*First posted on The Nation’s Blog.
“Why is Ahmadi such a taboo word? Ideological stances aside, my only goal is that when an Ahmadi is killed or persecuted, the media shouldn’t be scared to talk about it,” he had said.
It seemed too good to be true. A conversation about a pressing issue being initiated by a prominent TV actor with a large fan-following on national television during Ramzan.
And indeed it was.
A few days back, a video emerged of Hamza Ali Abbasi hosting a channel’s Ramzan transmission in which he questioned the seated Islamic scholars whether the state has any right to define who is and isn’t a Muslim, and if the state has the right to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims. He further elaborated his intention to host an entire programme on the Ahmadis and the controversial Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan. Hamza was treading on dangerous ground, one which is bloodied with risk and loss.
Social media immediately became abuzz with contention, praise on one hand and condemnation on the other. The latter was taken an alarming notch further when death threats starting pouring in from numerous ends and a certain “Maulana” Kaukab Noorani Okarvi appeared on a show to declare that anyone who discusses the two issues, of Ahmedis and the Blasphemy Law, warranted an end to be put to his life, “ussi muqaam par ussey goli maar di jaaye.”
The absence of any action on part of the government concerning what is an unambiguous signal for murder also indicates the level of its commitment in combatting extremism and safeguarding the lives of its citizens. But even more indicative is perhaps the possibility that either the government agrees with Noorani’s ideology or that it does not have the courage to take action against the expression of a belief, that those who speak of the Ahmadi issue and Blasphemy Law should be killed, which has a great deal of currency and supporters in the society.
But on a more immediate level, what should’ve been an active and responsible response by both PEMRA and other government authorities in light of the call for cold-blooded murder issued on national TV, resulted instead in PEMRA issuing a ban on both the programmes: of the targeted and the perpetrator; thereby essentially equating a discussion on an issue with incitement to murder.
In issuing the ban, it stated: “During these transmissions, ratings remain the focus under the guise of Ramazan shows,” read the Pemra statement, adding that “provocative conversations took place during the shows which has led to much anger”. “Even after clear instructions from Pemra, unfortunately TV channel owners, anchors and audience indulged in non-serious and irresponsible conversations,” added the statement. It is rather curious that the objection of “non-serious and irresponsible conversations” was not invoked in the case of the majority of shows dominating channels in Ramzan which shamelessly make a vulgar mockery and joke of the month. But this is also says volumes about our observation of Ramzan and the hypocrisy, which PEMRA’s decision reeks of, when televised circuses pass for popular Ramzan transmission programmes and a show attempting to go against this norm by broaching serious issues, with a clear set of risks attached to it, is dismissed as “provocative” in the pursuit of “ratings”.
PEMRA is not new to this exercise of farce and regressive thought.
Only recently did it announce and later revoke a ban on contraceptives’ and family planning advertisements. This was followed by its decision to issue notice to Udaari regarding its portrayal of child abuse in the drama.
What is common in this string of actions and decisions by PEMRA, apart from the absurdity of it all, is the idea of silence and denial that the Pakistani society and state thrives on. What exactly is being prevented by these bans? How flimsy and weak are the foundations and ideas of this society and state which are shaken and threatened by mere discussions and simple questions?
Hamza Ali Abbasi’s discussion sought to question and address the difficulties, the discrimination and the plight of the Ahmadi community in Pakistan which is sanctioned constitutionally and imposed stringently by many of its citizens socially and culturally. PEMRA’s ban, however, serves to preserve the state’s monopoly of narrative on the issue. This is the same monopoly that has under its grip issues ranging from the Second Amendment to Balochistan. These are narratives hailed as the truth; narratives that are dominant through years of indoctrination and imposition yet still weak to be confronted by mere question and inquiry. A question and inquiry which seeks to establish that a people have the right not to be killed irrespective of their beliefs and one’s own agreement or disagreement with those. But let alone raising voice in this regard, even the right of that voice is denied to us.
This is deliberate silencing.
The recent notice to Udaari demonstrates the same, but not with regards to state narrative but a cultural and social narrative. The portrayal of child abuse is a cause of discomfort for many, who would rather indulge in their ignorance and indifference to the ghastly acts that are committed every single day against children.
Jasmeen Manzoor tweeted on the matter: @jasmeenmanzoor
“No idea what message our dramas are giving to public by showing a 10 year old girl raped by her step father #disgusting #pathetic”
It is ridiculous that the depiction of a problem offends and hurts the sensitivities and sensibilities of people more than the realization that this depiction is an everyday reality in Pakistan hurting, harming and destroying hundreds of children and their lives. This is denial. What message are our dramas giving to the public by showing a 10 year old girl raped by her step father? They are giving a message of awareness, of consciousness, of cautiousness, and yes, of disgust, because this does happen in Pakistan. It is not a remote reality or a figment of dramatic imagination. And what message are we giving by calling these efforts “pathetic”? That the plight of abused children in Pakistan is trivial, irrelevant, worthless; that their plight is pathetic for denial, for us, is divine.
Perhaps this is why debates and discussions in Pakistan are seldom ever more than ugly degenerations into polarized demagoguery, tub-thumbing and crass behaviour, such as one witnessed by Marvi Sirmed recently, because we are not familiar with the practice and norm of civilized discussion, debate and disagreement conducive to the healthy development of a society and nation.
We conveniently cling onto silence, denial, dogma and indifference, for they do not offer us the discomfort reality in this country entails. We would rather ignore than cure the plagues and problems Pakistan and many Pakistanis, other than ourselves, face.
What Pakistan needs today is awareness and tolerance, the starting point of which is respecting and engaging differing points of view, opinions, questions and discussions. But for that to happen, there needs to be a basic ability to listen and to learn; an ability which clearly doesn’t exist if the answer to a question and the response to a discussion are death threats and bans.