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Path to perdition

September 22, 2012

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AS Friday’s protests condemning an anti-Islam film spread and gained in intensity in several cities and towns across the country, it became relevant to ask how far these demonstrations were spontaneous and whether or not at least some of them were partly ‘organised’.

A disgusting and hate-filled ‘trailer’ of an anti-Islam film, produced by a US-based Coptic Christian, had been posted on the Internet. A hateful and wicked agenda of fomenting interfaith discord had its effect as the film caused hurt and offence to Muslims around the world. They found it blasphemous and took to the streets in protest.

In Pakistan the hate film added another dimension to the justifiable and spontaneous rage. It took whatever initiative that remained in the hands of a dithering government and seemed to hand it over to street mobs. But the nature and ferocity of the violence seemed to hint that perhaps it would be an over-simplification to merely call all the protesters street mobs.

The narrative now seems firmly in the hands of militant religious entities such as Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) led by the firebrand orator Hafiz Saeed. One wishes the position of his backers wasn’t so ambiguous on the scale of this violent protest so as to trigger speculation.

The obnoxious film, and more significantly the underlying anti-Americanism, has also united, at least on the face of it, what were otherwise disparate Muslim sects/groups. One needn’t look further than the pro-Iran Shia Majlis-i-Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM) and Imamia Students Organisation (ISO) and the JuD which aligns itself with the Saudi denomination of Islam.

Admittedly, the JuD abandoned taking its political cue from the Saudis after a falling-out with them over Osama bin Laden and the regime’s pro-American policies. Where Riyadh saw the Al Qaeda chief as a villain, JuD made no bones about awarding him a hero status.

One has often heard of the Saudi hand in fanning the obscurantist-militant version of Islam in Pakistan but as the US and its allies embarked on their policy of isolating Iran by trying to destabilise the brutal Syrian regime, there is a new vigour in the activities of some Shia parties too.

What hundreds and, some argue, thousands of Shia murders couldn’t achieve for years, the latest threat to Iran seems to have delivered: a newfound vigour and closing of ranks in parties such as MWM and the Shia ISO.

Dr Khalid Masud, the former chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, provided a very useful insight into our state of mind. He appeared in a TV programme to discuss the blasphemy laws in the wake of the travails of a young Christian girl accused of blasphemy. (This was a few weeks ago and definitely before the current outrage.)

Answering a question on why Pakistan perpetually appeared so combustible that it exploded at the hint of a spark, the esteemed Islamic scholar reminded us that Pakistan was carved out of India when a minority demanded a homeland from the majority.

After Independence, he said, “we retained that minority syndrome … a [persecution] complex has shaped our discourse and weighs heavily on our collective psyche. Therefore, every one of our issues is the world’s fault and there is always someone else to be viewed with suspicion, blamed”.

Zia pursued Islam for political motives and soon the state started to embrace its many manifestations. It didn’t matter if it was of a Saudi denomination and US-funded and thus foreign here. As it was aimed at the Soviets in Afghanistan, militancy became its integral part.

The ultimate irony underlined once again by Dr Masud was that those Islamists who opposed the creation of Pakistan ended up defining/dictating the debate on Islam in the country, while the government slowly but surely made itself irrelevant, leaving no room for reflection.

Another panellist on the same programme, Romana Bashir, who works for a Rawalpindi-based Christian research organisation, was equally lucid in saying that what were the (numerical) majority and minorities after Independence have now changed to superiority and inferiority.

She said she had interviewed many Muslim prayer leaders and ulema and some of them had conceded that unless their sermons are fiery and overtly critical of other faiths and systems their followers remain unfulfilled and complain.

Since they were talking mainly in the context of the blasphemy laws, the scholar and the researcher didn’t talk about how once the experiment of humbling the mighty Soviets in Afghanistan was successful, the country’s military leadership decided to replicate it in Kashmir as well.

Even when viewed against the backdrop of many decades of Indian intransigence on Kashmir, if this strategy was dangerous then, given its potential to trigger an outright war between the two countries, it has proved disastrous now that it endangers the existence of Pakistan as we know it.

Some commentators argue with a measure of justification when they say what Mr Jinnah said or visualised over 60 years ago is not relevant anymore. What is relevant now is where we find ourselves and if there is a way forward.

The foremost among the paradoxes Pakistan has come to represent must be the fact that those who rule the streets today have never scored at the ballot box. And this isn’t a reference to the genuine blasphemy protester with no political agenda.

Equally there can’t be any doubt that the whole society has moved rightwards; we’d be deluding ourselves if we deny that. Only the future is shrouded in doubt. Who knows where the path we are currently on leads to.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com