Recently, two very distinct events happened that if viewed in a broader perspective could have long-term implications. One was the demise of the iconic human rights activist and intellectual IA Rehman whose contribution towards promoting democratic and human values remains unmatched. The flood of articles, condolence references, and the respect and appreciation that he received in the country and abroad is a clear manifestation of his enormous contribution in these fields. Above all, it gave hope that not all is lost and the younger generation could look up to leaders that promote the right values and leave behind a strong legacy. Here I am also reminded of Asma Jehangir who clearly was one of our foremost and fearless champions of human rights and a friend of the poor and downtrodden. It was a happy coincidence that Rehman and Asma laid a solid foundation of their organisation to pursue the mission. For democracy without a strong element of human rights remains a mirage.
Looking back at the work of all those who have contributed in their own way towards strengthening Pakistan, we cannot ignore the reality of the current happenings. The violent anti-French protests by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have paralysed several major cities of Pakistan. True, we all Muslims are grievously hurt by the deliberate sacrilegious provocation of certain French groups and the tolerance shown by their government in the garb of freedom of speech. But are violent protests that have taken the lives of several police officers and Rangers personnel, maimed many of them for life, and created deliberate traffic jams risking the lives of critically-ill patients the answer? This behaviour, in fact, takes the focus away from the rationale for the agitation and projects Pakistan internationally in extremely bad light. Responsible for the violence, the TLP has to be forcefully countered and brought under the grip of the law. But the matter should not rest here for we would be treating the symptoms and not the disease which has been our major failing. The TLP has now emerged as a major political force that will not go away by the government merely banning it.
The PTI government seriously mishandled the protests by first taking too much time to react and then mildly criticising the party for committing violence. Then the Prime Minister’s subsequent statement on the incident gave an impression that while he was critical of the TLP’s aggressive conduct he was also justifying its motivation. Subsequently the government took a major step of banning the party.
Ironically, it was a significant departure and a full U-turn from how the establishment was treating this political party in the past. Looking at our past record it is clear the state has been very soft and tolerant while dealing with religious extremist leaders and extremely harsh and intolerant toward secular political parties and movements. Governments and state institutions have been cultivating some of these parties and using them to serve their narrow goals. Memories are still fresh when this very group had staged a prolonged protest on a major highway, blocking traffic, harming people, and destroying property. The official pampering then of the organisation was inexplicable given that it had committed a serious offense against the people as well as the state. The recent protests are a manifestation of how the party has further strengthened its political, street and destructive power in the last two years.
If we had learnt from our past omissions, that would be reassuring. For nations, like individuals, only progress when they learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately, we haven’t been good at that. What is pertinent is the course that the state takes now. Merely banning the party is understandable but would be more of a cosmetic gesture as it would melt away to re-emerge with different names or as an integral force with other parties. The future of these parties and of the society as a whole would depend on what remedial measures and course the state takes now. Besides, it is not sure if the court would uphold the decision.
It is encouraging that the Islamic Ideology Council has categorically criticised the violent protests of the TLP, while justifiably faulting the French government for tolerating and even encouraging those individuals and think tanks that deliberately are disrespectful to Islam and the Prophet (peace be upon him). Their double standards while dealing with the Holocaust are there for everyone to see. It also is a reflection of the influence that Israel and the Jewish community exercise due to its financial power and other attributes that blend with the interest and goals of the Western world.
Another matter of relevance is the quality of madrassa education as it affects the future of millions of students by influencing their thought process and behaviour. Are they receiving education of the level that is compatible with the spiritual, religious and worldly standards? Some may be, but generally a major improvement is necessary. The responsibility of the religious clergy is to ensure its qualitative improvement. The state has been hesitant and generally indifferent at seriously addressing this problem, a fact that has been highlighted time and again. It is also a fact that religious leaders are so possessive and would not entertain the government’s involvement.
Many of our major national omissions are a result of a faulty decision-making process which is ad hoc and person-oriented and does not treat the root cause rather focuses on symptoms. It is clearly the result of fragile democratic institutions and practices. For this intellectual and institutional weakness, the nation is paying a huge price. In an environment of mutual distrust when government leaders consider themselves all-knowing and distrust the opposition and the latter is equally disinterested in working within the accepted democratic norms, the challenge is immense.
The point to reflect is how to build a coordinated effort from the parliament, public, intelligentsia and media to correct the national course.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2021.