Fiddling while Rome burns

Published December 5, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

IF you are filled with desolate despair and feel totally stripped of hope, rest assured you are not alone. Even the most optimistic among us are now being forced to acknowledge the utterly bleak reality because it has slapped them across the face.

Sialkot was just another reminder, albeit a brutally harsh one, that sanity and our blighted land have parted ways. The fuse lit decades back when religion was deployed to fight foreign powers’ wars, and later manipulate public opinion to thwart the democratic process, has now raced to its explosive-laden home.

If ever there was ever hope it has now receded out of sight that a popularly elected dispensation will provide clean governance and deliver at least some dignity to the most deprived sections of society and push back the madness that is rampant today. An election that may have delivered that is nowhere on the horizon.

But why should we be shocked? The day before Sialkot happened the prime minister was asking universities to research the ‘harmful effects of the Western culture on our family system’. Yes, that is what he considered the top priority for social scientists/ researchers; not what fuels extremism, intolerance or why is blasphemy weaponised at will.

Many say that Pakistan has already gone over the edge of the precipice.

The man who called those opposing religious militancy and murderous extremism ‘liberal scum’ wants to talk to mass murderers and is trying to introduce religious studies in schools by force across the country. You need only read Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s piece in this paper yesterday to realise the manner of the Single National Curriculum’s rollout and its ramifications. Such emphasis on a study of history, math, science and literature would have delivered a much heartier dividend as would bringing some 25 million out-of-school children into education. But when a dogmatic interpretation of faith drives an agenda what else can one expect.

My friend and Naya Daur digital’s founder Raza Rumi made a poignant observation on the day of the Sialkot tragedy when he said how calm and ‘normal’ those young men sounded who had savaged a human being to death and burnt his body, while talking to reporters.

As if it was the most natural thing to have done. That is how normalised such behaviour is, he said. That is indeed the case and this was not an overnight occurrence; it is the result of years of indoctrination and conditioning. In Sialkot, young men were taking selfies against the backdrop of the burning corpse.

Read: No one is responsible for lynching the Sri Lankan national in Sialkot. Absolutely no one

Such conduct was ‘normalised’ a long time ago. I recall when Mumtaz Qadri, part of the Punjab governor’s security detail, decided not to protect but to kill the governor in January 2011 in Islamabad. He emptied an AK-47 clip, then reloaded and fired before putting his weapon on the ground and raising his hands.

Other members of the detail, with their weapons at the ready, did not intervene or fire a single shot at the policeman-turned-assassin. (One account of the killing suggested at the time that they may have been told by Qadri of his plans and somehow decided not to stop him.)

The result is that Pakistan is poised at the edge of the precipice. When I say so, many friends argue it has already gone over the edge. Despite my undiluted optimism, I too am losing hope, simply because there is no evidence of any organised attempt to stop the descent into self-harm of gargantuan proportions.

I can’t believe that those at the helm of the security state are unaware of this. But, I am sorry to say, their own institutional/ personal extended interests and their rather uninformed worldview of what is good for the country and what’s not holds supreme, taking precedence over all else.

Any resistance, even when it’s backed by popular mandate, is blunted, and beyond a point, adjudged against the national interest and snuffed out. The resultant mess is where we find ourselves today. Even on its own that would be scary. But it isn’t.

Many may disagree but I also believe that the power of the security state is grossly exaggerated. Undeniably, it works wonders with compromised politicians; it can also deliver when tougher elected officials have to be booted out for asserting their right to govern as per the Constitution and to muzzle dissent.

But come their own creation, ie the faith-driven monster, their helplessness reminds one of Dr Frankenstein’s. Their ‘roll them out, reel them in’ policy seems to have run its course and ‘reeling them in’ is proving difficult.

The result is official paralysis. The ‘same page’ hybrid regime handling of the TLP’s last round of protest was one glaring example. It seems one part of the page wanted to get tough, while the other was wary of the repercussions and decided to appease the extremists once again.

While the supporters of the appeasement policy can claim success inasmuch as the peaceful dispersal of protesters from the GT Road was concerned, they will also have to acknowledge that the demonstrators went home after each of their demands was met.

Pakistan’s security establishment has long advocated ‘mainstreaming’ militants but does not present a coherent and workable deradicalisation programme to accompany such a process as surely that has to be a prerequisite. There have been proposals that militants be drafted into security forces.

Without a deradicalisation programme who is to say that the ‘extremist’ view, attractive as it is to so many, does not become the mainstream ideology? That would be the reverse of the desired goal, the dilution of the extremists’ toxic ideology.

There is now talk of mainstreaming the TLP into the political process. Of course, there is not even a hint of how the entity will be deradicalised, if at all. I fear a rightwards move for all political parties as a reaction and more dogma, and isolation from the world.

With the leading lights of the hybrid regime marching us into that dark alley, the mainstream opposition seems content with waiting for a power-sharing deal to give them some ‘same page’ crumbs. All this while the economy is nose-diving and will fuel more extremism.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021



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