TWO events in recent weeks have shaken the country and — fortunately, for a change — led to intense soul-searching. The first event was the response to the anti-Islam film in the US and the second the shooting of 14-year old schoolgirl and anti-Taliban blogger Malala Yousufzai in Swat.
The heinous attempt on Malala’s life has been carried out by a group that has brazenly vowed to use terror to achieve its obscurantist objectives. Their views, unfortunately, are held and supported by a significant proportion of Pakistanis. This section of the population possesses a mindset that does not subscribe to the right to express one’s views. Anyone who crosses the line drawn by them is liable to be punished without mercy — by flogging and/or death by shooting, stoning, beheading, or bomb blasts.
Women and children are not exempt as seen in the flogging of a teenaged girl caught on video, numerous cases of beheading and execution of women and soldiers, and bomb blasts in schools, marketplaces and mosques.
This section of the population believes that if someone is in the wrong, it is justified to kill without due process. If a security officer with a warped mind saw Salmaan Taseer as being in the wrong, he thought it was justified for him to take the law into his own hands and kill him. Depressingly though, this section of the population believes that Salmaan Taseer deserved his fate. It deems his murderer a hero.
This section of the population has arrogated to itself the task of protecting Islam and the honour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). It has also arrogated to itself the right to define what constitutes an offence in this respect. It is this mindset that is responsible for the shooting of Malala Yousufzai, for the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and for the violent, self-destructive response to the anti-Islam film on what can be called ‘Black Friday’.
The events of Black Friday, although off the headlines, deserve to be revisited. That there was public anger at the denigration of the Prophet is understandable; but the violence and the fury are incomprehensible. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, comprising majorities in more than 50 countries and significant minorities in at least 20 other states. There were big protest demonstrations in many of these countries. But they were largely peaceful. Nowhere did the Muslim population display the kind of uncontrolled passion and viciousness as in Pakistan. And, beyond official protest statements, there were no public demonstrations in Saudi Arabia or in any of the Gulf States.
Live television images of rioters rampaging through the streets showed a large number of schoolboys and college students. Educational institutions are known to be targeted by religious parties and organisations. The narrow, obscurantist ideology propagated therein has created the environment for intolerance, bigotry and hate and prepared the ground for extremism and militancy. Till the 1970s, student parties with progressive messages competed with religious elements in the battle for ideas. Today, they are conspicuously absent, leaving the field open for religious, sectarian and ethnic forces.
This situation is a by-product of developments on the national stage. Historically, political parties were institutions that mobilised public opinion on behalf of their respective political philosophies. Today, political parties are institutions that hand out patronage. The battle for ideas has been replaced by the battle for maximising personal material gains. The field has been left wide open for religious parties and organisations, which alone have an ideological message, to mobilise the public for their own ends. The attack on Malala, the events of Black Friday and the assassination of Salmaan Taseer are all manifestations of this state of affairs.
The self-appointed protectors of Islam have handed over an ominous opportunity to the enemies of Pakistan. Now, all that they have to do is focus on blasphemous material every now and then and they will succeed in weakening the country and bleeding its economy. However, the events of Black Friday can have a more menacing dimension. The demonstrators in all the cities included among them a core that appeared to be well trained in riot techniques and who managed to deftly slip through barriers and catch teargas shells and hurl them back at the police.
Clearly, religious organisations do not command a winnable vote bank and cannot hope to ascend to power electorally. Is there then a Plan B to forcibly impose an agenda on government and society through assassinations and civil violence? Is the attack on Malala an attempt to silence all dissenting views? Was the rioting a rehearsal for the battle for control?
The success with which a few thousand demonstrators neutralised a few hundred policemen in Pakistan and the manner in which a small, determined group of militants used the cover of a public demonstration to attack the US consulate in Libya are warning signs for all governments in the world. What if, in future conflagrations, the mob includes not only cadres trained in riot techniques but also trained in armed urban warfare?
After all, there does exist a recent instance of stockpiling of arms in the Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa and violent confrontation with the Pakistan Army. If schools can be bombed and schoolgirls shot and foreign missions mobbed and attacked, presidencies and parliaments cannot be safe either. It is time for the political leadership and the intelligentsia to wake up and take a stand.
The writer is a former adviser to the chief minister, Sindh.