Liberal Pakistan shaken to the core

Mumtaz Qadri, center, the accused killer of Punjab's Gov. Salman Taseer, arrives at court, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. More than 500 Muslim scholars praised the man suspected of killing a Pakistani governor because the politician opposed blasphemy laws that mandate death for those convicted of insulting Islam. The group of scholars and clerics known as Jamat Ahle Sunnat is affiliated with a moderate school of Islam and represents the mainstream Barelvi sect. The group said in a statement Wednesday that no one should pray for Taseer or express regret for his murder. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)   | Photo Credit: B.K.Bangash

The truth may never be known whether Malik Mumtaz Qadri acted on his own when he gunned down Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer or he was set up. But in terms of terrorising the nation, Qadri has in a way been more effective than suicide bombers by orchestrating his surrender and using the attention to turn himself into a hero.

Much more than Taseer's assassination in the highly fortified federal capital, it is Qadri's unrepentant face and his subsequent lionisation that are frightening people. Photographs of the crowds that gathered outside his house in Rawalpindi after Friday prayers and lawyers showering petals on him as he was taken to court have been sending a chill down the spines of average Pakistanis who now think twice before speaking on religion in public.

And with the political leadership without exception scurrying for cover after the perfunctory condemnation of the assassination, seldom has Pakistan looked as rudderless as it did appear in the immediate wake of Taseer's murder for describing the blasphemy laws of the country as a “black law.”

It was thus left to civil society and hardcore liberals to articulate the voice of reason and prevent the “religious” right-wing from walking away with the mainstream narrative lavishly garnished with threats to anyone mourning Taseer. In the face of clear evidence of the religious right-wing's footprint in the Pakistani mindscape, the scattered voices of liberalism and secularism sought to keep “Jinnah's Pakistan” afloat.

But in the absence of political platforms, there is only so much space such voices have access to. Broadly, the English language newspapers — which are few and city-centric — blogs and social networking websites where, too, the religious right-wingers have made inroads as evidenced from the mushrooming of Facebook pages in support of Qadri within hours of the assassination.

They also took their campaign to the streets — holding peace marches and candlelight vigils — but seldom could they mobilise a crowd bigger than what one liberal voice dismissed in frustration as “walima party” (a post-wedding feast). Karachi on Sunday was a stark reminder of how the odds are stacked up against the liberal voice if proof was still needed after the lionisation of Qadri and the manner in which clerics managed to scare even the government-paid Imam of the Governor House from offering funeral prayers for Taseer.

On the one hand, was the small group of brave hearts who, despite being dissuaded by their families, went to a local police station to file a complaint against an area cleric for inciting violence during his Friday sermon. And, on the other, in the heart of the commercial capital, the M. A. Jinnah Road was choked with participants of the ‘Namoos-i-Risalat' (protect the dignity of the Prophet) rally to protest any bid to amend the blasphemy laws.

Still, civil society is battling on in what is clearly a battle of unequals; not because of the evident ability of the religious right-wing to mobilise people on the streets but because civil society is fighting with its hands tied behind its back. Even when some are talking about “fighting fire with fire,” the maximum they are contemplating extends to filing cases against fatwa-issuing clerics, calling Qadri and his supporters blasphemers, and clogging courts with blasphemy cases against such people. However angry or provoked, they cannot possibly pick up the gun.

Meanwhile, five days after the assassination, a word of caution has slowly begun gaining currency even within civil society. Slowly but surely a parallel line of thinking has opened, advocating a tactical retreat as a frontal attack on the blasphemy laws could be counter-productive because it helps the right-wingers consolidate.

Of the view that the government is in no position to take the “phalanx of orthodox forces head-on,” veteran civil rights activist I.A. Rehman wrote in The News that civil society should adopt a feasible strategy based on a correct assessment of the ground reality to be able to save the democratic experiment in the long run; if not in the short term. “They must realise that matters have gone beyond a rational debate on the blasphemy law and that democrats are in a minority in Pakistan.”

What has become a particular cause of concern for Mr. Rehman and other like-minded watchers of Pakistani politics is the narrowing of differences — however shortlived — between rival sects of Islam on the blasphemy law issue. “The unprecedented edict issued by several hundred clerics denying Salmaan Taseer the right to Islamic funeral prayers means that the Ahle Sunnat [essentially the Barelvis] who had been relegated hitherto to a secondary status vis-à-vis the smaller but richer and better armed Deobandi faction now feels strong enough to claim the overall leadership of the faithful,” is Mr. Rehman's contention.

Certain that nothing including Taseer's assassination can unite Muslim sects, Arif Jamal, author of the Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, maintained that sectarian divisions are deep and different sects would be at each other's throats as soon as this cause goes away. Elaborating on the dynamics among the various sects, particularly the existential threat posed to Barelvis and Shias following the petro-dollar inspired rise of the Wahhabi and Deobandi schools, he said the Barelvis had since been trying to assert themselves.

“One expression of the Barelvi assertion was the founding of the Sunni Tehreek in the 1990s. A large number of Dawat-e-Islami cadres — Qadri is alleged to be one [of them] — have been joining the avowedly violent Sunni Tehreek. Qadri is just one expression of that Barelvi assertion and not vice versa. While the Barelvis still will not be able to match the Deobandi and Wahhabi capacity for terrorism, this assassination clearly shows the direction in which they are heading.”

In fact, according to a Karachi-based researcher, the Pakistan People's Party made a tactical blunder by allowing the blasphemy issue to escalate. Stating that the PPP's implicit tactic has always been to let the various sects fight among themselves to isolate the pro-jihad elements from the mainstream Sunnis, he argues that by allowing the issue to escalate, the party played into the hands of Islamists.

“The best thing will be to cool down things on the blasphemy issue and allow the jihadists to make their own tactical errors like blowing up another shrine somewhere. This is not the right time for the PPP to open a front with the Sunnis. It is important to weaken the coalition that allows such a law to exist in the first place.”

Similarly, on the signature campaign to appeal to the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) to take suo motu action against vigilantism and incitement to violence with specific reference to a Peshawar cleric who has announced a reward for anyone killing Aasia Bibi — the Christian woman given the death sentence for alleged blasphemy — there are apprehensions within. “If the CJP does nothing, we will be exposed to further alienation. This will strengthen the other side,” is a palpable fear.

Just like international condemnation — the latest being the Vatican's call for repeal of the blasphemy laws. Already it has been interpreted by the Sunni Ittehad as interference and it wants the government to retort. Although the government has for a fortnight now been saying no change is planned in the blasphemy laws, the religious right-wing — having drawn blood — is upping its demands daily. First, it just wanted an assurance from the government. When that came, another demand was raised that this assurance should come from the Prime Minister. That, too, has come and now it wants the Prime Minister to give it in writing as well as pass a resolution in Parliament.

Given the volatile situation on its hands and the visible force of the right-wing that clearly has penetrated every institution of the state and society, the government may concede. The Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa Assembly — led by the secular Awami National Party — has already passed a resolution to this effect.

So, instead of trying to force the government's hand on changing the blasphemy laws right away, the parallel strategies being contemplated include a new law that will prevent their misuse without touching any of the existing provisions, besides the more tedious task of changing the curriculum and addressing the dispossession felt by a large mass of Pakistanis that provides a feeding ground for extremist sentiments.

Curriculum biases, disenchantment with the prevailing order, and disconnect between the elite and the masses are festering issues. The question is whether secular and liberal Pakistan —shaken to its core but still way detached from the teeming millions — has the will and patience to channel its anger and frustration into engaging with the have-nots and force the detoxification of the curriculum which has affected the minds of even the Facebooking generation.

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