Last year, on this day, Pakistan lost one of the most outspoken politicians of Pakistan. The murder of Salmaan Taseer and its aftermath offered chilling insights into the state of affairs in Pakistan. Just a few weeks prior to the incident, Salmaan Taseer had visited a Christian peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death by a lower court for committing blasphemy, and criticised the blasphemy laws for their tendency and track record of being abused to implicate innocent people. Despite knowing that it was a highly emotive issue, Taseer stood by his conviction and defended his position, only to be gunned down by his own guard in broad daylight. It might have flabbergasted saner perceptions to see the murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, being deified as a defender of Islam by sections of the media, lawyers and religious lobbies alike, but viewed in the context of the general trend of the rise of extremism in Pakistan, it was but a logical happening. One year down the line, things have only got worse.
Religious extremism, spawned by the state to promote foreign policy interests, has gradually shrunk the space for dissent and debate. It is a whole enterprise, involving as diverse elements as the state, madrassas, mosques, the public education system, the political class and the media. Thousands of madrassas opened to train the jihadi proxies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s became entrenched and continue to churn out thousands of graduates each year, who are the mainstay of religious lobbies in pushing for their agenda. No democratic regime since 1988 could undertake the overhauling of the curricula of the public education system of Pakistan that were contaminated during Zia’s regime with texts that promote prejudices and hatred toward non-Muslims and inculcate a narrow worldview among students. Mosque loudspeakers through the length and breadth of the country continue to spew poisonous speeches against the Ahmedis, Shias, Hindus, Jews and anyone they consider an outsider. In his article, ‘Remembering Salmaan Taseer’ (January 1, 2012) in a national daily, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy has aptly pointed out how mosque sermons psychologically condition the people and make them disposed to celebrating murder, lawlessness and intolerance. Instead of standing up to this wholesale incursion of an extremist mindset, the political class has adopted a policy of appeasement of the religious lobby out of fear, or genuine conviction. Salmaan Taseer was one of the very few exceptions. Attempts to justify the murder of Taseer by a section of the media exemplify how the extremist mindset has become entrenched in various levels of society.
Pakistan has paid a very heavy price for the ill-advised policies of the state. Countless people have lost their lives or live in constant insecurity at the hands of self-styled defenders of the faith. The diversity and culture of the country are on a constant decline and it seems we are gradually turning into a nation of yahoos unable to think and behave in a civilised manner.
Following the murder of Salmaan Taseer, Pakistan’s society stood starkly divided among those who supported the murder, or justified it in some way, and those who did not. While the proponents of extremism are highly organised and are using all means at their disposal to perpetuate their views and maintain control, those that espouse a vision of an inclusive, tolerant, progressive and secular society in Pakistan are too few in comparison, unorganised, and powerless.
This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done to reverse this wave of extremism. The history of social movements tells us that even the most powerless people can take on entrenched institutional powers through organisation. In his essay ‘Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements’, Marshall Ganz writes, “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want. It is how we transform our resources into the power to achieve our purposes. It is the strategic link we make between the targeting, timing and tactics with which we mobilise and deploy resources and the outcomes we hope to achieve.” Those who believe in a tolerant Pakistan must find ways to employ their resources strategically to push for what they want.
All it requires is overcoming frustration, having a firm conviction, and a belief that even our small bit will help in transforming the situation. Each of us must start by not just criticising and preaching to others, but practicing the message of tolerance. We must educate ourselves and answer the religious extremists in their own idiom. An overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s population comprises people between the age of 15 and 25. They are disillusioned and deeply frustrated by what they see around them. Their search for an alternative leadership is visible when they flock to the rallies of Imran Khan. All of them are not convinced that anyone who does not agree with you should be eliminated. Even if their perceptions are clouded by the media propaganda, they are still searching for an alternative narrative. It is not a coincidence that songs like ‘Aaloo Anday’ or ‘Jhoot ka Ooncha Sar’ are produced and become instant hits. It is because these challenge the dominant narrative. Youth could become a valuable resource if educated and mobilised.
Salmaan Taseer lived by his convictions and went down as a martyr. We must continue his legacy and challenge those that have pushed Pakistan into this abyss.
(Published in Daily Times on January 4, 2012)