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Smokers’ Corner: Burning turns

March 17, 2012

Every time I see an anti-US banner put up by the Jamat Islami (saying “Go America Go,” “We hate America”, etc.), it  instantly reminds me of a rather ironic episode many years ago. While studying in college in Karachi in the 1980s, I was a member of a progressive student organisation.

In early 1987, the organisation held a rally against the US government for aiding the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and the so-called anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan. A hundred or so students gathered outside the college’s recreational hall and canteen, chanting anti-Zia, anti-US and pro-democracy slogans.

Then a few of us also made some fiery speeches denouncing the US government of Ronald Reagan whom we blamed for financing an authoritarian regime in Pakistan and a manufactured jihad. I remember, as soon as one of my colleagues finished his speech and we started chanting slogans —mostly in an attempt to provoke the police contingents stationed just outside the college — one hotheaded student activist suddenly whipped out an American flag.

There was a sudden hush for a second or two, before my colleague asked me for a lighter. Instead, I offered him a cigarette, thinking he wanted to smoke. “Nai, nai, comrade, lighter de, lighter!” (No, comrade, give me the lighter), he half-shouted. After lighting a cigarette for myself, and still not sure what he wanted to do with my lighter, I handed it to him. He ran towards the guy with the American flag whom I now saw desperately trying to light a match, as the flag lay on the ground in front of him.

Ah, I thought. Today we’ll be burning the American flag. Suddenly, anticipating what was about to happen, we started to chant anti-Zia and anti-US slogans even louder, all the while gathering stones, rocks and pebbles, so when the expected assault from the cops came, we’d be prepared.

Some of us even went inside the canteen to fill empty soft-drink bottles with petrol and stuff their tops with pieces of thin cloth, turning them into Molotov Cocktails. We hurried back outside so not to miss the flag-burning spectacle and the glory of confronting “Zia’s tyrannical thugs” (the police)!

But what followed wasn’t what we had anticipated. Forty or so members of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) —the Jamat Islami’s student-wing — had gate-crashed the rally. And guess what were they asking us not to do? Burn the US flag. I moved towards the site of the bickering, emptying my Molotov Cocktail, but retaining the bottle.

“Kyun?” (Why?), I shouted. “Why shouldn’t we put the flag on fire? Kya Reagan tera chacha lagta hai!” (is Reagan your paternal uncle)?” A ripple of laughter and nervous giggles cut across the gathering. “Haan,” (yes), the IJT leader screamed back. “Jiss tarhaan Marx tera mamu lagta hai!” (Just like [Karl] Marx is your maternal uncle).

Smiling, my colleague threw the lighter to the guy with the flag that had already been drenched with petrol. “You guys have been burning our (the communists’) flags for too long now,” he told the IJT activist. “Ab hum tumhare baap ka jhandah jalayen ge," (Now we will put your dad’s flag on fire).

“We won’t let you,” the IJT guy insisted. “America is helping us fight the Soviets. Reagan is an ally of Pakistan and we will not tolerate any disrespect against our allies in this war!”

But before he could add more to his spiel, the flag went up in flames. Chaos followed. Dozens more IJT members barged into the college, and the rally turned into a free-for-all.

Fists, knuckle-dusters, knives, stones and empty soft-drink bottles were used by both parties in the eruptive rumble. As we gave each other broken jaws, split lips, bashed heads, stab wounds, the cops remained unmoved.

After about 20 minutes of fighting, the IJT members finally moved off the campus, carrying their wounded, while we carried ours into the canteen. The fight ended when some students resorted to aerial firing. I’m not sure from whose side the shots came.

I am not proud of this episode as such. In fact, I kind of feel silly about it now; about breaking heads to allow (or not allow) a small symbolic gesture that wouldn’t have made the slightest of dents on the flow of history. But I couldn’t resist relating this event after seeing those “Go America, Go,” banners of the Jamat-i-Islami the other day.

These banners amuse me, as I also recall the interviews given by the JI founder, Abul Ala Maududi’s son, Haider Maududi, who is a well-known scholar. Talking to English-language daily, The Nation, in 1999, Haider had said: “My father would not allow his children to go near Jihad, but would sell this idea to millions of others…”

In another interview, Haider accused the JI of hypocrisy, saying that most of the children of the then leading JI figures were leading comfortable lives in the United States while the JI was asking the Pakistanis to shun the US.

Well, each one of us who ever pretended to hold and propagate a lofty ideology at some point in time is guilty of being a hypocrite of some sort. It’s hard not to be one with a holier than thou attitude that is almost impossible in the modern world to live by. But history most certainly is cruel to the JI when it comes to counting contradictions and episodes of sheer political charlatanism.

These episodes of hypocrisy and action quite easily outweigh the JI’s positive undertakings, leaving the party hanging in the air, usually advocating action that the party itself had either denounced in the past, or its leaders are contradicting at present, perhaps thinking that Pakistanis are too naïve to notice the contradiction.

It is this attitude and history of the Jamat which makes it a case of ideological bankruptcy that is so well encapsulated by their ‘Go America Go’ banners and rhetoric now. One of the IJT guys who didn’t want us to burn the US flag eventually became a colleague of mine at a daily newspaper that we joined together in 1991. He is now settled in the US. I emailed him a picture of an anti-US JI banner that I took with my mobile phone.

His reply to my email was short but potent: “Yes,” he wrote back, “I am almost sure that the Jamat guy who made this banner, already has his passport sent to the US embassy for a visa.”