Skin on the line

Published February 22, 2020

IF I were mad enough to occupy a federal government building in Islamabad with a group of like-minded men and women, you can easily imagine the consequences: we would be thrashed, dragged to jail and probably charged with sedition.

I doubt very much that I would be offered 20 kanals of land. But this is exactly what happened to Maulana Abdul Aziz when he recently occupied the contentious Lal Masjid in the heart of the capital, along with a group of female students. From press reports, I gather that he has demanded reinstatement as the mosque’s khateeb or prayer leader, 20 kanals of land, Rs250 million and the children’s library located next to the mosque.

Given the way successive governments have caved in to the demands of our clerics time and again, I have little doubt that the PTI, too, will give the maulana much of what he has demanded. We don’t have to go back very far to prove my point: when the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan staged a weeks-long sit-in at the Faizabad interchange, cutting off traffic between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, causing the deaths of patients being rushed to hospitals, and preventing students from taking their exams, one thought surely this time the government would crack down.

Extremists are treated differently from liberals.

But instead of prison sentences, these protesters were handed cash in envelopes by a senior military officer. I could give more examples of the lack of official spine, but I think I have made my point: while the state deals with secular and progressive protests with an iron hand, it puts on kid gloves when faced with opposition from religious parties.

The reason for these double standards is not difficult to fathom: there are thousands of clerics and their supporters across the country, and for many of them, a street protest is a bit like a picnic. So they willingly take to the streets and confront cops, bringing large parts of cities to a grinding halt. The police, for their part, know that even if they make any arrests, the violent protesters they put in jail will soon be released as part of a deal with the government.

However, this is not what civil society protesters experience when they are agitating against human rights violations so widespread in Pakistan. They are usually beaten up and taken to jail. Our cops know they have no lobby or party to back them, so they are free to wield their sticks with great gusto.

Another aspect of this equation is the fact that while secular, free-thinking protesters are viewed as godless people deserving of no sympathy, other agitators are regarded as doing their religious duty. They are thus exempt from manmade laws. This view is widely shared by law-enforcement agencies, much of the judiciary and the bureaucracy.

Then, of course, there is the recurring need of the establishment for allies: time after time, religious parties have given military dictators political cover and legitimacy. They have also provided foot soldiers for the ‘jihad’. Few figures in uniform would wish to alienate potential supporters.

Finally, there are Saudi finances for seminaries that promote a rigid brand of religion. True, some of this money comes via the private sector, but we still suffer the consequences.

To be fair, Pakistan is not the only state where extremists are treated differently from liberals. Just look at what’s happening in Modi’s India where Hindutva nationalists are aided by the police as they thrash and murder those protesting the new anti-Muslim law. University students and professors have been targeted. Instead of protecting them, cops have joined the hooligans in beating up liberals. Needless to say, Hindu nationalists form the core of Modi’s support.

Trump’s America has seen a similar swing in attitude. Today, white supremacists — once on the fringes of society — have been empowered by Trump’s rhetoric, and are now spearheading his re-election campaign.

Clearly, right-wing politicians have spotted an opportunity in the shape of a nationalistic resurgence. This resembles the Fascist rise to power in Italy and Germany in the 1930s, and one can only hope it will not be as destructive.

It is clear that the right wing is on the march. In part, it draws its energy from the mass movement of migrants, and the local resentment it generates. But equally importantly, a dislike of the globalised elite, and the condescending attitude of the college-educated drive much of the resentment we see today.

Another problem for progressive elements is their inability to take to the streets with the kind of fervour and righteousness shown by Pakistan’s religious right. While we are perfectly happy to sign online petitions, the reality is that these don’t bother the establishment at all. Until we are willing and able to put our skin on the line, we shouldn’t expect things to change.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2020


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