February Issue 2011
Divided We Fall
The murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer has sucked the ship of our state into a giant whirlpool, teetering on the edge of self-destruction. The murder of a high official by his own security guard was disgraceful enough, but the glorification of the act by extremists and its tacit endorsement from several ‘normal’ segments of our society made me feel as if we had gone back to the days of savages. While other countries of the world are moving forward, creating opportunities for their citizens’ progress and educating their youth so they are ready to compete in this world, we seem to be bent on turning our backs on the modern era, determined to transform ourselves into the world’s ethical cripple.
Many individuals associated with our civil society reacted to the murder of governor Taseer in whatever capacity and numbers they could muster. Candlelight vigils were held in many cities, rallies were organised to condemn the murder and individuals used the media to inject some sanity into the skewed arguments about blasphemy and the rule of law. Unlike in the days of General Zia, our civil society no longer has the unity of purpose needed to bring large numbers of people out onto the streets. Now, this is only possible when they join hands with political forces, as was the case with the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the judiciary.
Pakistan is not like Bangladesh where civil society can mobilise thousands of people just for International Women’s Day. Here, civil society mostly contributes by carefully crafting new ideas, raising awareness, developing intellectual arguments and highlighting the voices of those left outside the mainstream through research, documentaries and signature campaigns. While our civil society is becoming more organised and coherent in the way it takes up issues, it is yet to become the major player that is so badly needed to counter the extremist ideology swirling through our society.
Unfortunately, I do not see any white knight on the horizon. Our government of ‘realists’ will bend with the slightest breeze from any direction in order to remain in their chairs, no matter what the risks to their citizens. Our mass media follows a different tactic, but with the same intent. Thanks to General Musharraf, the electronic media now reaches into most homes, yet many channels squander this powerful access by spending much of their airtime on trumped-up tales. Their creative genius is wasted on sensationalising the second marriage of a cricketer, questioning the morality of a woman minister for parachuting, extolling the virtues of the thugs of Swat, glorifying a governor’s murderer or bashing a Pakistani model for taking part in a lascivious Indian TV show. Serious commentators in the media and civil society recognise that these ploys exacerbate the detrimental sense of polarity in our society. And they know that nothing sells better than a whipped-up sense of religious indignation.
The purveyors of this nonsense would have us all believe that the country is divided into two opposing groups: those who want the Shariah, and those who don’t. These divisive tactics push gullible people — or some of the fence-sitters — to align themselves forcefully with one side, portrayed as the ‘nation’s view’ as opposed to the ‘deviant’ (secular, western, NGO) mindset. These days, with the lack of much critical or original thinking, people usually borrow their opinions from the media or others like themselves.
These dichotomies are not only false, but dangerous as well. Pakistani society, in general, is quite religious. Whether rich or poor, servants or politicians, you will find that prayers, taweez, imam zamans and dars are a common feature among people from all walks of life. There is no dearth of religion in our lives; what is missing is not a sense of religiosity, but the application of the ethical principles that are at the core of our religion to keep our emotions and actions in check.
Last night, I sat down at my desk and thought about what I, as a Pakistani citizen, expect from my country. Naturally, I want the basic services one expects from a government: electricity, clean air, drinking water, good roads and educational facilities for our children. I would also add dignity and justice to my list, so that I am confident that people cannot cheat me and get away with it.
This last expectation has become number one on my wish list. I do not want to feel helpless. I do not want to feel that anyone can bomb a market or shoot people in my city and my government can do nothing about it. Therefore, my first priority in these times is that I want rule of law to apprehend criminals and I want justice so people who break the law are duly punished.
None of the above are outside the parameters of Islam. In fact, social and legal justice is a core tenet of our religion. So why is it so difficult for a majority of Pakistanis to come together to demand such a commonly held agenda?
We cannot, because we don’t have a strong state to protect its citizens. As a nation, if we continue to allow all kinds of mafias to grab power, be it in the name of religion, traditional culture, politics or just plain greed, we will lose everything. In Swat, we saw what happens when a group seizes power by playing on people’s political dissatisfaction due to the inability of the state to address the grievances of the people of the area. That gang of cutthroats rallied support on the basis of their issues, but later, we clearly saw their disinterest in even making a pretence of improving anyone’s livelihood in Swat other than their own. When they seized power, they even failed to bring the justice they had trumpeted; instead they used the most primitive, thuggish means to control people through fear. The same citizens who had initially supported this mafia, thinking that they were genuinely concerned about Swat’s poverty and bad governance, were quickly running for their lives.
We do not have to burn our hands repeatedly to learn about fire. We need to realise that groups who use street power, or media power to incite violence by exploiting our religious sentiments, do not have any intention of developing the country or transforming our lives in any positive way. They know these emotional upsurges are only temporary, so they have to keep generating them to help their groups grab what they want. As a result, much of our nation has been turned into a herd of lemmings about to be led straight off the nearest cliff by anyone who can grab their attention.
If we don’t want that to happen, then we need to focus more on what can help us achieve positive objectives and stop being derailed time and again by these mafias who rob us of our dignity, our possessions, our thoughts and our lives.