Since moving to England, well over two years ago, I continue to find it difficult to explain Pakistan to westerners. They know Pakistan as a volatile nuclear state reeling from the combined impact of al Qaeda, terrorism, a dodgy army and a corrupt political leadership. The part of the country that is never mentioned whenever Pakistan is discussed is its people. There seems to be an underlying assumption that they are getting what they deserve.
Take the furore over the government’s attempts to amend the blasphemy law. Most people seem to be aware that this law was promulgated by a dictatorial general in pursuance of an agenda that gave us al Qaeda and the Taliban, years after his death. Many may also be aware of the fact that the democratic governments succeeding General Zia were, too, short lived to do much. But still, westerners generally find it impossible to understand why a law as comprehensively deficient in legal propriety as the existing blasphemy law in Pakistan should not be changed.
Videos and photos coming off the wires of anti-government demonstrations to protest the planned changes do not impress many. A few thousand people gathered in a few cities, mostly in front of press clubs, clearly do not a mass uprising make. Those interested enough in Pakistani politics also know that the country’s religious groups spearheading these protests hardly account for 10 per cent of the polled vote whenever a relatively free election takes place in the country.
As such, they are at an even greater loss to understand why a government that claims to be a liberal, democratic dispensation, and is backed by allies who claim the same, should find it so difficult to rationalise such legal absurdities. Why, for example, should a party like MQM, that claims anti-fundamentalism to be its raison d’être and is consistently at loggerheads with all the religious groups that have a presence in Karachi, would not support a move to rationalise the blasphemy law? And why would the PML-N, led by born-again democrats, actively support demonstrations in support of such an institutionalised miscarriage of justice?
At times like these, it becomes almost impossible to explain to westerners how Pakistan works. No one seems to have the time, the inclination or the patience to go through three decades of Pakistan’s political history to try and understand why it has come to be where it is. Could there, then, be another way of explaining our collective failure in correcting some of the wrongs spawned by a vile dictator’s evil mind?
Perhaps the whole thing has nothing to do with religion at all. Maybe it is purely a credibility issue. Imagine, for example, a government that was generally seen as competent, efficient and genuinely committed to making something of its five-year rule. A government that did not shirk its responsibility by conceding more and more political and administrative ground to the army. A government that had a genuine plan for an economy currently characterised by inflation, unemployment and corruption. A government that relied more on its management acumen than emotional dynastic appeal.
Would it really be difficult for such a government to throw a black law out of the window? I really doubt it, no matter what the religio-emotional appeal behind the law may be. The PPP government has demonstrated its ability to address major constitutional issues but at the same time is perceived as a disaster when it comes to effective administrative control. If it can get a grip on that, it may not be long before it can put an end to black laws that militate against established human rights norms, but can serve its rivals as emotional levers, powerful enough to overturn the status quo.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2011.