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Do we have what it takes?

Updated November 03, 2018


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THAT extremism is an existential crisis for Pakistan has been all too clear these past few days as has been the fact that the blowback of years of using and pandering to the obscurantists’ vision of our faith is upon us.

“Imran Khan qadam barhayo, hum tumhaare saath hein” (Take the lead, Imran Khan, we are with you), was how PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari responded in the National Assembly to the prime minister’s short televised address to the nation the night before.

That was the address where Imran Khan had spelt out with great clarity that the reaction to the Supreme Court decision to free Aasia Bibi was completely over the top and that the state would not budge and would take a dim view of those inciting violence and breaking the law.

However even as BBZ was addressing parliament and offering Imran Khan support and calling on him to stand firm against the rampaging hordes of protesters mainly belonging mainly to Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the prime minister was taking off for Beijing.

Indeed, there are economic problems facing the country that need to be addressed such as the dwindling foreign exchange reserves, but there will be the inevitable question of whether the prime minister, who also holds the interior portfolio, should have stayed in the country to take charge of the situation himself.

There will be the inevitable question of whether the PM should have jetted off to China rather than taking charge of the situation in the country.

It isn’t certain whether the confusion one saw following his departure was part of a strategy to buy time or one that happened because too many of his party’s and government’s leaders thought they were in charge in his absence.

While the prime minister appeared quite categorical in warning the protesters not to test the might of the state, soon after his departure a number of leaders started singing from anything but the same hymn sheet and, if you ask me, made quite a spectacle of themselves.

For example, that eager Punjab information minister Fayyaz Chohan in a television interview said that the government and the TLP negotiations had advanced to a point where it had been agreed to put Aasia Bibi on the infamous Exit Control List pending a review petition before the Supreme Court by the original complainant in the case. He also said a successful conclusion to the talks was on the cards.

Shortly after that, the PTI account on Twitter was tweeting a totally different message regarding the placing of the Christian woman — who spent eight years in prison, many among those on death row — on the ECL.

Mr Chohan’s federal counterpart, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, then had to go public with a statement saying the former ‘misspoke’ and that while negotiations were happening the government had made no such concession.

For its part, the TLP leaders were categorical in saying the talks in which government ministers and a senior ISI officer were taking part were deadlocked. In fact, one of Khadim Rizvi’s key aides told a charged crowd to prepare for ‘martyrdom’ as the officer had warned them of the toughest action.

Of course, as some of these details emerged on TV channels and others via social media, the confusion was compounded: was action being contemplated or was appeasement a better option given the hysteria whipped up by the clerics?

Whatever was decided one thing was clear: somehow the status quo would have to be tolerated till late Friday evening as nobody in their right mind would want to hand over a dead protester or two to those eager to exploit the situation, further inflaming passions at juma congregations.

As you read these lines, you might have some answers. Or you may have none and I may be indulging in wishful thinking. If any action was planned, it will have unfolded by now or at least there would be clear signs of it coming.

And if negotiations are the chosen way forward, the best government representatives would wish to achieve is to kick the issue down the road and hope the Supreme Court takes a long, long time to rule on the review, but then what?

An important part of any negotiation will have to be Aasia Bibi’s fate and that seems to have been decided and, gratefully so, by the Supreme Court in a rather decisive manner. So, what else can be offered to those baying for her blood?

This is one conundrum I am so grateful I don’t personally have to solve. What so many of us have been doing over the years, has been warning relentlessly that we are edging perilously closer to the abyss in our game of using obscurantist ideologies in pursuit of our national security goals.

This, of course, has legitimised hate-filled ideologies and taken us far from our true faith which came bearing a message of peace, love, compassion and humanity. Years of indoctrination have meant that intolerance and bigotry have taken root in society.

So much so that those clamouring for action, myself included, are not even sure if the apparatus that is deployed for such exercises has the requisite institutional discipline and unity and belief in what is actually right to deliver.

Yes, you will say if this is not possible we might as well call it a day and surrender to the hordes. Easier said than done. Are you and I prepared to hand over the future of our children and our children’s children to such insanity?

The answer has to be no. If that is the case, we must understand that ground lost over the past decades can only be reclaimed one inch at a time. It will be a long-drawn fight but one that has to be fought with all that we have.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2018