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Wednesday, June 02, 2010
One of my closest friends has never once, in more than fifteen years, ever responded to my salaam with a salaam. I have never held it against him. If he did, and a budding Mullah Chinioti heard him say it, he could be imprisoned for three years. I don’t blame my friend for never wanting to take the risk. Being risk-averse is not a choice made when you reach adulthood for Pakistani Ahmedis. It is a way of life. Every murdered Ahmedi in Pakistan helps reinforce the fear and the stoicism of this patriotic community of Pakistanis. And every murdered Ahmedi is a stain on Pakistan’s rich canvas of disgrace and guilt.
The press in Pakistan is awash in self-conscious hand-wringing about the massacre of Ahmedis by the TTP in Lahore. No such trepidation or nerves were on display at any previous point in this bloody and unending war between the TTP and the Pakistani people. Pakistanis that aspire for a “liberal” social and political space are incandescent with rage about the blasphemy law, about Zulfi Bhutto’s kneeling before the “mullahs” and about Zia’s escalation of state-sponsored, legal and constitutional hostility towards Ahmedis. Most Pakistanis, however, far and widely disconnected from what has come to represent “liberal” in Pakistan, would rather stay silent. There is surely a degree of shame and guilt for living in a country that has, even if it is by some degrees of separation, essentially participated in ghettoising an entire community. For most Pakistanis, however, there’s something more important than this shame. There is a fierce commitment to Islam.
This narrative of overarching religious devotion needs to be understood for what it is. Most Pakistanis are not particularly religious, but are very, very particularly devoted to the symbols of their religion. There is scarcely a symbol more central to Pakistani Muslims than the life, times and person of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. The flat and comprehensive finality of the Holy Prophet is non-negotiable.
Of course, that commitment does not, under any moral, legal or political framework, justify the way that Ahmedis are treated in Pakistan. In fact, the real outrage may be that Pakistani Muslims allow themselves to live in a country where religious fanatics posing as vigilantes see it fit to distribute their twisted version of justice on the lives of the innocent minorities of Pakistan.
The religious issue of the status of the Ahmedi faith in Pakistan is further complicated because it is also a legal issue. If Pakistanis, whether they call themselves liberal or not, are interested in beating the fanatics, and making Pakistan a safe place to live for all Pakistanis, then remembering certain facts is central to the project of fixing Pakistan.
The religious identity of Pakistan’s Constitution was the product of a democratic discourse. It is easy to demonise Zia, particularly given his government’s slavish pandering to a tiny sliver of mullahs. But frankly, reality also requires us to remember that Bhutto’s own rhetoric and most of the mainstream discourse preceding Bhutto (notwithstanding Ayub’s colonised vision for Pakistan) was not uncomfortable with Muslim identity. To the contrary, it had a healthy mix of political Muslimness, without any of the political Islamism that infected Pakistan under Zia.
That middle-of-the-road approach to Islam in the public space has not turned out very well. Arguably, it has bequeathed to Pakistan the TTP and its various components, and affiliates, including the increasingly brazen Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But the emergence of Pakistani soil as the birthing place of so many terrorists is not solely a product of the Pakistani political conversation, and Islam’s place in it. It is also a product of the Pakistani military elite’s insatiable appetite for shiny new weapons.
The success or failure of the PPP- and Muslim League-dominated mainstream politics of Pakistan – which has always absorbed “Muslimness” into the discourse – can be argued about. There is no argument, however, about one fact. Since well before Bhutto, one bankable reality in Pakistani politics is that so-called Pakistani liberalism will always score high with the west and fail spectacularly at home. The righteous indignation of Pakistan’s “progressive” and “liberal” elite – whenever Pakistani extremism or fanaticism rears its ugly head – has very little bearing on what takes place in this country. Of the most important issues to any sincerely progressive person in Pakistan – such as how women are treated, how the powerful are unaccountable and how minorities are treated – it is the Pakistani fanatic that has won every single argument since 1947.
As children of Jinnah’s Pakistan, perhaps aspiring liberals and progressives need to start to ask questions about the nature of our citizenship, the nature of our engagement, and the nature of our politics within the broader canvas of realpolitik in Pakistan. The most important paint on this canvas is the green-coloured traditional South Asian Muslim sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis. Pakistan’s central conversation is not a Sufi rock concert. It is a race for the next rupee, whilst carefully stepping over a cocktail of Barelvi, Deobandi, Wahhabbi, post-modern, Salafi and Shiite veritable “landmines”. Pakistani Muslim orthopraxis is diverse and contested – but it is central to defining the lowest common denominator in Pakistan’s issue-politics.
Asking questions about how to improve the rate of success of liberal causes in Pakistan requires us to take a break from mullah-bashing, and introspect. It is a political minefield if you’re a reformer interested in stripping Pakistan’s Constitution of its Muslim identity. It is an orchard ripe with fruit if you’re interested in exploiting existing religious stereotypes and biases in Pakistani society. Where can we reasonably expect every politician to eventually land every single time?
A transformed political landscape is a long-term project. Without substantially more grounded and active participation of Pakistani liberals in mainstream politics, it has no chance of fruition. In the meantime, Pakistanis, like the ones at Ghari Shahu and Model Town, are dying. I’m not interested in the guilty pleasures of trying to figure out if they were Muslim or not. I’m interested in catching the murderous criminals that did this, and making sure they don’t do it again. We can have all the uncomfortable religious conversations we like once we’re all secure from these bombs and bullets.
Let’s not forget that Benazir Bhutto is among the thirty thousand victims of terrorism in Pakistan since 2001. Since the TTP came together in December 2007, they have killed indiscriminately at mosques, at schools, at universities and in markets. Every law – both written and unwritten – in Pakistan is used to protect its VIPs, and yet the TTP got to Shaheed Mohtarma, and killed her.
We are too self-conscious as a nation. Too beholden to mullahs on the one hand, and too dislocated from our own culture and context on the other. The terrorist attacks in Lahore were more of what has become a standard part of life in Pakistan since 2007. The TTP may be ceding ground to the Pakistani Army and the friendly skies that US drones explore on a daily basis. But they are winning the war. The longer we remain stuck in a useless ideological conversation, the more ground the TTP will gain.
The most important tribute we can pay to those that were slaughtered by the TTP in Lahore is to formulate and execute a transparent and comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Anything less would be a continuation of the failed politics of Pakistani liberals, and the unchallenged run of success enjoyed by Pakistani fanatics. Of course, many of us have been advocating a CT strategy now for the better part of three years. I am not hopeful.
In the meantime, I will continue to be ashamed every time I meet my Ahmedi friends. Whatever religious disagreements we may have, Pakistani Muslims should have been protectors of the weak, not spectators to their torment. The TTP’s bloodlust does not abdicate us from that responsibility.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. www.mosharrafzaidi.com