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Months after the brazen assassination of Salman Taseer in early 2011, Pervez Hoodbhuoy, eminent Pakistani scientist, activist and political analyst, was in Kathmandu to deliver a public lecture titled “Pakistan: In search of nationhood“. More than the killing itself, he was appalled by the response of the Pakistani society to the whole episode, and the session was dominated by the issue of relentless radicalization through which the Pak society was undergoing. When Hoodbhuoy recounted how in a televised debate one Maulavi proudly proclaimed, ”I wish, I wish I had Salman Taseer’s blood on my hands, I would have killed him with my own hands”; the audience literally shivered and towards the end of the session, everyone was left wondering whether Pakistani society would see the deceleration of the process of radicalization in their life time.
The elaboration of that event and the similarly tragic incidence of ghastly murder of promising journalist Syed Saleem Shehzad that had taken place the previous week on May 30 painted a very grim picture of Pakistan at that time. While the major cause of uproar in the aftermath of Taseer’s death was the frantic support to the killer offered by unbelievably wide range of people in Pakistan, the media world was justifiably alarmed by Shahzad’s murder because his bravado to unveil the collusion between the ranks in Pakistani army and the Taliban was the clear reason behind his elimination, regardless of which exact people from which agency executed the task. In between the two murders, on March 2, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for religious minorities, was assassinated allegedly for having urged reform in the harsh blasphemy laws.
Hoodbhuoy’s portrayal of Pakistani society led to such a situation that at the end of the session, someone from the audience stood and wished that Hoodbhuoy himself be saved from the wrath of the extremists for bravely confronting their whims in public fora. Yet Hoodhbhuoy concluded the lecture in a positive note with this assertion: “The situation has become so grim that I am sure at some point self-realization is going to kick in because this is a path of suicide.” He then followed this statement with his wish list for bringing Pakistani society out of the morass that included a policy shift by which Pakistan could start to introspect and concentrate upon its own problems rather than seeking to extend its influence outside the border, a genuine economic reform, a functional federalization, a revamped education system focusing on information rather than the propagandization and finally a new social contract between the rulers and the ruled.
Hardly a year and half after those developments, Pakistan has been once again at the center of attention and debate worldwide. This time it has been the Taliban’s brazen attempt to kill Malala Yousafzai, a teenager from Swat valley, that pristine land which has been recurrently in news for very bad reasons ever since the Taliban’s venture to capture it intensified in 2007, finally succeeding in 2009. Even though the Taliban were apparently repelled by the Pakistani army in a decisive offensive after a lopsided peace agreement with the Islamabad government collapsed in 2009, they still continue to have a formidable presence and attack on Malala has come to epitomize both their determination and ruthlessness.
As Malala awaits a magical recovery (if there is one!) now in Britain, the whole episode has given rise to intense and often heated debates both inside and outside Pakistan. Amid the Taliban’s repeated vows to kill her in case she survives and the apparently unified voice of Pakistani society against the treacherous acts of the attackers, a thorough soul-searching is, however, difficult to come by.
The news that more than 50 Sunni clerics have come together to condemn the attack and to declare an edict against the attack is something that can be termed to be close to the Hoodbhuoy’s notion of self-realization. Leaving all other aspects of the debate, here we shall focus on whether that sort of self-realization is in the process of being materialized.
To start with, realization means much more than being shocked by the news of bullets being showered to the body of a teenager. It also means looking for the motives of the attackers and the root cause behind the social processes that generate such a motive. It also means looking deeply into the attacker’s understanding of the religion as the heinous crime has been committed in the name of religion. Their aversion to woman’s education has to be studied along with their other puritanical beliefs and parallel if not as stringent beliefs widely prevalent in the society. Also, assessing how much the complacency and passivity of the ordinary people has given way to the culture of intolerance and violence is an equally important part of realization.
To put it bluntly, the central part of any process of self-realization for Pakistani society must be formed by one central premise: Saudi Arabia is not the model to be followed anymore. While at the first sight, the radical and puritanical version of Islam may seem to be the logical answer to the increasing onslaught of religious values by consumerism and the injustice thrust upon the Muslims by the ‘non-believers’, that is an illusion at best. If the Saudis really wanted to protect the sacredness of their faith, they would have forbidden the extraction of that liquid gold from their deserts precluding the whole set of consumerism and commercialism brought about by the new opulence and the treacherous bloodletting caused by the rush of the world powers to grab the wealth.
In fact, the astounding ability of the Saudi rulers to propagate the Wahhabi ideology with its intolerance and call for belligerence to any other belief system is primarily the result of swollen coffers made possible by the exponential rise in oil extraction after the establishment of symbiotic relationship with the not-exactly-believers from abroad in early seventies. Thus the notion itself of Wahhabi interpretation of Islam helping other Muslim (particularly Sunni) countries to advance is deeply flawed. Instead, it is a reasonably functioning economy that is required to feed people who can then devote themselves to religion unless, of course, the land sits atop plentiful oil or mineral wealth, as is the case with Saudi Arabia.
Here comes the most sobering part of realization for Pakistan: the decade long rule of the military zealot Zia-ul-Haq with due blessings from the Saudis was not a divine intervention meant to salvage Pakistan by doing away with the non-believers. Rather it was a historical accident like in every other country where a military strongman is shrewd enough to recognize the weak points of the civilian government and blatant enough to exploit them to overpower it. That Zia chose a forcible religious radicalization of the whole population to serve his end was as much a coincidence as anything else because that was the single most effective weapon given the geopolitical realities. Indeed it was impossible for him not to be beholden to the Saudi petrodollars and generous American help that came his way for the sacred job of repelling the ‘infidel’ communists from Afghanistan. In the home front, there could be no better way to legitimize a brutal and despotic regime than an apparent drive to boost religiosity.
To a large part, today’s religious intolerance, extremism and violence in Pakistan is the result of Zia’s legacy. It is very discomforting to realize that the subsequent governments after Zia’s death (whether civilian or military) have done precious little to reverse what he had done. The policy of the government to co-opt some of the extremist forces as ‘strategic assets’ has further muddied the water and effectively precluded any genuine attempt by the state to fight extremism.
Thus the point requiring sincere realization is that the reign of Zia was one thing in the history of the Pakistan that literally devastated the society culturally. In the same footing, it must also be realized that today’s urge to protect the sanctity of the religion by stricter application of the blasphemy laws and elimination of anyone who disagrees with prevalent belief is thoroughly imprudent and counterproductive. In fact, there is a very thin line that separates the urge of the extremists to discourage women’s education by killing Malala and the urge of so many people to punish Taseer with death just to discourage blasphemy.
This is, of course, the premise on which the collective realization of Pakistani society on a wide range of issues can be based. Merely accepting that the Saudi-inspired values forced upon the society by Zia-ul-Haq are not as sacred and as unquestionable opens the door for much more tolerant and pluralistic society. It is in such an environment that there remains the scope for constructive debates and discourses as the dissenters need not be afraid of imminent assassination. Once the society is not seen as a monolithic entity composed of believers to be revered and non-believers to be eliminated, host of problems of people and the struggles arising from them can be seen. This opens the space where the predicaments of abjectly poor landless laborers of rural Sindh to the small entrepreneurs in Karachi (who are terrorized by criminal gangs patronized by political parties) can be understood. The tragedy so far is that while any issue of believers vs. non-believers in any part of the world arouses incendiary passion and outrage in large section of people whose voices are heard, the issues of livelihood of large section of population are simply ignored.
To me, the words of Malala that drew the wrath of the Taliban were not merely for female education. They were the result of uncontaminated human instinct to resist the absurd and archaic notions emanating from the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology which were forced upon the Pakistani society by a military dictator. Hers was an emerging vision of a duly religious but tolerant, forward-looking, and progressive society, which was impossible without educated and informed women. Given their tendency to decimate everything that countered their belief, the Taliban saw a mortal threat in Malala and decided to kill her.
In fact, given the scale of debate that has followed attack on Malala, Pakistan seems to be in a very crucial moment in history. There may not come any better moment in near future for a thorough introspection of what has gone wrong in the society all these decades so that a process of course correction can be started. On the other hand, if this episode is also forgotten like many others and society is left at the mercy of emissaries of Saudi kingdom for enlightenment, it is clearly the path of suicide as Hoodbhuoy has aptly put it, in the longer term if not in short term. Indeed the nature of present day world is such that tolerance and adaptability help societies to survive even in challenging circumstances while sclerosis and belligerence have just the opposite effect. If not the politicians consumed by power games and religious bodies with unbreakable ties with Saudi institutions, the civil society of Pakistan has the historic responsibility to ensure one thing: to shed light on absurdity of the Zia-led radicalization of the society (that continues till date) and its incompatibility with modern world. A persevering attempt may well be able to save the lives of likes of Yousafzai, Taseer and Bhatti some time in future. Despite the odds, I have not lost all hopes of seeing emergence of a tolerant Pakistani society where once again exchange of words of argument will preclude the showering of bullets to counter values and beliefs other than one’s own.