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The Flickering Flame

Pakistan’s liberals are fleeing the country in fear or being forced into silence

The Flickering Flame
AFP (From Outlook, January 31, 2011)
The Flickering Flame
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

When Omer announced he had completed his master’s degree from a university in London and wished to return home to Karachi, his father Rahim Khan, a senior government official, should have marvelled at his luck. After all, only a minuscule percentage of boys from the subcontinent ever return to their country from studies abroad. Contrary to expectations, Rahim was dismayed, promptly advising his only son to enrol for another course or grab a job, to do anything he could to extend his visa there. Rahim explained his decision to Outlook, “He will have no future in a city where you can’t be sure of returning home alive in the evening.”

“The liberal-minded people are thinking of leaving the country. The liberal space will shrink even further.”
Ayesha Siddiqa, Author

It isn’t just those from the rich, western-educated class who have made it their habit to take a flight out of Pakistan, often for good. Months ago, Allama Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, a leading religious scholar, decided to make Dubai his home, so weary was he of the repeated threats from the obscurantists livid at his moderate interpretation of Islam. Marred by continuing ethnic strife, the once-liberal city of Karachi has also undergone rampant Talibanisation, goading the rich to make a beeline for safer climes abroad. This exodus prompted columnist Kamran Shafi to recently write about the “darkened homes in Karachi where the inmates have flown to alternative ‘nests’ in Canada, England and Malaysia”.

For long, Pakistan has seen its people migrate for reasons as varied as better economic prospects to hopes of escaping political discrimination and the state’s inability to provide protection from murderous gangs scouring the land with impunity. Whoever from the minority groups of Hindus and Christians can leave the country, does so at the first opportunity. Joining them in droves in recent times have been those from the Ahmedia sect, which is deemed non-Muslim under law. A significant percentage of the exodus comprises businessmen, often the target of kidnapping and extortion. Pakistanis have always asked themselves: should we leave the country or stay behind?

“Unable to capture the national and provincial assemblies, they want to influence policy by working the streets.”
Dr Rasul Bakhsh, Academic

This question has again become a subject of fervent debate from the time Punjab governor Salman Taseer was gunned down and the shocking feting of his assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who was outraged by his victim’s support for amending the blasphemy law. For someone to be killed for an opinion, an idea, has jolted Pakistanis into reflecting over their journey backward—from liberating progressivism to stifling conservatism. Recalls journalist Adnan Rehmat, “In the ’60s and ’70s, you could even eat at restaurants during Ramadan and see women in saris and bell-bottoms in the bazaars. Burqas and beards were a rare sight.” The socio-cultural transformation has prompted many Pakistanis to think of emigrating. This sentiment was articulated last week in the Dairy of a Social Butterfly, a popular satirical column of the Friday Times. The Butterfly’s husband, Janoo, tells her why they should quit the country, “Tomorrow, someone could pass a fatwa against you for not covering your head. And when a grinning bearded murderer guns you down, lawyers will come and shower him with rose petals.”

But the issue of leaving Pakistan isn’t a laughing matter. Says author Ayesha Siddiqa, “It’s true, the liberal-minded people are thinking of leaving the country. The liberal space will shrink even further.” Adds Moneeza Hashmi, president of the British Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, “To give up in my opinion is akin to a slow spiritual, moral and intellectual death. It’s the death of a thinking, conscious mind.” A pensive Hashmi, who is the cousin of Taseer and daughter of the celebrated poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ponders aloud: “How do I keep that mind alive—that is the dilemma for me. By remaining silent or standing up to be counted? I’m still struggling with that decision.”

“Should I remain silent or stand up to be counted? I’m struggling to take a decision.”
Moneeza Hashmi, Broadcaster

Perhaps it has become difficult to live in Pakistan because the extremists, at least ostensibly, have swamped the liberals, whose voices are muted. For instance, blogs in support of Qadri easily outnumber those writing in support of Taseer’s ideals. Anti-blasphemy law protests draw a few hundred in contrast to the passionate thousands who throng rallies against attempts to change it. Not only is the space for liberals shrinking, there’s no attempt to check the rapid erosion.

Siddiqa feels the liberals are partly to blame for their plight. As she says, “The urban, educated segment of our society has sadly ghettoised itself, it isn’t aware of how society behaves, and doesn’t participate in religious discourse.” A vital constituent element of the Pakistani nation-state is religion, which the liberals either don’t practise or treat as a personal issue. This has enabled the mullah to hijack the religious discourse, says Siddiqa, arguing, “It’s time the other side sees us as ‘worshipping liberals’.”


Islamists with posters in praise of Qadri, Taseer’s killer

The rank of extremists has swelled up also because the government has been shy in combating them, ideologically as also legally. For instance, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has gone hoarse assuring the Islamists that the blasphemy law won’t be amended. Emboldened, the Islamists now want a law guaranteeing that. Pakistanis were shocked at the visuals of President Asif Ali Zardari attending the funeral ceremony of special envoy Richard Holbrooke in the United States, but meekly absenting himself from the burial of Taseer, counted among his close confidants. Earlier, the government hadn’t even cared to counter the threats issued to Taseer when he publicly denounced the blasphemy law. And now, the interior ministry has advised Sherry Rehman, who has moved a bill in the National Assembly to debate the misuse of the blasphemy law, to leave the country for her own safety.

“They’re armed, we’re not. They’ve nothing to lose. They fight for their faith with bullets. We’re not ready to die.”
Rehana Hakim, Editor, Newsline

The state’s timid response to the challenge from Islamists prompts award-winning journalist Zofeen Ebrahim to say, “The way the authorities cower before the religio-political parties has taken away what little confidence I had in our struggling democracy. It pains me to see how the mullah element is being allowed to lead the masses astray causing fitna (chaos). This is going to have serious repercussions.” The government is timid, says historian Dr Dushka Saiyid, because it’s too morally corrupt to take a position on a contentious issue. “You have to be incorruptible to take a position. We have defaulted on education. Society changes with education,” says Saiyid, advocating a universal curriculum for all students to foster a common mindset.

The state’s feeble response to the Islamists is particularly inexplicable as the religious parties command a thin slice of the popular vote in Pakistan. Unable to capture the national and provincial assemblies, says Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, they want to influence policies by working the streets, gathering people in thousands and breathing fire. “Add to them the religious elements in the media and the middle class in urban areas. They toe the line of religious parties.”

Rais, in a way, echoes former president Pervez Musharraf, who used to say the ‘silent majority’ of Pakistan supports ‘enlightened moderation’. But human rights activist Tahera Abdullah differs, “We Pakistani moderates and progressives now view ourselves as the silent minority. Those of us who speak out and appear in public protest rallies and candlelight vigils are a tiny fraction compared to the vociferous mullah brigade rampaging down the streets each Friday.”

The feeble response of the state to the Islamists is inexplicable. Religious parties command a thin slice of popular vote.

Perhaps the moderates have been overshadowed because their politics eschews certain options. Argues Rehana Hakim, editor, Newsline magazine, “They’re fearless. We’re not ready to die. They’re armed, we’re not. They have nothing to lose, they’re brainwashed and motivated, they fight for their faith with bullets. We face a dearth of leadership, the civil society is scattered, there’s no continuity in our demands.”

So demoralised are the moderates that it takes Olaf Kellerhoff, resident representative of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, a German organisation, to show them how to ideologically combat the Islamists. In an exquisitely produced calendar, Olaf has conveyed the soul of moderate Pakistan through photos of Sufi shrines and quotes from the Quran, Allama Iqbal’s poetry and Jinnah’s speeches. “Tolerance and multiculturalism was and is there but people have to be reminded about it. I as a foreigner appreciate the country’s culture,” he says.

But the debate over effective strategies to combat Islamists will have to wait till the moderates and liberals foreclose the option of leaving the country. Hashmi, for one, is willing to stay back and fight because she knows of no other country where she can live. “Where are the voices of sanity, of the moderate Pakistan, of its civil society? If we stay silent, we lose. If we speak up, we get gunned down.” Some choice that, but then liberals and moderates in any society haven’t carved out a space for themselves without a fight, without paying a price.


In the print version, Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung was described as a non-profit organisation. Edited on website Jan 22, 19:30-- Web Ed.

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