The capacity to feel and display moral outrage is a fair indicator of aliveness of a society. In the reaction to a recent episode involving a nosy, pretentious and holier-than-thou morning programme anchor we had a mildly heartening demonstration that we are not completely dead yet. The primary argument was the invasion of privacy; however there was also the element of ‘selective outrage’ being put on show by that anchor. For example picking, on a public park instead of a more ‘chic’ outlet, where probably she and her cameras would not have been allowed, etc. There may be a neat bit of irony here, around about the same time, there were calls by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Jamaat-i-Islami and others for the shutting down of an Ahmadi place of worship (I will be in breach of law if I say ‘mosque’) in Rawalpindi. I do not want to create a false binary here and I am glad that the snooping dame is unemployed now, and commend the people who played their part in bringing that about. Nevertheless, I find it astounding that the happenings in Rawalpindi escaped the notice of our liberal ‘intelligentsia’ almost completely, at least in mainstream public discourse; hence furnishing a near identical example of partially what the television anchor was guilty of. The alternate explanation is grimmer, that being that it was not for failure to notice, but rather fear.
A fragile defence of the silence on the issue could be along the lines that it is not really my cause or you know one cannot speak for everybody or on every issue, etc. That is ridiculous and cowardly; you cannot let a moral challenge go when it is menacingly looking you in the eye. The discussion on the persecution of Ahmadis has a sobering effect, even on some of the most firebrand, outspoken activists. The discussion is subdued, with often a tedious effort to search for neutral, inoffensive words since the matter is ‘sensitive’.
I am not an Ahmadi and do not have any in-depth knowledge of their belief, and do not particularly care much about the specifics of anyone’s theological leaning. Yet, the Ahmadi question is becoming the real test of fighting oppression and tyranny in Pakistan. The cavalier manner in which bigoted, hateful and malicious remarks can be made against the Ahmadis and go unchallenged is unbelievable and unimaginable in regards to any other community. I think some of you will agree with me in so far as my belief that our core conflict is a struggle between theocratic fascism and civilisation. If that is the case, with the anti-Ahmadi sentiment we are staring right into the gun barrel of this phenomenon. A society cannot persecute and witch-hunt one community, while being tolerant or progressive in any basic sense of these words. In our society, the clichéd and over cited words of Martin Niemoller of “First they came...” are throbbingly and piercingly animate.
Another irksome thing about the Ahmadi issue is the stratagem employed by brave people driven by good faith to speak against this atrocity. The defensive argument is often rooted in the ostensibly liberal and tolerant vision of “Jinnah’s Pakistan” and constitutional or religious interpretations. Historical and textual analysis has its place, yet to condemn hoarse, lurid calls for blood of fellow citizens should not require the invocation of a dead man’s perspective or a piddling subsection, one should know it in one’s water. The laws that declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims and enact prohibition on calling their places of worship as ‘mosques’ etc. are brutal and medieval. The argument given by at least one court on the constitutionality of these laws is that religious symbols and terms are like a trademark. No one needs to go to law school to recognise the fallacy here. It is necessary to make as much fuss about these laws as is possible, and do so consistently. My knowledge of religion is perfunctory, yet nobody should care about what one feels compelled to call oneself, it becomes especially tyrannical when done by the State. At some level, the question is not religious at all; it is a question of basic social decency.
Religious and clerical bullying and panic is not something new to us, but the magnitude of it is going exponentially up in the garb of a pseudo-political movement with a name indicative of a sheer exhaustion of imagination and also sinisterly disingenuous, ‘Difa-i-Pakistan’. The name is designed to play upon our oldest national confusion between Islam and Pakistan. Jacobo Timerman is an Argentine journalist who wrote a riveting account of his imprisonment and torture by the authorities in his memoirs “Prisoner without a name, Cell without a number”. He was told by those holding him in custody: “Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”
The coverage given to the fanatical displays by the media and the support both tacit and overt by mainstream political parties highlights how depressingly easy it is for our society to degenerate into prehistoric barbarism. I am all for their freedom to say idiotic and even hateful things to huge gatherings, provided they are not provocation to murder. However, one is entitled to be disappointed at the deference being extended to them, in my opinion they should be exposed with ridicule and contempt, and done so publicly and unequivocally.
The State has a responsibility to restrain these fanatical, terrorist outfits from spewing venom against fellow citizens and so do the free media and the liberals. Every one of us (including myself) who has obtained a passport has signed the declaration that the Ahmadi prophet is an imposter and a liar; we can begin by refusing to do that. It would be shameful if we decide to sit on the sideline for the cause of Ahmadis in Rawalpindi or elsewhere.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2012.