As King Abdullah passes away, and warm and mushy tributes are being showered on him as the “great progressive reformer”, etc., it is helpful to remember a recent article published comparing the stipulated punishments for the same offences under the IS and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice scheme. Surprise, surprise, they are identical: amputations, floggings and beheadings. Yet, one is considered more violent, more of an affront to our decent sensibilities than the other. One is a Kingdom and the other is not. One has legitimacy (some real, mostly perceived) and the other doesn’t.
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) recently stated that according to it, women can now be judges provided that they are above 40 years of age and observe purdah. The reasons given for this liberal permission is that since they become “unattractive” and “unmarriageable” after this age, they can discharge judicial functions. The same body has previously condoned child marriage. It would be interesting to do an analysis of the rulings of the CII and the TTP on identical issues, and one fears the rulings will be more and less identical (barring Jihad against the State, etc.). Yet, one has more legitimacy, constitutional in the case of the CII as opposed to the other.
The government has quite ambitiously decided to regulate hate material, particularly those “publications [that] directly or indirectly glorify militancy and fuel support for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al Qaeda”. According to this paper citing the Ministry of Interior, the list of “influential contributors” of these publications is very telling and include former army chief General (retd) Mirza Aslam Baig, former DG-ISI General (retd) Hamid Gul, an adviser to the prime minister, Irfan Siddiqui, and columnist Orya Maqbool Jan. These eminent gentlemen have one thing in common, public legitimacy; something that their brother Mr Fazlullah does not. Mr Orya Maqbool Jan can say the most fantastical and fanatical things and get deferential, contemplative nods in return. All of this is slightly more sophisticated than the incitement done by the run of the mill of the local khateeb; yet in most cases, it is incitement nonetheless.
The government’s intention of banning material inciting and glorifying hate, while, admirable, perhaps is impossible, particularly till the time, the CII and Orya Maqbool Jan have the mic and an audience. They are the Saudi Arabia to the TTP’s IS.
To look for exactly how deep the rot is, one need not look for hidden hate-preaching seminaries in faraway mountains; one really just needs to go through the daily newspapers and television channels. Hate speech is mainstream, and worse, hate speech is granted “legitimacy”. This legitimacy initially enabled by the State, has now seeped into our social fabric. The children of General Hamid Gul have grown up and now hold court. The JuD and Hafiz Saeed are kosher, not only because the Pakistani State has patronised them; now they are also mainstream because Hafiz Saeed can come and pontificate on all things from cartoons to foreign policy. Mr Orya Maqbool Jan does not only admire the exceptional and efficient criminal justice system of the Taliban; he can also, with the same level of authority, explain the “root of all our evils”, such as paper currency and the likes. Visibility is what grants them the deference and status as experts.
How does the State ban it all? It can’t and perhaps it shouldn’t. More effective is eroding the legitimacy that they have. Calling them out for the hate, xenophobia and manufactured facts. This will have to take place everywhere, but most significantly, on their turf. The English press can say the most progressive and inclusive things, and that does have value, yet, till the time the airwaves remain completely captive to “our estranged brothers” “funded by foreign intelligence agencies” crowd, the battle is significantly lost. This fight (if it ever happens) has to happen in the mainstream public conversation, in the Urdu media, in parliament and in the streets.
All of this is infinitely easier proposed than done. Yet, what else is there to do. It is easy to give up on the seemingly hopeless. Yet as an analogy, since the world is either unable or at least in some parts unwilling to call out the abuses of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or North Korea since they have displayed the stubbornness and arrogance of not changing their repressive ways; should the demand for reform or merely documenting it for posterity end? That will be quite silly, will it not? Some things need to be done because there is no alternative (at least no principled and honourable alternative)
The CII is a seemingly toothless body and has no legislative powers. Yet, it has the power of having a national ‘megaphone’ and saying the most retrogressive things under the cover of constitutional legitimacy. The CII consists of very clever and experienced men, those who know when the narrative shifts even a bit, they mobilise themselves at the slightest of threats and draw from the pool of regressive opinions that they have as a reservoir. The CII’s power to hold us hostage is such that very occasionally, it will say something that makes common sense, and our low expectation standards lead us to celebrate the positive step (in the present case, the three talaaq issue) and in the process, granting them more legitimacy for the not-so-common sense friendly statements of the future.
The key question is why should there be a CII? Is the Constitution not Islamic enough? Isn’t parliament bound in any case to legislate in line with religious principles and hence in some ways, is just a CII? The CII needs to be abolished and constitutional deference accorded to it taken away. That seems to be a moot point at this moment, yet does this mean that one stops asking for it? Party supporters should ask their political parties to clarify stands on this issue. Pressure should be mounted and direct questions asked of the Hamid Guls and the Orya Maqbool Jans on what their views are on the Taliban and other religious sectarian organisations. There needs to be more calling out and more confronting.
To grant veiled legitimacy to hate and repression is what leads to vicious continuations, fawning obituaries and smooth transitions, and in our case, sermonising punditry making excuses for murder. The challenge is not to “ban” these opinions, but to make them fringe, expose them as the idiocy that they are. This is not going to happen anytime soon, yet, that is more of a reason to start trying harder and now, not less.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2015.
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