Death of dialogue

Updated March 25, 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

LAST week, Khalid Hameed, head of the English department at Bahawalpur’s Govern­ment Sadiq Egerton College, was stabbed to death by his student who accused him of promoting un-Islamic activities (a mixed welcome gathering). After the shocking incident, opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif said that the fatal consequences of the difference of opinion should lead to a moment of national reflection.

But you cannot reflect if you don’t know how to reason. Reasoning is a form of internal debate. It is a discursive practice that requires acknowledging and accommodating dissenting views. And this practice, of recognising, respecting and perhaps reconciling differing opinions, is something that Pakistanis have forgotten how to do.

Also read: Mashal's death is a result of the regression of our student politics

They are no longer taught to think critically, they are no longer allowed to speak freely, and their political representatives no long engage in debate, so how can we expect better? We now live in a time so alienated from the concept and value of meaningful dialogue, that even a flicker of disagreement or dissent creates such profound unease that it provokes accusations of treason or blasphemy, all too often used to justify death.

Tragically, Hameed’s murder is not unprecedented. It has echoes of governor Salmaan Taseer’s killing, as the student who opted for murder as an expression of disagreement dismissed the judicial system for ‘freeing blasphemers’. Rather than learn lessons over the past decade, we have simply mainstreamed hate, extremism and the practice of taking the law into one’s own hands.

You cannot reflect if you don’t know how to reason.

It was also not the only incident last week that highlighted that dialogue is dead in Pakistan. The sentencing to life imprisonment of two more accused in Mashal Khan’s killing was a reminder how that outspoken young man who sought to champion students’ rights was silenced through false blasphemy accusations and lynching, rather than debate.

Take a look: Intolerance? Bigotry? Ignorance?

Similarly, the KP Assembly’s unanimous resolution against the Aurat March held earlier this month signalled the complete lack of appetite for a national debate on a key issue: women’s rights. With its parliamentary trappings, the resolution may seem like a discursive way of presenting an alternative opinion. But in the Pakistani context we cannot be so naive.

The resolution accused women who participated in the Aurat March of behaving in an un-Islamic manner and furthering the agenda of ‘hidden forces’ seeking to undermine Pakistan’s social norms. It called on the federal government to ‘expose’ those forces and unravel the ‘conspiracies’ of the marchers.

Despite the democratic veneer, KP’s parliamentarians know that by invoking ‘hidden forces’ and claiming that the participants went against Islam they have effectively silenced those voices and squashed the potential for a much-needed debate on women’s rights. In the present climate, there can be no worse insinuation than that someone has behaved unpatriotically or potentially committed blasphemy: the former results in intimidation, harassment, unlawful detention, torture; the latter in mob violence and death.

The resolution is doubly frustrating because it will douse the spark of dialogue that the Aurat March had lighted. The days after the march were a rare instance in recent history in which an actual debate was brewing.

Following the peaceful marches — and in light of the media’s disproportionate focus on a few provocative posters — there was a lively conversation among Pakistani feminists: march organisers defended their decision not to police the content of posters; feminist icons such as Kishwar Naheed spoke out against some women’s calls for greater sexual and reproductive autonomy; women’s rights activists from different political backgrounds and generations discussed the priorities and parameters of gendered activism in Pakistan.

Initially, a wave of cyberbullying, and the ridiculous #MardMarch social media campaign, sought to silence these women’s voices that had proven brave enough not only to agitate, but also to debate. But what the misogynistic online backlash failed to silence, the KP resolution likely will.

Abdul Rasheed, an MMA MPA in Sindh, will be pleased. He argued there was no space for the Aurat March in Pakistan’s narrative. His comments presume that this narrative is the same for all 200 million-plus Pakistanis, when it could not possibly be so. His call for the government to control such events shows that dialogue — which is what peaceful movements want — falls well outside the imaginary of our political representatives.

The death of dialogue is a global phenomenon thanks to the noise of 24/7 media, the power of the sound bite, the rise of the celebrity politician, and the far right resurgence. But in Pakistan — which is weaponised, brutalised by a decade of terrorism, and traumatised by a history of martial law — the lack of dialogue means the only language we know is violence. God help the nation that speaks by killing.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2019