The old and the new

November 09, 2014

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

UP and down, good and bad, old and new, it’s been another one of those weeks. So let’s get right to it.

Blasphemy is bad news. Worse — horribly so — for those at the sharp end of it. But, for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth and beating of chests, the blasphemy issue isn’t going anywhere.

Reason A is the one few like to talk about, and that some may only vaguely be aware of: the blasphemy issue is not a Taliban cause; it, in large part, flows from the radicals among the so-called moderates, the otherwise warm and fuzzy and likeable Barelvis.

Which kinda complicates things, even though everyone knows reductionism is so much sexier. It complicates things because the principal agitators on blasphemy pre-date the Taliban, and Zia too. And everyone knows that all that ails this country on the religion front flows from Zia and the Taliban.

But the Taliban are usually quiet on blasphemy. Ever hear one of their ever-changing spokesmen talk about blasphemy or cheer on the killers? Not really. Not surprising either.


Blasphemy victims are disproportionately the marginalised: often poor, mostly the wrong denomination and always vulnerable.


The scholars can explain the intricacies, but, loosely, it comes down to denominational differences in focus and emphasis in some areas, like intercession.

So what do you do when you realise you’ve got a big religion problem and it has little to do with the Taliban? You don’t talk about it.

But not talking about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own, quirky effects. When blasphemy is in the news, the so-called moderate Muslim faction gets a boost. It becomes more visible. And that doesn’t sit well with the Taliban.

So the T tend to do something to grab the headlines back. Which leaves the rest of us that much less safe.

Reason B the issue isn’t going away is the victims are disproportionately the marginalised: often poor, mostly the wrong denomination and always vulnerable.

The deaths don’t threaten the mainstream guy. Y’know, the privileged fella the system is built for and serves to protect. When the mainstream guy, the chap at the centre of the system, feels threatened, the system responds.

But the ugly truth is the system is working — if you happen to be the right kind of Pakistani. As long as a certain kind of privileged Pakistani isn’t being attacked and doesn’t really fear being attacked — unless he happens to be a human rights crusader — the system doesn’t need to swing into action and correct a perversion.

In the meantime, everyone else just has to suck it up — and hope that a blasphemy arrow doesn’t come screaming in their direction.

On to happier news. The Supreme Court is finding its mojo again. Under Chaudhry, the court roared too much; since Chaudhry, it has purred too much. The new CJ was rumoured to be aware of the problem, but reluctant to turn the court into a bully pulpit.

So they found the right issue: Chief Election Commissioner. It played the right way in the news — Supreme Court orders the government and parliament to do its job — without really overstepping constitutional separation of powers — all the court really threatened was to withdraw the SC judge on deputation as acting CEC.

And look how it worked. Suddenly, the PM found time to meet the leader of the opposition. It was supposed to take months. Electoral reforms needed to be debated first. So much consultation and talking, so much talking, had to be done first.

But then a gentle nudge — or, sometimes, a kick in the rear — can make all manner of things happen, quickly.

The particularly good bit is the effect it’s had on the PTI. Consultation between the PM and the leader of the opposition on appointing the CEC also means the leader of the opposition has to consult the other parties in parliament — something the PTI seems to have accepted it still is by sitting down with Khursheed Shah.

See how that worked: court, rightly, nudged government; government, belatedly, swung into action; the, unexpected, action left PTI with a choice: either sit on the sidelines and be irrelevant or be pragmatic and influence the appointment process; the PTI, smartly, chose the latter.

Rules, democracy, the Constitution and the law of unintended consequences — it’s not such a bad combination sometimes, is it?

Finally, the boys got all wound up this week over a Pentagon report to Congress. The Pakistan bit was just four paragraphs buried deep inside the 100-page report on Afghanistan updated every six months.

The language was largely the same as the April version, but someone slipped in two new phrases: “proxy forces” and “India’s military superiority”. That’s about as big a red rag as you can wave at the boys.

Add the takedown of pro-Pakistan — pro-boys, even — Robin Raphel in DC and it’s enough to stir dark thoughts about a fresh squeeze on Pakistan being in the works.

Except, maybe not. American policy towards Pakistan is undergoing a subtle shift, spurred by the not-so-subtle drawdown in Afghanistan. But with little leverage and even less of an appetite to find more, the US, more narrowly the White House, seems to believe that Pakistan should be left to stew in its own juices.

Call us if you need us, we’ll do what we can — until then, we’re going to look at other options and relationships in the region. Think of it as benign neglect or watchful disregard.

Word has it Raphel’s last visit to Pakistan in October was to warn of much of the same: mid-term elections may further jeopardise non-mil aid. And that was before the Republican wave.

The writer is a member of staff.

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Twitter: @cyalm