsensical articles? No depth, no point, no justification, just the same plain old rhetoric in its most primal and ugly form.
    I thought media and journalism were complete disciplines, how the hell did this guy get a job to write this kind of stuff.

    NasirRecommend

  • Jan 20, 2011 - 3:33AM

    Excellent. Thank you for bringing up the topic of sectarian violence. I feel like I’ve been shouting into a void on this matter, but it would be good if people took notice of the systematic death rates around them of the killing of Baloch and sectarian murders. These topics can be a segway into the widespread bigotry in our society.Recommend

  • Jan 20, 2011 - 3:34AM

    Also the reason for the rise of sectarian murders can be related to the fact that those murderers who would be pushed by our security policy into Kashmir or Afghanistan, are blocked by India and the US. So they have now turned to poisoning life inside Pakistan.Recommend

  • Person
    Jan 20, 2011 - 7:09AM

    Good job on noticing this spate of sectarian murders that’s been going. Somebody should’ve been talking about it.Recommend

  • Jan 20, 2011 - 9:02AM

    What a brilliant piece! I fully agree – a ‘unified’ and coherent strategy should be devised by liberals, moderates and progressives of Pakistan. Otherwise, we should be prepared for the worst..Recommend

  • Humanity
    Jan 20, 2011 - 9:41AM

    Very well said. Time, it seems, has already run out. At this point one can only hope for the best, but without much optimism.Recommend

  • Usman Ahmad
    Jan 20, 2011 - 10:49AM

    Sit tight and wait for a messiah!Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Jan 20, 2011 - 1:20PM

    The blasphemy law is against the teachings of Islam. The law was made in 1984 to appease a few, trap a few and unfortunately Taseer is its latest unintended victim.Recommend

  • Shez
    Jan 22, 2011 - 5:24PM

    A very unbalanced article, hastily written and biased. The fact remains that the so-called liberals from the English newspapers can’t relate to common Pakistanis. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.Recommend

  • Jan 23, 2011 - 4:42AM

    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.Recommend

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