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Condemnable remarks

September 23, 2012

IN a more stable and mature polity, the explicit incitement to murder by the ANP Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmad Bilour would have been met with his immediate suspension from politics and the opening of a police investigation to determine what crime he should be charged with. But in the warped and fearful Pakistan of today, the official reaction was characteristically and depressingly spineless. The prime minister has only distanced himself from his minister’s remarks and offered to discuss it with the ANP boss, Asfandyar Wali — while leaving Mr Bilour in his job. And the ANP has only said that Mr Bilour was speaking in his personal capacity and the party does not endorse his demand. Gone is the idea of collective responsibility, of the cabinet and of a political party.

Strip away the theatrics, and the reality is even more frightening. Mr Bilour said what he did precisely because he knew he could get away with it. No one will dare prosecute a man calling for the murder of an individual who has committed blasphemy against Islam — though it is unlikely that the railways minister even really knows whose murder he has specifically called for. And Mr Bilour said what he did because he understands better than most that the ANP is headed into an election campaign after a disastrous term in charge of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and with fierce competition expected from the political right in the province in the shape of the religious parties and PTI. So what better way to establish the ANP’s religious credentials in an unfavourable electoral climate?

Therein lies the great tragedy of Pakistan. Moderate politicians have long argued that they are helpless in the face of a rising tide of conservatism and extremism in society at large. But the ugly truth is that all politicians — even the so-called moderates — are more than willing to pander to extremism if it means a few extra votes or political survival. To refer to the Taliban and Al Qaeda as ‘brothers’, as Mr Bilour did in calling on anyone to kill the producer of the hate film, Innocence of Muslims, is to desecrate the memory of the thousands who have died, many of them belonging to Mr Bilour’s ANP, at the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If there is speech that should be criminalised in Pakistan, it is speech enabling and strengthening the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Of course, it won’t happen because political survival is more important to a politician than national survival.