Red, White and Black


Hum dekhen ge
8 January, 2011, 12:44 am
Filed under: Islam, Pakistan, Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

The past three days for a liberal/progressive Pakistani have made for a very numbing experience. The public reaction to the horrific assassination of Salman Taseer has shocked many a people in the country. For me and many of my friends, the most shocking aspect of the past few days was the outpouring of public support for this wanton killing.

4 hours into the death of the governor, congratulatory smses started circulating and facebook groups supporting the assassin crept up. Then one read about the flowery reception given by some lawyers to Mumtaz Qadri. The next morning Dawn carried a photo of a garlanded Qadri raising a victorious fist while standing at the door of the police van – all the while surrounded by adoring lawyers. This morning one of my students with whom I had previously discussed Salman Taseer’s stand on blasphemy and challenged to identify verses of the Quran that support this injustice came up to me during the class break. He told me that the point was moot now. He was happy that Salman Taseer had been killed. He did not feel the need to hunt for those verses anymore. Did I not hear that 70% people in online polls supported the murder? Did I not hear about the 500 ulema who had declared the murder just? What more proof could I ask for? He felt vindicated in his opinion and that was the end of the matter. Before class resumed again, I just had the time to tell him that they were all wrong. (I plan to sit him down sometime next week and discuss this matter in a bit more detail. But for the time being, his obvious satisfaction over the act stumped me.)

He is not alone in these views.

I have had sufficient interaction with 200 odd undergrads this semester to know that he will have a good number of friends standing by him on these views. A while back a Newsline study by Ayesha Siddiqa argued that Pakistani students at elite universities had strong religious identities and were politically conservative. My experience teaching the history and politics of Pakistan at a premier engineering university this semester has reaffirmed these findings. (For that matter, why should these views be surprising at all? Recall SDPI’s “The Subtle Subversion“, which catalogued how the state in Pakistan has sought to cultivate a highly conservative and reactive mindset through primary and secondary education textbooks?) So why should we be so shocked when seemingly decent/rational/educated people around us think it of no big concern that an innocent man was killed in broad daylight for expressing his opinion? Why should we be perturbed at the unleashing of public joy at this murder?

72 hours later, I think the fog is finally lifting. As horrific as the events of the past three days have been, they have given us a reality check. They have exposed our opposition. No longer can we comfort ourselves that the silent majority would not support those who had holed up at Lal Masjid, that the silent majority would be appalled by attacks at Marriot and at crowded marketplaces in Peshawar, that the silent majority would have condemned the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team. The line has been drawn and we at least have a better appreciation of the opposition that we are up against. And we also know that we have to fight back. That we have to confront those with regressive and intolerant worldviews. We surely have to confront them. For not confronting and giving up the fight for the future of this country is simply, simply, not an option.

So where do we go from here? I have a few thoughts. For one we need to start defining the public discourse on these matters. There is this one particular bit of Aaron Sorkin dialogue that kept coming back to me today. It went something like this:

Lewis: “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

President: “… People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

The leadership that we have is inept and has failed to set any sort of public discourse on strategic matters for the country, let alone something as contentious as blasphemy. So when the public discourse is being set by the religious right and no feasible alternative is being presented to the thirsty masses, they are going to drink the sand and think they have just been blessed with God’s man-o-salwa. So let’s start setting the debate.

In the media discourse there are already some signs of hope. When the conservative Nazir Naji  argues on Capital Talk that Pakistan’s problems will only be solved once we return to a secular political system. When someone like Ch Shujaat Hussain musters the courage to call for a review of the blasphemy law. When even Kamran Khan begins to acknowledge that rising intolerance and religious extremism and diminishing space for rational dialogue are critical problems for the country. But this is not enough. We are standing at the precipice. A structured push for changing the discourse on critical national matter is the need of the hour. We need to provide the leadership – the alternative vision. We want to re-imagine Pakistan. At the same time, we need to recover the space that has been ceded to the religious right and start challenging the conservative mindset. I don’t know yet how or who will do all this? But I know that I am going to do what I can in my immediate circle, with friends and acquaintances and in my classrooms.

The journey for Pakistan’s future might just gotten harder, but I refuse to believe that the future is lost to us. For really, what other option do we have?

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