WHEN it comes to passionate protests of faith in today’s Pakistan, the question is not what the government can do to stop the rioters. It has everything to do with how far the rioters want to take them and what objectives their leaders have in mind. The target is the PPP.
The umpteenth epitaph of the party has been written and there could be more in store, for this is one grave forever on trial. Those who do this must by a habit of self-deceit ignore the little compromises all of us have made along the way.
The decision to declare the Yaum-i-Ishq-i-Rasool reflected the pragmatism of the PPP camp. It has been willing to concede whatever it is asked to concede in order to complete the five-year-long pilgrimage in government for some form of salvation that remains invisible to most others.
Only a few days earlier, it finally told the court that it was willing to send some kind of a letter to the Swiss government over the cases of alleged corruption by Mr Asif Zardari and Ms Benazir Bhutto.
Yaum-i-Ishq-i-Rasool made plenty of administrative sense, given the apprehensions of violence by demonstrators.
It made more political sense than the pledge to write that possible suicide note to Switzerland. But the PPP’s attempt to take ownership of the sentiment against the film was not enough to clear suspicions about the liberal credentials that have stuck to it in spite of all its efforts to shrug them off.
It goes something like this: the liberals are after the PPP which in turn is after securing its share in the popular sentiment spiked by religion.
This is not a happy love triangle. It is sadder for those who are today routinely identified as liberals — the term ‘liberal’ used here as loosely.
Mainstream Pakistan is where Ghulam Ahmed Bilour emerges, not quite out of the blue, and is heard announcing a bounty on the head of the maker of the film that has achieved what it was aiming for: creating an uproar in the Muslim world.
You can feign ignorance of this real Pakistan and grumble and dream about what should have been. But the moment you decide to have a stake in the power game here, you have to put on the pious robe every now and then. It is about numbers.
The PPP is a perceived enigma that has drawn the greatest flak for its repeated reported betrayals. Its compromises have been more visible but others have on their day also pandered to the same basic sentiment.
The media does it all the time when it throws the liberals to the fire-spitting clerics during its talk shows. A press club election fought on the basis of Sunni and Shia votes is not unheard of here.
More recently, the reputedly ‘fundamentalist’ lawyer who had proposed a ban on the sale of a soft drink on the pretext that it was manufactured by Ahmedis had earlier won a bar election with not just the support from progressive members but as their nominee. It was considered to be a good move that promised dividends in future. Only that future never materialised.
The liberals of today are the heirs of the socialists who had aligned themselves with the PPP some 40 years ago. ZAB had mixed the two trends — socialism and Islam — to make his fare palatable. He was ready to cater to the people just like clever writers of television soaps feed the fancy of their audience.
His play had two themes to start with and he was supposed to follow up on the line that struck a chord with the people. The theme the PPP’s author chose to engage his audience with is very well known.
That was a long time ago. Yet the liberals have frequently been angered by the PPP’s abject surrender to the fundamentalist forces over the following years. The last time they were in a state of rage against ZAB’s party was following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer.
The silence in the Zardari camp then elicited the most agitated responses. The PPP wasn’t expected to come to a dead Taseer’s side — just as all past expectations of a liberal role played by it had been false and nurtured by the liberals for the sake of their own sense of security. Sacked from gainful employment quite early into the PPP enterprise, the liberals have over all these years failed to come up with an alternative of their own.
It is they who have ended up courting the PPP again and again, assigning it promises it has been too feeble to carry out. Actually, these were promises the more aware liberals themselves couldn’t have possibly expected the PPP to fulfil.
It was more an arrangement where virtual outsiders were given the much-needed illusion that they were active players in the game. Their anger against the PPP is actually their anger against their own inability to come up with something better than the PPP.
These jilted lovers, the outsiders, can take dark pleasure from the PPP’s failure to win over a sizeable group of more conservative sections.
Or they can look to earnestly build a real alternative which can only be a political party with mass support. It may take long and it may not happen. But then they will only have themselves to blame.
In the middle of the triangle, the PPP could perhaps improve its appeal to the people it is chasing with a bit of reorganisation while it is still in power. Whatever happened to its ulema wing which once had in it some prominent maulanas?
Or perhaps the next time President Asif Zardari goes looking for remedies for his pains, he can drop in on the most well-known religious scholar in his party right now, Dr Babar Awan.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.