Loyalty Oath, More of the Absurd


*Originally published in The Nation.

There is no shortage of the absurd in the land of pure.

In continuity of the norm of absurdity, the returning IDPs of North Waziristan were recently required to sign a certain “Social Agreement North Waziristan 2015”. The document requires the reaffirmation of their allegiance and loyalty to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Frontier Crimes Regulation, along with a host of other things including that protection of government institutions as the responsibility of the tribes.

A report in Dawn mentions some contents of Agreement: ‘If a tribe fails in fulfilling its responsibilities mentioned in FCR, then the government will withdraw all incentives of the tribe or clan including cancellation of national identity card, passport and other documents. Their properties including houses would be confiscated or demolished or they will be barred from the area. The people would be responsible for maintenance of peace, security of the government bodies and action against anti-statement elements.’

The agreement, a compulsory and non-negotiable prerequisite for all returning families and tribes, is alarming in all its character. By placing doubt on the loyalty and allegiance of a people who made the greatest sacrifice and abandoned everything for a war proclaimed in the name of Pakistan; and by placing immense responsibility on them for preventing elements on their land, that caused them such hardship in the first place, is but a travesty that stands as a deplorable testament to the Pakistani state today. The obligation upon the people of North Waziristan to “keep their soil free of anti-state elements” is a clear reversal of traditional roles of the state and the people with the former responsible for the security, safety and protection of the nation. It is a denial and disavowal of the state’s responsibility by the state itself.

However, the origins of such obligations and requirements are not new, rooted deeply in a product of British colonialism of 1901 that still prevails in FATA and upon its people in the 21st century: the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

Formulated to rein in Pashtun opposition to British colonialism, the FCR has only been nominally amended since. Legislation passed by the Pakistani parliament is invalid in FATA due to Article 247 of the Constitution which invalidates the application and operation of laws made by the Parliament, and removes FATA from the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts.

It truly is shocking how a colonial relic is very much alive in governing the people of an independent country in the 21st century. And while the rest of Pakistan may debate over the progress of democracy, civil liberties and rights, the people of FATA are still virtually colonial subjects, governed by a colonial set of relations, barred from the share of any political, social or economic development and participation in the rest of the country. The prevailing existence of the FCR in Pakistan is, but a stark reminder of the bleak credibility and character of democracy in the country; and the character of the state and country itself.

The Agreement proceeds to further say that, “You will not become part of any action intended against peace and security of Pakistan and will prevent enemies of the state, Constitution and institutions or local and foreign terrorists from using your soil against the country”.

While the part about not becoming part of any action intended against the peace and security of Pakistan seems fairly clear and innocuous, a second glance reveals the opposite. Since compliance with the FCR has been the main component of the allegiance, challenging the draconian system of laws would naturally constitute a challenge to the state; a disruption to the peace and security of Pakistan. Conflating the FCR with the state, which virtually doesn’t exist in FATA, and Pakistan, is farcical at best. It is also precisely because FATA is virtually removed from Pakistan in every aspect, that the region is open as a fertile ground to local and foreign actors, along with powerful organs of the state, their machinations and plays – a state within the state – all at the expense of the people of the region.

The formulation of this Agreement thus, leaves no room for hope against bringing the people of FATA in the mainstream of the country with full citizenship rights; and attempts to subdue the utmost necessity of doing so. The Agreement is also indicative of the lack of intent prevalent in the corridors of power in Pakistan regarding the reform, repeal of the FCR, or any relief for the people of FATA.

During President Zardari’s tenure, a number of amendments were made to the FCR which included the extension of the Political Parties Order of 2002 allowing the operation of political parties in the region, the right of appeal against decisions of the political agent; and changes in the Collective Responsibility Clause for women, children and senior citizens in cases of arrests and detentions. However, their practical implementation is subject to much debate today; as the amendments themselves remain bound within the FCR framework that still holds FATA in its grip.

The FCR is a chief instrument of the dehumanization of the people of FATA who are daily witnesses to myriad difficulties and horrors, which barely make the margins of our news, let alone national and political consciousness. The late Justice Cornelius is said to have famously remarked that the FCR is “obnoxious to all recognised modern principles governing the dispensation of justice”. And his words resound even more loudly today.

Perhaps it would be more prudent if our lawmakers, leaders and media persons discussed and debated the conditions of FATA and Balochistan as vigorously as Pakistan’s possible role in a conflict in the Middle East.

For Pakistan cannot move an inch forward with such shards sticking painfully in its heel.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Engaging Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law


*First posted on Laaltain.

From Aasia Bibi, Rimsha Masih to Shama and Shehzad; blasphemy in Pakistan hangs like a sword over Pakistan’s religious minorities.

However, amid the cases, there is a concerted effort underway to push for reform regarding the blasphemy law in Pakistan, by the name of Engage.

 

A non-profit research and advocacy organization, Engage is pushing for the reform through research and dialogue, by way of which it aims to impact and change the discourse; legal, social and cultural frameworks surrounding the issue of blasphemy in the country.

Unlike the usual frameworks, such as those of human rights, used to structure debate and discourse against the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan, Engage is rooted in the singular framework of Islamic tradition for the pursuit. During his recent talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, researcher Arafat Mazhar, who is one of the main individuals associated with the organization, continuously reinforced that authority has to be established in order to counter the dominant narratives prevailing on the issue in the country; and that this authority and evidence has to be derived from the same source which is used as a legitimating basis for the Blasphemy Law i.e Islamic tradition.

Picture taken from Engagepakistan.com

Engage, therefore, pursues the important deconstruction of what it calls the erroneous basis of the law through Islamic tradition; chiefly through Imam Abu Hanifa’s position that blasphemy is a pardonable offence for non-Muslims.

Moreover, Mazhar spoke of Ismail Qureshi, architect of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan’s, and his disastrously incorrect reading of Ibn-e-Abideen (1836) whom he referenced to lend weight to the law. It was Ibn-e-Abideen, who, in fact, pointed out the line of false narration regarding the Hanafi position on the issue of blasphemy by non-Muslims.

And as written in his articles for Dawn, he reinforced the significance of this Islamic tradition by mentioning that the position of blasphemy as a pardonable offence for non-Muslims was approved and signed by no less than 450 of the most prestigious names in the Hanafi ulema, not just from South Asia, but around the world” (which included Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, founder of the Barelvi school of thought to which, ironically, Mumtaz Qadri belonged).

The organization’s site is prompt to state that:

 “Our research actually shows that the law is built on erroneous religious foundations including misquotations and misrepresentations of authoritative classical Islamic jurists.

[and by demonstrating the abovementioned through informed, thorough research and historical evidence]

It is only when this narrative – the public sentiment– is reshaped that legal reform can be addressed.”

In Mazhar’s words, “legal reform cannot take place in a vacuum in Pakistan” without addressing the popular social and cultural acceptance and prevalence underlying the Blasphemy Law.

In short, Engage aims to make use of solid research in Islamic tradition to delegitimise the basis of the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and engage the general public, society, culture, institutions such as the government, judiciary, religious scholars and groups such as non-governmental organizations and the civil society in Pakistan along with the international community of Islamic scholars, in order to push for reform of the law.

As part of its efforts, Engage has established a Fatwa Drive which seeks scholarly endorsements recognizing the erroneous position on cases of blasphemy relating to non-Muslims; that if an alleged blasphemer seeks pardon, he should be forgiven.  The Fatwa Drive includes visiting major madrassahs, masjids, Islamic jurists and scholars for the purpose.  For Engage, this is based upon the idea that “Together, the moral authority of these opinions can be used a force for legal and popular reform.”

Well-aware of the ire, controversy, dangers and suspicions such a campaign can and does invite, Engage seeks to maintain a clean character of its campaign – free of affiliation, association with different interests – by seeking funds to support itself and its objective through crowdsourcing.

Engage’s campaign can be contributed to at: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/engage-reforming-pakistan-s-blasphemy-law

Arafat Mazhar can be contacted on Twitter: https://twitter.com/arafatmazhar

And truly, if Pakistan is to chart a peaceful and pluralistic future for its citizens and religious minorities, it is essential to engage with and overcome all that sustains the Blasphemy Law.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Hollow Healing


*Originally published in The News.

Newspapers recently reported that a group of students and teachers who survived the Peshawar massacre had been sent on a trip to China ‘aimed at healing the mental scars of their ordeal’; and that the bereaved parents of the 130+ children killed would be sent on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Although officials maintain that the trip was borne out of suggestions and consultations done with psychiatrists regarding the process of healing, reality offers a far difficult road to recovery for Pakistan.

With 50,000 massacred – yes massacred, not sacrificed; let us not romanticise the bloodletting that consumes Pakistan; for a sacrifice is willing and conscious, but a massacre is plain butchery – the sigh between mourning countless tragedies and the breaths heaved between cries is the only peace the nation can prise.

The Shikarpur slaughter that took away 60+ lives has revealed the empty change the Peshawar tragedy spurred in Pakistan in the form of standard hollow condemnations, promises and eyewash.

Palliative measures such as the lifting of the moratorium on death penalty and hangings of convicted terrorists may satiate national vengeance, but do not and should not dampen the need for national justice; for which a solid anti and counter-terrorism policy is essential.

Furthermore, there has naturally been no shortage of the absurd since the KPK government’s decision to allow teachers weapons inside schools stands glaring. As shocking is the decision, it is also a tragic testament to the state’s loss of its monopoly on violence, cruelly emphasised by terrorists, and its reaction to it which seems to border on surrender and acceptance. Such an acquiescent attitude clearly signifies the state’s indifference and inability to protect the lives of its citizens and guarantee their liberty, safety and security. And from the KPK government’s decision, it appears that the solution to this loss of state monopoly has been found in compounding the problem by doling out more and more shares of the monopoly to segments of the violence-ridden society.

More recently, arrests were made of the members of the civil society, which included the dauntless Jibran Nasir, protested in Karachi by holding a sit-in against the Shikarpur imambargah bombing and the ‘outlawed’ ASWJ. The protesters’ demands included naming all banned organisations on media; closing the offices of all the banned organisations, removal of their flags, erasing their wall chalking; taking action against Aurangzeb Farooqi, ending his police protocol; and providing treatment to patients who need care in Shikarpur, Sukkur, Larkana hospitals in Karachi and Hyderabad. Abbas Nasir, while reflecting on the hopelessness prevalent in Pakistan, penned in Dawn:

“The party in power at the centre never staked a claim to any progressive mantle. But the party in power in Sindh claims to be the keeper of the legacy of pro-people, even secular, politics in the country. Look at how it has capitulated to the religious ultra-right.”

The arrests of the protesters served, yet again, as shameful reminder of the state and government being held hostage to non-state actors and organizations such as the ASWJ and SSP; committing complicity in the crimes perpetrated by these individuals and organizations by way of pandering to them and putting up frequent shows of spinelessness when it comes to them.

The persecution and troubles tormenting religious minorities such as the Shias in Pakistan are very much a part of the problem of terrorism and extremism; dealing with which cannot be discounted if Pakistan is to overcome this crisis. The blood that was shed in Shikarpur was in the name of the same ideology that shed blood in Peshawar. Therefore, to ignore or separate the sectarian angle from terrorism and extremism in Pakistan would be to have a blurry and weak vision of the danger the country faces.

Buried under palliative measures, national amnesia, short-lived bouts of outrage; and the empty promises and deliverance that have become the crowning glory of the PML-N government, which seems to be competing against the records of cluelessness and incompetence set by the previous PPP government, are the concrete steps that remain far from being taken in Pakistan’s fight against terror. Concrete steps that disturb the long-cherished equilibrium and existence of policies and trends in Pakistan including the establishment’s notoriously duplicitous policies, the ties of patronage and alliance Pakistan’s political parties pride themselves on with sectarian outfits; and the cowardice that crowds the corridors of powers in Pakistan from taking on extremism and terrorism with sincerity and tenacity.

The trip to China may temporarily divert the children’s attention, but the usurpation of their childhood, that no child should ever have to bear, is consummate and irreversible.

Comparing the response and reaction in Pakistan after the Peshawar Tragedy to the reaction in France and Jordan after the Charlie Hebdo killings and Muath Al-Kasasbeh’s barbaric murder by ISIS of a nationwide outpouring of solidarity and grief coupled with government resolve, the Pakistan Votes page on social media commented with a quote from Waseem Altaf:

“A fractured polity, polarized political entities and a divided crowd of people, with a security establishment which wants exemptions for certain groups (read proxies) and a spineless leadership is what we have to fight the menace of terrorism.”

Sending the children on trips will not suffice, providing them a future better than their past will. And for that, a lot more needs to be done. Until then, all is hollow healing.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Let Us Count No More


*Originally published in The Nation.
Unedited version below:

Some tragedies are difficult to erase from national memories.  Some wounds are difficult to heal. What happened in Peshawar was a monstrosity beyond evil, a calamity beyond tragedy. The calculated, cold-blooded murder of helpless, defenseless, innocent children will always remain, neither a wound that heals, nor a stain that fades, but a scar right in Pakistan’s heart that shall only deepen with time. It will remain forever.

Women mourn their relative Mohammed Ali Khan, a student who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, at his house in Peshawar

In an air of seething anger, mourning and vengeance, the government decided to lift the moratorium on death penalty. As understandable as this is for the savages who have torn through Pakistan’s soul, it must be realized that the lifting of the moratorium is once again a cosmetic attempt to defeat terrorism.

Pakistan can no longer do without recognizing that the monster of terrorism has multiple heads and tackling it honestly.

For once, the state and military establishment must end the dubious, contradictory and damnable distinction between the “good” and “bad” Taliban, for the advancement of ‘Strategic Depth’ that has become the death of us. It is important to mention the late Eqbal Ahmad, whose prophetic warnings regarding Pakistan’s future vis-à-vis the policy in Afghanistan during and after the Afghan war were made little use of, penned in an article, titled ‘What after strategic depth?’ in Dawn on 23 August, 1998:

“The domestic costs of Pakistan’s friendly proximity to the Taliban are incalculable and potentially catastrophic The Taliban are the expression of a modern disease, symptoms of a social cancer which shall destroy Muslim societies if its growth is not arrested and the disease is not eliminated. It is prone to spreading, and the Taliban will be the most deadly communicators of this cancer if they remain so organically linked to Pakistan.”

The scourge of extremism and terrorism cannot be defeated if Pakistan’s military establishment pursues policies of duplicity; with a selective fight instead of an all-out war against all terrorists without distinction and second thought, since the alternative is clearly at the expense of Pakistan’s peace, stability and future.

As vital it is to battle the Taliban physically, it is even more crucial to battle them ideologically, culturally and socially.

Pakistan’s mosques must be regulated and rid of the hate speeches made against other religions, religious minorities, sects and the West, that pass for sermons. These have converted the country’s mosques into sanctuaries breeding hate, bigotry and intolerance with bloody repercussions.

Jibran Nasir: The quiet lawyer and activist who is taking on Pakistan’s Taliban (The Independent, photo taken by Mosharraf Zaidi)

The people must reclaim their mosques, just as the brave Jibran Nasir led people in Islamabad rallying for FIR against and the arrest of Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid for his audacious refusal to condemn the Peshawar massacre in clear words live on television. It is hoped that this spirit inflamed by rage and sorrow crystallizes into a sustained campaign and movement by the citizens to reclaim Pakistan; for any ‘maulana’ or ‘mufti’ whose tongue stutters to clearly condemn extremists and terrorist acts of atrocities must be taken to task by the people and state; and if the state does not take them to task, the people must take it to task too. Let it be clear today that a lack of condemnation is an act of complicity. Pakistan has paid enough for terrorist apologists in its midst.

The media must also stop the sensationalist and luxurious provision of airtime to such men in the guise of interviews and calls; offering them opportunities to shamelessly propagate their views and promote the cause of the extremists in turn. Pakistan cannot and must not tolerate any terrorist apologists from any sphere, be it religious, social or political since they are in abundance.

Furthermore, Pakistan cannot envision the eradication of extremism and terrorism unless the political patronage of militant organizations like the SSP, LeJ and ASWJ are explicitly ended. It is this country and nation’s misfortune, that not only does it have leaders who are spineless and irresolute in the face of a cancer that continues to consume Pakistan; but also have links; concede, pacify and pander to organizations that are proud ancillary warriors to the ideological evil.

Death penalties may satiate our desire for justice, but these cannot compensate for the alarming flaws plaguing Pakistan’s judicial system that is unable to prosecute, convict and punish terrorists. Mentioned in Chris Albritton’s Daily Beast article, the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2013 states:

“Intimidation by terrorists against witnesses, police, victims, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges contributed both to the slow progress of cases in Antiterrorism Courts and a high acquittal rate.”

According to Dawn, since 2007, over 2,000 alleged terrorists have been freed by the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) and even re-joined terrorist outfits. Therefore, as long as Pakistan’s courts are not empowered and let murderers like Malik Ishaq walk free with the blood of hundreds of Shias on his hands; death penalties will only remain a superficial step taken in the stride for serving justice.

Moreover, the curriculum and textbooks taught in Pakistan must be reviewed and revised to replace the patchwork of intolerance, hate, bigotry, xenophobia and jingoism it has currently bred by one which fosters a pluralistic national mindset of tolerance, inter-faith, inter-sect, inter-ethnic harmony. The distortions and crass obfuscations in the textbooks may have served the state well but they have certainly not served the country and nation well.

Pakistan must also recognize that the disease of extremism and terrorism is home-grown. The hordes that attended Arshad Mehmood’s funeral after his hanging were our people, they were Pakistanis. Those who fund, abet and sympathise with these are Pakistanis. Arshad Mehmood and his ilk was Pakistani. The hundreds of children slaughtered in Peshawar were Pakistani, this is Pakistan’s war.

Lastly, as a people, we must rupture our resilience. Let us let it be known that we will not forget nor forgive; we will neither recover nor rest until we win this war; a war within us. We must no longer be quiet; we must let the pain of Peshawar never subside if Pakistan is ever to remain alive. Let us feel the loss that can never be undone. Let us walk on the blood-splattered shards of Peshawar, let us never forget what happened there; let us not wash this away from our hearts and minds by the flimsy cloth of resilience.  Let us know that our silence and resilience is now complicity.

Let us find it difficult to sleep every night knowing this soil is fresh with the splattered blood of its beautiful children. Let us count the 50,000 which 140 more have joined.  Every inch of this land is soaked with the blood of its own.

Let us be resilient no longer if we are to count no more.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

Blasphemy in the Name of God


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recently visited the family of the Christian couple burnt alive by a mob in Kot Radha Kishan for allegedly desecrating pages of the Holy Quran. He announced Rs5 million as compensation for the bereaved family as well as 10 acres of land. A three-member committee has also been ordered to investigate the matter. Although commissions and committees in Pakistan have come to represent a confirmed course for consigning an issue to oblivion, the inadequacy of the aforementioned measures resonates for larger reasons.

Earlier this year in Gujranwala, an angry mob set fire to a house killing three Ahmedis including eight-month-old Hira, and five-year-old Kainat.  From Ahmedis, Hindus to Christians, religious minorities in Pakistan are vulnerable and widely exposed to threats, intimidation and violence. This is a reflection of not just crass state failure but an alarming societal disease.

Shama and Shahzad Masih

Pakistan faces an underlying, entrenched disease that can neither be cured with ‘compensations’ of millions nor commissions. A disease that has been manifesting itself as several bleeding sores on the national body in the form of Gojra, Joseph Colony, Gujranwala and now Kot Radha Kishan.

It is astounding how, in a society as intolerant and violent as Pakistan’s, where the state is impotent in its protection of citizens, individuals of religious minorities can even gather the audacity to commit blasphemy in this glorious bastion of Islam where pious believers are ever eager to reconstruct hellfire as done with Shama and Shahzad Masih.

The brutal murder of the couple, which has left behind three little children, has all the elements that perpetuate such cruelties; which are ironically, blasphemy itself in the name of God.

It is reported that the mob was incited by a local cleric, much in line with what is the custom in such cases. Just as PM Sharif has instructed the revision of curriculum in national institution to inculcate values of constitutionalism and democracy in order to defeat the dominant narratives resulting from decades of military dictatorships; narratives of hate and extremism emanating from the loudspeakers of mosques and teachings at madrassahs must also be countered. State-licensed campaigns and clerics united by an ideology and purpose of fostering harmony, tolerance and inter-community peace must also be considered. Pakistan’s madrassahs and masjids have become breeding grounds of hate, bigotry and intolerance which, until effectively monitored, checked and combatted, will only lead to need for further Zarb-e-Azbs in the future.

Writing for Dawn, Cyril Almeida points out another important aspect of the victims of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law: ‘Blasphemy victims are disproportionately the marginalised: often poor, mostly the wrong denomination and always vulnerable.’ Almeida further mentions that those in the national and social mainstream are not threatened by such instances, which is why ‘the system doesn’t need to swing into action and correct a perversion.’

More importantly, Hassan Javid’s article, published on the 9th of November in The Nation, on this recent blasphemy case echoes with the banality of evil in Pakistan:

‘However, focusing solely on these actors [the military, government and extremist organizations] obscures the fact that there is a ‘banal’ aspect to the bigotry and hatred that we are witnessing around us….it is ‘normal’ people who are increasingly complicit in these unspeakable acts of evil. Shahzad and his wife Shama were not burnt alive by Taliban fighters or sectarian extremists; they were tortured and killed by the people who lived and worked around them. The mobs that attacked Gojra and Joseph Colony were not comprised of foreign fighters sent to Pakistan by Al-Qaeda; they were ordinary villagers and citizens who presumably went back to their families and homes once their dark deeds were done.’

pakistan blasphemyThis involvement of ordinary people in such acts does much to underscore the extent, gravity and ideological and cultural facets of the prevalent challenge of extremism confronting Pakistan.

Pakistan faces a glaring reality marked by discrimination, bigotry and blood that screams to be seen; which the state and society both deal by averting gaze from. Therefore, to constitute commissions, order probes and register FIRs is merely to bandage an infected gash than treating it. The country can no longer do without systematically addressing and reviewing laws, chief of which are the Second Amendment and the Blasphemy Law (a proposal which is seen as blasphemy itself in Pakistan’s increasingly intolerant and polarised society), which sanction or condone such wanton violence and barbarities. The murders of Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and the dangerously absurd allegation grounded in blasphemy recently hurled at Khurshid Shah for his remarks on the term muhajir merely emphasise the wide dangers to which this law and its ideological popularity open doors to. Pakistan can also not ignore the urgency to battle extremism and bigotry on the ideological, societal and cultural fronts. Until that happens, the murders of Shama and Shahzad will perish in the same old cycle of media coverage, commissions, committees for investigations, muted protests and outrage; and eventually, collective national amnesia. Until then, Pakistan shall continue to be disfigured by a diseased society with deceased humanity committing blasphemy in the name of God.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

National Clutter


*Originally published in The News.

It’s been over a month since the dharnas came to the capital.

And although Imran Khan warns of a civil war, the political temperature has come down considerably but not after exposing the bare and weak bones of Pakistan’s make.

To start off, with rumors and fears of a coup abound earlier; a most alarming reminder has been the persisting existence of the Third Umpire on the political front. Including a counsel of restraint on both sides, advocacy for facilitation of negotiations and advising the government not to use force, Dawn’s editorial published on 2ND September spoke on this string of the army’s statements and inaction towards the protesters that attacked the Parliament despite Article 245 as:

‘The carefully constructed veneer of neutrality that the army leadership had constructed through much of the national political crisis has been torn apart.’

The fact that army had to issue these statements and later another to assert its neutrality brings out a sneering irony.  

It is obvious that redressing the civil-military imbalance is urgent and yet perilous since the Third Umpire will not be leaving a field it has dominated and played on since decades anytime soon.

Secondly, while mudslinging and uncivil rhetoric has been and is an inherent component of Pakistan’s chaotic political culture, the current developments have assisted their swift mainstream resurgence; lest we forget Imran Khan’s volley of countless allegations and accusations against the sitting prime minister, ministers, parliamentarians, judiciary, police, journalists, bureaucrats and the media; and his free and open use of “oye”, “main choroon ga nahi” to “geeli shalwars”. The on-going rumpus has assisted and promoted the crude rhetoric of violence and slander in Pakistan’s political culture and discourse to once again rear its ugly head.

More importantly, a tweet by Mosharraf Zaidi on Imran Khan’s audacious release of his workers arrested by the police accentuates a disquieting issue:

‘One can blame PM Sharif to a certain extent, but delegitimization of the state machinery is now the unwitting PTI project. Disturbing.’

This act of Imran Khan’s may be hailed as bravado by his supporters, who condemn and decry Anjum Aqeel in the same breath, but since its declaration of civil disobedience, promotion of hundi; attempts to storm state buildings with PAT and this forceful release of arrested workers, PTI and its workers have certainly pursued a path of delegitimizing state apparatuses by way of blatantly defying the law.

With such a course of action, PTI has helped muddle up the distinction between the state and the government; attacking the former to shake the latter.

This is but a dangerous phenomenon in a country struggling for stability and security; adding a political plane to the constant challenges to the writ of the state by a plethora of groups including the TTP.

In the domain of the government, the consequences of ignoring political protests, as PML-N initially did with Imran Khan’s, have been dramatically revealed. Governments, especially that of parties like N which conveniently adopt smug complacency when in power, can no longer afford to be dismissive of opponents’ demands or perform sluggishly.

Moving on, as with every national occurrence, the media’s role has been of vital significance amid the inquilabi and tabdeeli mayhem. With fear-mongering, misinformation and sensationalism media houses flagrantly picked stances and sides. This glaring functioning of Pakistan’s media as propaganda houses for political parties with little room for impartiality and responsibility has been unfortunate. Media coverage has also been concentrated on the capital, with hardly any slot for the plight of the IDPs and later, the flood victims. All of this has once again lent weight to the idea that Pakistan possesses a vibrant, free media but a fledgling one not free from biases, unethical practices and oblivious to responsible, meaningful journalism.

Public discourse has also been affected, albeit with the curse of intense polarisation. With each lot sticking to its viewpoint and party loyalties with charged political self-righteousness, little room has been left for debate and discussion, let alone poor old nuance. All who oppose PTI’s politics are now ‘jahil nooras’ and all those who criticise PML-N ‘youthias’. And with debate and discussion shut off like this, this only strengthens the intolerance that is already embedded in Pakistan’s society and national mindset.

Another societal characteristic emerged amidst the dharnas, namely misogyny and hypocrisy. Appropriated into mainstream political discussion thanks to Maulana Fazul-ur-Rehman invoking the infamous fahashi narrative inside the Parliament, the dancing by women at Imran Khan’s dharna became a part of the political salvo against him.

A non-issue with no political weight or ramification, it is, as columnist and writer Abdul Majeed Abid, wrote:

‘One can disagree with the ‘dharnistas’ on dozens of accounts, without any mention of the term ‘vulgarity’….. this is important only in bigoted, misogynist societies such as Pakistan.’

It is astounding how women and men dancing at rallies can be an issue when there is a war being fought at home and a million Pakistanis are displaced from their homes, left for destitution.

This is a fine encapsulation of the clutter Pakistan is in today.

At the end, it is palpable that the political confrontation which began in mid-August sparked off a tense interaction between Pakistan’s politics, institutions, society and culture; the results of which are unsettling. A close to the current events may be uncertain but what is certain is that as a country aspiring for democracy, stability and prosperity, Pakistan has a long and difficult path to tread if it is ever to move forward.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

No Country for Nuance


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog, posting the unedited version here:

As yet another political crisis brews in Pakistan, political discussion and arguments steam through it.

Emotions are high, and arguments equally heated and intense.

It is often assumed to be the case among Pakistanis that any existing political support must encompass all aspects of a party regardless of personal agreement or disagreement. In other words, support has to be uncritical or it doesn’t fit the definition. If figure, institution or idea has to be supported, all that comprises them has to be backed; and whoever or whatever is to be opposed, must have the hate whole.

This is no country for nuance.

However, the problem is not limited to Pakistan, as Turkish writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol writes on Al-Monitor regarding the discourse on Erdogan in the country:

As Bekir Agirdir, the director of a polling company and a political commentator, noted, it has become impossible to reasonably discuss even Istanbul’s water problem, because Erdogan supporters will deny it, whereas Erdogan opponents will exaggerate it.

With the political turmoil pitting PTI right against the PML-N, any argument seems to define opposition to Imran Khan’s politics as ‘Noora’ support for Nawaz Sharif; and any support for PML-N, the institution of government and the state as support for a corrupt Pakistan. Any acknowledgement of Asif Zardari’s political genius and success of Machiavellian politics is taken as jiyala praise for PPP’s lacklustre performance.

Independent political opinions or thoughts are now refused to be seen without suspicion of political affiliation and loyalty lurking beneath to dictate them; and allegiance is expected to be, as aforementioned, complete, uncritical and whole.

Similarly, the dichotomy of discourse has monstrously grown to swallow all civility.

The bitter and brash assertion and argument of opinions has taken over discussions and conversations completely with derogatory words among which are jahil, noora, noony, anti-Pakistan and beghairat. Relations are publicly souring on social-media platforms and in lounges and drawing rooms, as respect is being trampled by charged political self-righteousness.

Any support for a party must be based on solid, logical reasons and if it indulges in socially, ethically or politically reprehensible pursuits; it must be condemned. Pakistan’s interest, not personality cults, must direct party support.

But in the current atmosphere no word against the holy saints of Raiwind and Bani Gala is brooked.

Social media-user and activist Meera Ceder pertinently points out:

‘Blind following or blind allegiance to anything makes one truly blind. I hate the fact that everything is seen from a black and white lens. Everything is an either or and if you choose to condemn two wrongs then you are “clearly” taking sides. Not everything can or should be seen in binaries.’

It is either this or that, with us or against us, black or white. Binaries are the order of the day.

Socially, any sign of broad-mindedness that challenges redundant conservatism on issues such as female education, attire, careers is characterised as ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ with negative connotations. Religiously, General Zia’s toxic legacy of Islamization reigns as people consider any interpretation of Islam apart from their own to be heretical. This has been a polarisation that has had bloody effects by physical demonstration in the form of terror groups and extremism having slaughtered 50,000 Pakistanis till now.

The ideological textbook propaganda found in Pak Studies on the creation of Pakistan, its culture and religion does also not help by its distortions of history and the truth. These have been so well-indoctrinated by now that they not only, unfortunately, shape much of Pakistani national and political discourse even today, but any attempt to challenge them is undermined, ignored or thrown to the bin of numerous Pakistani pejoratives that include liberal-fascist, anti-Pakistan, RAW agent etc.

All of this spells our penchant for polarisation.

Polarisation is not merely a disappointing national phenomenon, it is a dangerous one. After all, it is polarisation which breeds intolerance and a parochial mentality by shunning debate and discussion. Being cut off from debate and a diverse range of different and dissimilar views has the effect of intellectual insulation and isolation; plus a lack of respect for opposing opinions. This creates a hostile, suffocating environment for all people to be heard, understood and respect. This might explain why many segments of the nation such as the Baloch, the Pashtuns, and the religious minorities et al are misunderstood. They are either never heard, lent an ear to be heard or their voices are hushed.

Debate, civil argument and discussion are keys to a more pluralistic, open, tolerant society; and the very heart of democracy itself, which is why polarisation is the cancer at the heart of Pakistan.

As the state transitions through challenges, so must the people by developing a pluralistic rather than a polarising environment, discourse and attitude – if Pakistan is ever to move forward.

~ Hafsa Khawaja