Lurching right

Published June 1, 2014

EVERY so often — ever so often? — the urge to curl up in a foetal position and shut out the world takes over. It’s a mad, mad world — always has been, always will be — but this?

Woman dead. Doctor dead. Depressing. Nauseating. Animals. Somebody stop them. Someone make it go away. The world is outraged and Pakistan is, allegedly, embarrassed — again.

But the outrage is largely manufactured. And in these particular cases it’s been manufactured from outside.


Things will go on changing, just not for the better.


Some do care here, but, really, most don’t. And until the outraged wrap their heads around that, nothing will change. Scratch that. Things will go on changing, just not for the better.

Ahmadis are harassed, intimidated, threatened, beaten and killed. It’s just the done thing. This particular death — the dead doctor — went global for two very simple, very obvious reasons: he was an American; he was a doctor volunteering to save lives here.

Had he been a Pakistani shopkeeper, you’d never have heard of him. You have though heard of Mehdi Ali — actually, his name probably registers less than 50-year-old US-based cardiologist — because he was a cardiologist based in the US and so the international media ran with the story.

Women are killed here routinely for marrying of their own choice. A thousand every year we’ve all now been told, news sourced from long-published reports that no one had read until they needed to give context to news of the dead woman in Lahore.

About that dead woman in Lahore. You know — or should know — why you’ve heard of Farzana Iqbal, née Parveen — actually, her name too probably registers less than the pregnant woman stoned to death outside the Lahore High Court.

Again, two very simple, very obvious reasons: someone inserted the word stoning in the original headline reporting her death; the murder happened outside the grand setting of a high court, as riveting a juxtaposition as they come.

Had Farzana been shot to death on her way to a local court in some small-bore district of rural Pakistan, you wouldn’t have heard of her. It’s not a hypothetical: go back and sift through the news since you heard of Farzana’s death and you’ll find other, new, anonymous deaths.

As for Farzana, clearly a victim, clearly a death that deserves firm justice, her backstory raises uncomfortable questions that few will want to ask.

Forget her dead sister, was Farzana complicit in the murder of her husband’s first wife? In a normal, functional country, she’d have at least been called in for questioning.

But in an abnormal, dysfunctional society, what does it matter if anyone else instigated the husband to murder his first wife — after all, the murderer himself was always going to be let off.

As will Farzana’s murderers. On appeal. Once the national gaze has moved elsewhere. Because there is no real anger here.

What little outrage there is has been forced upon us temporarily because the international community has made us feel embarrassed about the dead doctor and the dead woman by reminding us there is a dead doctor and a dead woman.

Eventually — soon? — the anger will shift towards the outside world. Always embarrassing us. Always undermining us. Always trying to put us down.

Some — the few genuinely outraged here — will pause to ask a familiar question, why are we this way as a people? Because the question is driven by emotion, the answers too will mostly be emotional: we’ve lost our way; we’re awful people; we’re a diseased nation; things are falling apart.

A few answers will be couched in the technical: institutional decay; broken judicial system; ineffective leadership.

The emotional and the technical may well both be right: the nation probably does need a collective shrink and the state many surgeons. But those answers can also miss the point.

In the dead doctor and the dead woman, two different but intertwined stories can also be told. One is that the basic building block of society here is not perceived to be the individual, it is believed to be the family, and, by extension, the community.

The Constitution guarantees individual rights, the law is designed to protect them — but few among the people here are really convinced that it is the individual who is foundational and of core importance.

Without that belief, rights will always be in jeopardy and the individual who steps out of line always in danger. If the enforcers don’t really believe in it and most of the intended beneficiaries don’t either, how do you protect and safeguard the rights of the individual?

That is partly the reason why Farzana is dead.

The second story is of a contest that everyone can see and feel, but few are willing to recognise for what it is: the orientation of state and society is being contested, but it is a contest between the extreme right and centre right.

So it’s not a question of whether there should be a new equilibrium for state and society, but how far to the right — in a religious, conservative, social sense — state and society should be pulled.

And that is a large part of the reason why Mehdi Ali is dead.

Sometimes, those two bigger, meta stories wrap around each other to leave us with a mess that is so ugly and so brutal that the mind sometimes struggles to comprehend it.

Farewell, dead doctor. Godspeed, dead woman. There will be more. Pakistan doesn’t want you. Back to the foetal position. 

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2014

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