Pity the nation

Posted on June 8, 2010 by


By Hajrah Mumtaz
Dawn, Monday, 07 Jun, 2010

The ironies we witness every day in Pakistan would have us shaking our heads were it not for the fact that they usually provoke such deep visceral dread.

Take the furore over the recent shutdown of Facebook and other websites. In Pakistan the debate framed the issue mainly in terms of either the freedom of speech or the legitimacy of government censorship. Both models, as constructed here in Pakistan, were flawed and reductionist. Let that be as it may, I wish to point out something else. The websites were shut down because many people found their content ‘blasphemous’ and hurtful to their sentiments as Muslims.

Fine. I’m willing to go with that for the moment, and indeed add that the instigator of the Facebook event can also validly be accused of religious discrimination, hate speech and incitement to violence, which are criminalised in many countries.

A few days later came the sickening attacks on the Ahmadi community in Lahore. Here verbatim are excerpts from an email sent subsequently to some individuals and organisations, including Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, if the message address field is to be believed:

“Congratulations for the whole nation. What the brave Mujahideen did yesterday in Garhi Shahu and Model Town, Lahore. […] As a whole we do like to encourage the nation for increasing this kind of activities like target killings of Qadianis, Shia, supporting political parties, Law enforcement agencies, Pakistan Army, racist parties and many more. […] We advise realistic people to take initiative and kill every that person who came in their range. There is no specific need of detonators, bombs and explosives. Just kill them either by means of just crashing them under their cars. […]”

Whether your leanings are towards the left or the right, if you’re a rational person in any way this will have set you shuddering. It’s awful, chilling and frightening. It is also hate speech, incitement to murder and violence, possibly conspiracy to commit crime (murder) and many other things viewed as criminal under the laws of the land.

Yet this email, sent by the ‘Taliban media cell’ through a web-based email account, received no attention. No one ordered the government to contact the email system’s authorities and have the address shut down. No call was made to ban or block the address. No Muslim found it repugnant to the sensibilities of either their religion or their own sense of right and wrong.

Perhaps this email did not come to the attention of either our right-minded justice system or the public. Fair enough. Nevertheless, this is just one example of criminal behaviour. One finds similar sentiments with regularity across the country’s media and academic landscape.

Television anchors have on air declared certain communities as deserving of being killed. Similar statements have been made in public rallies by rightwing people and parties. Recently, a journalist came under suspicion for having links with the Taliban. Religious seminaries print, teach and widely distribute books and pamphlets that incite hatred and violence against any number of communities, from Ahmadis and Shias to women and aid agencies.

Meanwhile, the law looks the other way. In fact, sometimes it colludes, as in the case of two banners that were up in Lahore. One was recently on Mall Road outside the Lahore High Court and translated, read: “Jews, Christians, Ahmadis are enemies of Islam.”

The other was a billboard put up last year, reportedly, for the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat. Translated, a section of it reads: “Friendship with Ahmadis is rebellion against the Prophet, peace be upon him.” City authorities did not remove this venom for fear of provoking a reaction by the extremist right.

On May 30, Zaeem Qadri, adviser to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, said in an interview on Dunya TV that the provincial government had failed to remove the threatening banners from the city’s thoroughfares in order to prevent “adverse reaction against the government” by the groups responsible.

Bombings and mass-scale massacres have become a regular feature in our country. And while they are condemned almost by routine, there are few examples of the average good Muslim standing up to say that murder and mayhem are repugnant to their religion and hurtful to the memory of and example set by the leaders of Islam. It took years for religious scholars to condemn suicide bombings as un-Islamic, despite this manifestly being the case. And it took politicians some time before they visited Ahmadi victims in hospital.

The fact is that over the years bigotry and religious discrimination have been institutionalised in Pakistan. The 1974 anti-Ahmadi amendments to the constitution are one example. Ziaul Haq’s 1984 Martial Law Ordinance XX was another move that legalised, even encouraged, the persecution of the Ahmadi community.

The blasphemy law continues to be used to target the Christian community in southern Punjab in particular, often for reasons of dispossession of land and assets. And where the laws of the land are not discriminatory in specific, the lack of reaction by law enforcers makes for the rest. Why is hate material in books, video and audio form so easily available across the country? Why are people who spew venom against others and create the social fabric that makes criminal acts not prosecuted? Why are the laws not repealed?

It could be because the mindset of bigotry and discrimination, and the violence it engenders, has been absorbed by policy formulators, justice dispensers, lawmakers and enforcers in the same manner as the rest of the citizenry. We have had, after all, at least three decades in which to steep ourselves in hatred for those who are different.

Khalil Gibran got it right: “Pity the nation that raises not its voice when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block. / Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.” — The Garden of the Prophet (1934). Except that in Pakistan’s case, it is the pity one reserves for people on death row, there as a result of their own crimes.

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