I am suffering from writer’s fatigue, despite not producing a column this year. Largely because I have been tweeting up a storm with like-minded Pakistanis, outraged by the sickening apotheosis of Mumtaz Qadri, a coward who shot an unarmed man in the back and walked away a celebrity. What could I possibly add that my erstwhile colleagues Fasi Zaka, Mosharraf Zaidi and the bloggers at Five Rupees have not already articulated to their readers in the Pakistani blogosphere and English language press?
Silence, however, is not an option for anyone who believes that what Pakistan needs today is loud, sane voices. It doesn’t really matter if these voices are few. What does matter is that they exist and those of us who have access to any kind of national forum must put in our dissenting vote. So, for the record, this is where I stand and, like countless others, I will not be browbeaten.
Rudimentary democracies are often subject to the tyranny of robust displays of crowd clout. It is difficult to retain perspective when approximately 40,000 people turn out in Karachi to noisily extol vigilante justice and only 2,000 gather outside the Governor House in Lahore to protest the death of Salmaan Taseer.
Look again. Electorally impotent religious parties in Pakistan are known for organising marches of fascist proportions as a show of strength. But when 2,000 people turn up to participate in a candlelit vigil, despite the nagging uncertainty that there might be more trigger-happy Mumtaz Qadris out there, it is significant. That Saba Hameed — a famous actor whose audience may well incorporate some of the 40,000 who marched in Karachi — appears on television openly condemning Taseer’s killing, is noteworthy. PPP MNA Sherry Rehman’s refusal to leave the country, despite ominous warnings that extremists are out gunning for her, carries psychological weight. Don’t let the math fool you. There are people of moral fortitude still out there.
Still, that those who approach serious debate over ideological positions have to be unerringly brave to survive in Pakistan is a shocking indicator of how far off-track we have gone. The rowdy conflict over the blasphemy laws has deepened the nation’s ideological fissures. Assuming that Pakistan’s political polarisation is new is politically naive. The country’s original vanguard consisted of a liberal, largely secular Muslim League, led by a westernised Jinnah. But it spoke to its largely uneducated rural vote-bank in populist language, feeding its fear of the Hindu middle class. The seeds of polarisation were not sown by Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation of Pakistan; rather, the General deviously magnified an inherent conflict in the country’s body politic. Mr Jinnah knew he was courting danger but possibly assumed the ramifications could be controlled. Clearly, he was overly optimistic. So here we stand today, as a nation divided between what some columnists have called Mr Jinnah and Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan. The nation’s future may depend on how successfully our politicians are able to negotiate the middle ground.
Politically, liberal Pakistan has been abandoned by realpolitik advocates. Even the PPP, a left-of-centre party in spirit if not in practice, has had to admit that the centre itself has shifted. Amidst the embarrassing shouts of ‘political murder’ from official circles, strong words from an unexpected source: Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairperson of the PPP, spoke out in London, saying that his party would not be silent or frightened. To give weight to such proclamations, his party’s government would have to commit itself to criminal prosecution of anyone who incites extra-judicial killings or hate crimes.
Mumtaz Qadri is not just a man, he’s a mindset. But it takes a government of strong convictions to make sure that this mindset does not yield more of the same ilk. Unless there are clear legal signals that inciting murder — on any grounds — is intolerable, religious vigilantes will continue to roam our streets, looking for fresh causes.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2011.