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The rise of fanaticism in Pakistan

5 4

By Ghazi Salahuddin

Now that we have survived three days of a particular kind of national disarray, we have one more occasion to make some sense of what is happening to us. In the first place, we shouldn’t be surprised by the passions that were ignited by Supreme Court’s acquittal of Aasia Bibi on Wednesday. But we do need to come to terms with this state of affairs to be able to move ahead as a nation that is at peace with itself.


Come to think of it, this promise of Naya Pakistan will have no meaning if the existing infection of bigotry and fanaticism isn’t suitably cured. The problem here is that almost all our national political parties are contaminated by religious extremism. And they have frequently exploited these passions for political gains. Imran Khan’s PTI had played this card extensively in its electoral campaign.

So, what will they – our rulers and leaders – learn from this latest encounter with religious extremism? The irony here is that this terror has partly been fostered by our ruling ideas and policies. However, the point is that this deadly drift is beginning to endanger the very existence of our society. What we have witnessed and suffered during these three days shouldn’t be allowed to happen again.

One message that has been delivered again and again is that our society is overwhelmed by extremism, hatred and prejudices. It may even be said that the TLP is just the tip of the reactionary iceberg that lies in the path of the ship of state. In other words, the state has to do something drastic to deal with this crisis.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the ‘writ’ of the state. Leaders of this government have repeatedly vowed that the writ of the state will be enforced if the protesters indulged in violence. This happened and the writ, for all purposes, was allowed to be violated. Every time a road was blocked or a citizens’ movement was obstructed by force, the writ of the state was defied.

This amounted to an acknowledgment of the powerlessness of the power that our state exercises. The fact is that our successive governments have surrendered to these zealots time after time. The agreement reached between the government and the TLP leadership on Friday evening also falls in the same category.

In addition to agreeing to “initiate the legal process” to place Aasia Bibi on the Exit Control List, the government has promised to not oppose a review petition against the Supreme Court’s judgment in Aasia’s blasphemy case. It didn’t matter that the PTI had earlier asserted officially that the government did not plan to put her name on the ECL.

On its part, the TLP has apologised if it “hurt the sentiments or inconvenienced anyone without reason”. This truly is a joke. How can TLP leaders get away with what they had done and said? Some of their speeches amounted to treason. What they did in the course of their countrywide protest was an act of rebellion.

As I said, this impunity raises questions that cannot forever be swept under the carpet. At this moment of truth, our rulers must contend with the challenge of confronting a situation that is unacceptable. It is also a matter of national security.

The deal that was made on Friday may also be described as an act of betrayal. It is true that it has ended a protest that had paralysed the entire country. It is also obvious that using force against protesters could lead to a national trauma. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of a government to enforce its writ and establish rule of law.

For that matter, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address to the nation on Wednesday was a silver lining. Even his adversaries – those who feel exasperated by his political missteps – admired his stated resolve to take action if the protesters harmed the country’s interests for political reasons. He said that the state would fulfil its responsibility to protect the lives and properties of the people.

But this glory was short-lived. His government succumbed to the pressure mounted by the TLP and other religious parties while he left for China. The old script was dutifully followed and the TLP retained its power to blackmail the government into accepting the deal that was reached on Friday.

In the midst of all this tumult, Pakistan should be grateful for the verdict that was delivered by the Supreme Court on Wednesday. It was truly a landmark judgment and should have served as the basis of the government’s initiative to turn the tide. Chief Justice Saqib Nisar headed the five-judge bench that overturned the death sentence of the Christian woman who had been convicted on a blasphemy charge.

Against the backdrop of the demonstrations that had erupted across the country, with TLP leading the attack, the chief justice made some additional remarks on Thursday. He wondered how the court could convict a person in the absence of substantial evidence of the charge. He urged the people to read the judgment that was also available in Urdu.

This, actually, is the problem. The hate-mongers aren’t willing to be rational. They don’t even communicate with religious scholars who present a different point of view. Sadly, Pakistani society is exceptionally deficient in moral, cultural and intellectual values that cultivate tolerance and good judgment. It is this degradation that has facilitated the growth of bigotry and fanaticism.

If our rulers are now inclined to review the national sense of direction that has been deflected by religious extremism and the suppression of liberal and progressive ideas, with specific reference to the three days that shook us, they would do well to make an honest assessment of the social degradation of Pakistan.

Among other things, education is the front on which we have lost our battles. It doesn’t matter that we are a nuclear power – and Fawad Chaudhry boasted about it in the context of the government’s capability to deal with the massive protest. Events have proved the emptiness of this threat.

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether a nation has nuclear weapons and a large army. Every disaster that we have suffered in our history tells us that our defence lies in an educated, progressive and creative populace and a system that is sustained by rule of law and social justice.

Imran Khan has set his sights on removing monetary corruption as the panacea for our collective malaise. He needs to explore the meaning of what we have experienced this week.