Protest or pique?

Farzana Versey May 24, 2010

The Islamists and the government of Pakistan have been unable to follow the Holy Quran in spirit, given the laws against women and minorities. The liberals do not make a strong case against local issues. They are busy downloading or uploading videos of people being shot dead by the Taliban, indulging in a titillating form of sadism that whets the voyeuristic appetite for the gruesome violence being perpetrated.

For a while now, Pakistani authorities have been trying to be more loyal than the most devout king. A lot has been written about the blocking of social networking sites that would expose its citizens to images of the Prophet (pbuh) following a cartoon contest. This gave the establishment an opportunity to send out the message to the world that it is seriously an Islamic Republic.

The decision, though questionable, goes beyond freedom of speech, whether it is of the cartoonists or the citizens to access websites. Muslims in other parts of the world do protest, but banning restricts the space of individuals who might have remonstrated using the same websites to make their point. Interestingly, the contest invitation had been up a month ago and there was no outcry then.

For those opposed to such censorship, is it ideological resistance or is it about bored youngsters who will lose out on exchanging notes with friends or checking out photographs? Do they support the idea behind such lampooning? It is unlikely, for they react with vehemence in matters of religion. It may often be a public posture that may have nothing to do with their personal stance, which would qualify as self-censorship. What could be the reason behind putting a muzzle on one’s mouth?

There is a good deal of talk about the Saudi-isation of Pakistan. Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy had to face resistance for encouraging ‘un-Islamic’ ideas in the physics department when he started a film club at the Quaid-e-Azam University. Some students switched off the lights when the brilliant mathematician (portrayed by Russell Crowe) is being seduced by his wife in A Beautiful Mind. Yet, pirated DVDs of Bollywood films sell well. It is not the Saudis, stupid; it is about a Pakistan in denial, fighting its own demons. Wearing certain kinds of clothes or using language in a particular manner does not delete history. Culture is internalised.

When Indian artist M F Husain painted figures of Hindu goddesses, he got threats from hardliner groups at home. The Indian government woke up to support him only when Qatar gave him citizenship. The liberals back him selectively as an upholder of pluralism. Had he conveyed that he portrayed those images for reasons other than ‘knowledge’ and ‘interest in Indian mythology’, he would have been toasted, and not with a bottle of bubbly.

“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime,” said Jacob Bronowski. Belief systems are conformist and censored paradigms, in that the faithful believe in only the given material. This is why countries like Pakistan cannot fight extremist religious elements within, but in matters of grabbing international eyeballs for an Islamic cause there is no obfuscation. It is time to reach the pique.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 25th, 2010.