Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pakistan, Can You Hear Me?

Where is the conscience of a nation? Where are the protests and the million-man marches? Where are the voices that rally dormant citizens to action -- on television, in the newspapers, on Facebook even?

Outlook India
February 24, 2009

The recent suicide attack in Dera Ismail Khan that targeted the funeral of a Shia Muslim cleric, Sher Zaman, who was gunned down, was shocking enough. But what is even more shocking is the sheer passivity in the reaction of people in Pakistan to recent events in Dera Ismail Khan and Swat.

It is appalling to think that Pakistanis are ever-ready to take to the streets, shouting slogans and burning effigies, when Salman Rushdie writes something controversial or when offensive cartoons are published in Danish newspapers but are curiously silent when the funeral of a religious leader is bombed in sectarian violence. Or when Taliban forces capture Swat and start beheading people for religious insubordination.

Where is the conscience of a nation? Where are the protests and the million-man marches? Where are the voices that rally dormant citizens to action -- on television, in the newspapers, on Facebook even?

If no one protests, it just sends a signal that this is OK. It is OK to bomb a Shia funeral, but it is not OK to write an irreverent story or draw cartoons that poke fun at religion. Where are people�s priorities? How much deeper into the abyss is Pakistan going to sink?

Islamic fundamentalism�s biggest draw is that it is a utopian alternative to the miserable realities of people�s lives. But everywhere that fundamentalists have come to power, their sheen has worn off. Think of Bangladesh, Turkey and Iran. People realize that mullahs can preach all day, but they can�t run a country. So if sectarianism, and militancy in the north-west areas is Pakistan�s big problem, then perhaps it is also Pakistan�s big solution.

Maybe the harsh Zia era was not enough. Maybe what Pakistan needs, finally, is for the Islamists to actually come to power, impose draconian edicts and provide the country with a final inoculation against excessive religiosity.

Maybe then, after suffering through medieval laws against adultery and blasphemy, ordinary Pakistanis will shed their passivity, agitate to separate the state from the tentacles of the mosque and loudly cry no to religious education in high schools, to religion lines on their passports and to rhetoric that urges them to subordinate their citizenship to their religious beliefs. Perhaps Pakistan needs a bitter pill that will forever taint this notion of the religious right being the ultimate defenders of flag and faith.

At the heart of Pakistan�s crisis is a national tendency to over-emphasize religion, whether in politics, or at home. Sure, religion can be a good thing. But this seems to be a case of too much of a good thing. It will only help if Pakistan begins a massive religious re-discovery movement, its own vernacular version of Protestantism.

But must we go down that dangerous path? Is it really not possible for people to realize what is happening to what is left of their country? Atrocities like the bombing of funerals and the usurping of freedoms from the people of Swat provide opportunities for everyone to clearly see the many evils of excessive religious zeal and of outfits like the Taliban.

Pakistan is the global epicenter of Islamic fundamentalism because of a dysfunctional political system and its fundamental challenge of being an Islamic state since its inception. Even today, there are too many in Pakistan�s upper echelons � bureaucrats, politicians, power players, journalists and intellectuals � who are uncomfortable with the prospect of secularism, modernism, growth and an open society.

Pakistan�s elites are a paradox. They are largely secular and confident in their professional and social roles. In New York and London, they announce themselves as a part of the modern world.Pakistani men and women throng Wall Street banks and the hottest Manhattan nightclubs. But in Karachi they are more guarded and cautious, and readily cow down to orthodoxy. How they change and fit their modern lifestyles into parochial Pakistan is one of the greatest exercises in hypocrisy.

But as they continue to avert their eyes, Pakistan is being overrun with cruel, medieval attitudes toward women, education, economic liberalization and modernity in general. Bringing change to Pakistan � reforming a political system and revolutionizing an entire culture � sounds like an impossible challenge. But all the mullahs in the world can�t stand up to the combined will of an agitating and determined citizenry.

There are positive signs coming from Pakistan, however. Yeh Hum Naheen � an NGO headed by producer and media consultant Waseem Mahmood � has put together a musical movement that stands up against terrorism and tells the world that the Pakistani people sing the songs of peace. They claim that more than 62 million people have put their name to the organization�s petition against terrorism, more than the number who voted in the last election in Pakistan. And as Barkha Dutt eloquently pointed out in a recent column, "Pakistan�s media understands that if it doesn�t speak up, their country�s existential crisis could spiral out of control." In light of the tremendous dangers at hand, we must concede that the media in Pakistan has done an extraordinary job, she writes.

But clearly more Pakistanis must come out on the streets to protest against the Taliban, against violence and against the murder of their own people. And for peace and dignity and friendship with their neighbours. Let them pressure their state to take action and soon enough the world will unite around their courage and share in their battle.

But if they decide to stay at home and say nothing, they will be sanctioning evil itself.

Rakesh Mani is a New York-based writer.
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