ISLAMABAD: The twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi have been a centre stage for two kinds of protests after the tragic assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer – one by civil society and moderates, though very weak, against the rising tide of religious extremism and intolerance; the other by religious groups hailing the suspected assassin. This shows increasing polarisation in society.
Two such emotionally-charged protests were held on Friday, their purpose and sentiments poles apart.
A group of students from Quaid-i-Azam University seethed with anger at those rejoicing the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. “Shame on intolerance, shame on silent politicians,” they shouted.
The other, activists of religious groups, marched to the residence of Mumtaz Qadri and laid flowers at his doorstep. “We are the slaves of the Prophet (SAW) and ready to die for his prestige and honour,” they chanted.
Kicking up a dust of dissension that some say has reached its “highest point” in years, the marchers turned
The opposing congregations were a grim reminder of the societal divide that the assassination of the governor has brought to the fore.
“The tragic killing of Salmaan Taseer confirms that Pakistan has reached the edge of the abyss,” said poet and intellectual Harris Khaleeque. “It will be impossible to survive, let alone grow and prosper if sanity is not restored and those provoking people and taking law in their own hands are not brought
Renowned historian Dr Mobarik Ali, said, “The power of orthodoxy is getting stronger. It seems liberals and political voices have surrendered. One is afraid to even speak out.” He added that it was the responsibility of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party government to react and control the situation. “If it fails, there is no alternative,” Dr Ali said.
The polarisation in society was underscored as a large number of Quaid-i-Azam University students and faculty members not only condemned Taseer’s murder but also decried the “disturbing response to it from various quarters of society, including lawyers, politicians, religio-political organisations, and sections of the upper-middle class.”
They chanted slogans against what they called the cowardice of mainstream political parties who refused to openly condemn the incident, and against the state for adopting a soft posture towards such crimes.
The protesters also demanded a paradigm shift and overhauling of the training being given to state functionaries given the fact that Qadri was part of the police force responsible for protecting the life and property of Pakistanis.
On the other hand, a march by thousands of religious activists expressed solidarity with the assassin urging “everyone in the Muslim world to stand by him.” The march started from Transformer Chowk and ended at Qadri’s residence in Muslim Town, Rawalpindi, with participation from members of Tehrik-i-Fidayan-i-Khatm-i-Naboowat, Shabab Islami and other religious groups.
“This isn’t the first time that the society has divided into opposing ideologies,” said Iftikhar Arif, eminent poet and chairman National Language Authority. “It happened in the 70s, it happened under General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship. But the bottom line is that everyone is a Muslim here, and no religion, no country condones the murder of a human being.”
Suggesting a way to move forward from the current crisis, he said Ulema, media and scholars should step up and work on this “troubling situation”.
“Ultimately, I believe sanity will prevail,” he said optimistically. Fearing the exploitation of the situation by different vested interests, Khaleeque was of the view that the issue today was not just the brutal act of the killer but those who provide legitimacy to such acts and use faith to further their political agenda and gain space.
“These forces – all religio-political parties without exception, including the hypocrites sitting on the fence like different factions of the PML, the PTI – are essentially responsible for bringing us to a stage where no critical dialogue is possible between people holding different opinions and dissenting views,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2011.