Of dirty politics, Cyril Almeida, Lal Masjid and Asia Bibi
The Supreme Court’s adjournment of Asia Bibi’s final hearing, the Lal Masjid warning of dire consequences of her release and Cyril Almeida, Dawn’s prominent columnist and purported inheritor of Ardeshir Cowasjee’s mantle, figuring on the Exit Control List, have all converged to test Pakistan’s status as a civil society based on the rule of law, equal protection of minorities, free speech and an independent press.
The issue of Asia Bibi has no doubt inserted the government of Pakistan between a rock and a hard place, but it is precisely from where the present government can emerge with credibility or merely extricate itself to blink bewilderedly, perched on a wobbly fence.
The Supreme Court’s decision has thrown the ball back into the politicians’ court and bought the government enough time to convince the Lal Masjid leadership that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Protecting the sanctity of held beliefs and, ensuring against any public blasphemy of objects of reverence are irreproachable intentions. How to go about achieving them is the real dare. Once this is inscribed into laws and sanctioned by capital punishment, much integrity, rigour and circumspection are required to ensure that the alleged guilt occurred beyond any reasonable doubt. And that, of course, would then ignite the debate on capital punishment itself, a measure rejected by an overwhelming majority of nations.
It is, of course, tempting to be swayed by the heart-wrenching issue of Asia Bibi and call for the state to show a firm hand in response to the Lal Masjid threat. That would be replaying 2007, when Pakistan’s renowned special forces boldly and intelligently ended the siege at the cost of their Colonel’s life. The price of that tactical success was 11 soldiers and eight-four of the besieged killed, but the ghost of the strategic failure has now reappeared to haunt the state. In the nine years since 2007, neither has Lal Masjid changed its position nor is there any evidence of the politicians having taken time off from their biryani-fests to exercise their intellects.
As Cyril’s contextual pen recurrently refers to the army, the ‘boys’ did their job. But the ‘men’ didn’t. Send the ‘boys’ back and they’ll do it again but the ‘men’ won’t be able to handle the resulting cleavage which could lead to nation-wide riots and perhaps, even a redefinition of the Pakistani state.
Yet, it does not absolve the state from the responsibility of ensuring against challenges to its legitimacy issued by the private sector. Demons do not inhabit the ‘what’ of an issue, but dance in the ‘how’ of its resolution. In view of its record since 2007, it is doubtful that the state can succeed in containing Lal Masjid with the offer of letting them nurture the ‘what’ while retaining the ‘how’ for the mechanics of statecraft. The only remaining option is a moderated, televised, national and public debate, perhaps with a follow-up referendum to re-establish the authority of the state by public consensus. Emotions are climbing a peak and any high-handedness will be counter-productive.
After all, it was one of the ‘boys’, General Pervez Musharraf, under whose aegis freedom of the press progressed to its current level. And it is regrettable that the practice of this liberty is being questioned by putting Dawn’s columnist on the Exit Control List for alleging a change in the civil-military power balance. There is no dearth of laws in Pakistan which would allow the government to challenge a press report. The paper would be liable and Dawn’s editor has already, in a masterstroke of leadership, smeared the blood on his own head. It would make excellent press, be followed in the New York Times and The Guardian and help counter one of the basis on which India seeks to isolate Pakistan. Instead, the state has retrieved a national security spin and put a popularly acclaimed, individual plume through the processor.
Cyril Almeida’s consistent and critical outspokenness about the government and the military’s relationship and the reality of their anti-terrorism policy had certainly marked him out. But so what? Almeida is living proof that Pakistan is not a repressive state — yaar, even his minority status is a positive. All is not lost and they can still talk it over a drink, like the USA and the UK.
In the United States, news that might involve national security is handled off the record between the editors and senior bureaucrats over the phone or a lunch table. Sometimes it may involve a personal call from the American president. When that doesn’t work, the Brits issue a discreet D Notice — that’s still not great but it’s better than preventing a writer from boarding a flight. Instead of grinding their teeth, Almeida and some charming government spin doctor should be sharing a drink and rude jokes. End of matter.
While the government finds a way to remove Almeida from the Exit Control List without losing face, handle the Lal Masjid leadership intelligently and their Lordships reconvene, Asia Bibi remains a pawn suffering the death of a thousand cuts in prison. And if there are hopes that her demise in jail might release the government from its quandary, it will not absolve politicians from resolving festering issues fundamental to the legitimacy and survival of the Pakistani state for which the unfortunate mother of five is only a pretext.
Postscript / Disclaimer.
Pakistani Christians, following their religious injunctions, have always been respectful of Islam and its Holy Prophet (pbuh): besides which, they are just too poor and downtrodden to have the guts to even think—leave alone commit—blasphemy against Islam in an Islamic republic where they live on sufferance.
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