ALL too often we are given grim reminders of this society’s lurch towards intolerance. Perhaps the most recent such reminder was the incident at the Karachi International Book Fair, which wrapped up on Monday, in which a bookstall set up by the Iranian consulate was shut down following a protest by the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. The religious organisation took umbrage at some of the books on display at the Iranian stall because of their allegedly ‘sectarian’ content and complained to the police. Buckling under pressure, the police confiscated the books while the fair’s organisers closed down the stall. The Iranian consulate has rejected the allegation that sectarian material was being displayed — indeed, it is debatable whether any diplomatic mission would publicly display inflammatory literature, especially in these times. The incident bodes ill for the future of cultural and literary activities in the country when extremists can have literature they deem unacceptable removed and dictate terms to society.
What is equally disturbing is that the incident occurred at Karachi’s only major book fair. By definition, book fairs are supposed to encourage the freedom to learn, question, and explore new areas of knowledge. There has been valid criticism that over the past few years the number of religious books has been increasing at the fair, with some questionable titles on display. Yet in an open society all literature should have space and judgement should be left to the individual. But in Pakistan, powerful groups can dictate what is and what is not kosher for the masses. Today it is Iranian books; tomorrow, if religious extremists complain against other ‘unacceptable’ material, will the fair’s organisers also cave in? Clearly, such incidents prove that in Pakistan extremism is not simply creeping; it is on the march.