During the first few months of World War II, the British Government produced a propaganda poster that said in large type “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”. Ever since, that particular poster has become an icon, giving rise to many variations (eg, “Keep calm and eat aam”). The one constant factor in all the variations and parodies is the “keep calm” part. This is because nobody doubts that it is the job of a government to tell its people to calm down; nobody, that is, except the buffoons running this country.
Let’s just rewind a bit. A malicious person produced a video deliberately intended to inflame the passions of Muslims. Since the video was truly terrible, nobody noticed it. An Egyptian Islamic channel was so outraged by this lack of outrage that it first dubbed the video into Arabic and then broadcast it. The immediate result of this was an attack on the US consulate in Ben Ghazi, the death of the US ambassador to Libya and an attack on the US embassy in Egypt. We then followed suit with politician after politician, mullah after mullah, anchor after anchor, all jumping aboard the indignation bandwagon.
Faced with this rising tide of anger, the PPP did what the PPP normally does — run away. The prime minister announced that September 21 would be a public holiday to commemorate the love we feel for the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Then, having taken care of all likely complications, the PPP brain trust decided to chill out.
On September 20, the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad was attacked by protesters trying to reach the US embassy. For a few hours, it was touch and go but eventually the police prevailed. In the meantime, the 111 Brigade of the army had been called in but was unable to assist as it was stuck in traffic. No explanation was ever given by the federal government as to why it had failed to anticipate the scale of the protests.
Friday dawned on the deserted streets of major cities in Pakistan as a scene from a zombie movie. Those poor souls unfortunate enough to own businesses on major roads had plastered their offices with banners voicing their support for the protest and against the film as if that would somehow inoculate their property against destruction. Some escaped. But some didn’t.
From the time when Friday prayers ended till when the sun finally went down, television screens filled with scenes of mayhem. By nightfall, five cinemas had been torched in Karachi, multiple CNG and petrol stations had been burnt, petrol bombs had been chucked at the US consulate in Lahore and 19 people were dead. Three of the dead were policemen. One of the three dead policemen had reportedly been stoned to death by an enraged mob.
The entire day, the federal government was conspicuous only by its absence. Oh wait, I’m wrong. The PM addressed a gathering of politicians at the PM Secretariat and asked the Western world to make blasphemy a crime. However, there was no assurance by the government at any point that it would try to protect the lives and property of innocent people. Instead, the only sense of occasion was shown by the dashing Interior Minister who, possibly having confused Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool with Dress Up for Work Day, paraded before the cameras in a particularly fetching shiny silver waistcoat. Politics, of course, abhors a vacuum and hence the airwaves were filled with the hysterical keening of anchors, all of them shocked, absolutely shocked, to see that such a wonderful idea was being marred by violence.
Let me try to pull together the threads of my outrage. There is a difference between a government and an opposition party. The PPP cannot continue to play at being in power as if it was a six-year-old playing with the steering wheel of daddy’s car. Being in power does not only mean the freedom to rape this country’s exchequer. Being in power means the responsibility to exercise executive authority for the benefit of the citizenry.
The single most fundamental function of a government is to protect its citizens so that they live without the fear of violence to them or to their property. By that token, this PPP government is not just a failure but an unmitigated disaster. The federal government didn’t just fail to stop panic amongst the citizenry: it encouraged the panic. Giving people a day off to protest was, simply put, the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire.
Look, no one is trying to defend the video. Even Hillary Clinton has called it “disgusting”. But there isn’t just a fine line between condemning blasphemy and endorsing general chaos, there is a gaping chasm. Every single sentient being knows that it is more important for a government — repeat, a goddamn government — to protect the lives and property of its citizens than to join the ranks of the howling multitudes. It was, therefore, the obligation of the government to have ensured that the protests remained peaceful or at least to have tried its best. And it failed that obligation.
To take but one example, the federal government shut down all mobile communications in the major cities on Friday. This was allegedly done for security reasons. For all I know, this may have been justifiable (though as noted by one NGO, there are better options available). What I do know is that nobody justified it. Nobody addressed the inconvenienced 50 million people and said sorry to them. Nobody pointed out that our enemies are depraved enough to attack other Muslims demonstrating their love for the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Instead, the country was just left to drift.
In the run-up to World War II, the one voice most consistently correct about the dangers of appeasement was that of Winston Churchill. When Chamberlain came back from Munich after having betrayed the Czechs to Hitler, Churchill’s judgment was simple. “You were given the choice between war and dishonour,” he said. “You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
The PPP government had a choice between dishonour and fighting back. It chose dishonour and it was given war. Some things don’t change.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2012.