A long night of terror - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, December 19, 2010

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

A time will surely come when we – those of us who will survive or live long enough – will recall this period with some disbelief that our country could have been held hostage to irrational fanaticism and suicidal militancy for so long.

What is not certain, however, is the price we will have paid to ultimately find our place in the modern world as an open, knowledge-based and tolerant society. Until then, of course, we will have to suffer the present disposition of the establishment as it exploits religion and imposes its own version of what is defined as national security.

This also means that at least until the near future, this establishment would maintain its hold on our destiny to the detriment of a meaningful expansion in democratic and liberal values. And this week has provided some reminders of the wayward course we have traversed so far. In a sense, the mood was set by dark apprehensions of sectarian terrorism during the Ashura observances and by unprecedented security arrangements prompted by the memories of last year’s Ashura bomb blasts in Karachi.

Thursday was the sixteenth of December, an anniversary that has crossed our path thirty-nine times – and every time we have collectively felt afraid of understanding its significance in our historical experience. It is true that the media, almost ritualistically, remembers the date and its ignominious events in the year 1971. The question raised always is: what are the lessons of the fall of Dhaka? Still, it does not seem to reverberate in the minds of our rulers, particularly the military establishment.

This perilous aversion to learning from history or even being aware of the direction in which history is pushing this globalised world has led us to our present state of affairs. The month of Muharram is itself a good illustration of some of our fundamental predicaments. We invoke Islam in all our affairs. When we insist that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam, the obvious justification is that it is the cement that binds us together.

Ah, but hasn’t the induction of religion in politics manifestly been divisive? Just look at how Ashura was observed in Pakistan. The entire security apparatus of the country was invested in ensuring that no sectarian terrorism takes place. Streets were blocked. Armed and uniformed men, with armoured vehicles, were everywhere. Citizens who wanted to join a gathering or a procession had to be checked. Consider the entire scene. Is it not a portrayal of a country at war with itself?

For the past few years, I have been nostalgic for the Muharram of Karachi in not too distant a past. We had to wait with anticipation for the night of the ninth of Muharram for our nocturnal forays into the old town, Kharadar and Mithadar. Our two daughters used to be more enthusiastic than us and this was one of my secret tourist attractions. It used to be such a lively and animated world of communal harmony and community participation.

You may locate some poetic relevance in the thought that it was this locality in which Mohammad Ali Jinnah was born. Wasn’t he himself a Shia? And to go very far back into history, sectarian harmony was the hallmark of the golden period of the Mughals. Not just sectarian but religious harmony across the empire. My point is that this sub-continent had become a sanctuary for Muslims who migrated in those times from both, Turkey and Iran.

Incidentally, in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Amartya Sen has focused on public debate and intellectual pluralism in his country’s history and identity. He finds the roots of this identity in the age of Akbar, the great Mughal. Let us try and achieve some consensus on the identity of Pakistan without being compelled to disown the legacy of, say, Sir Syed, Iqbal and Jinnah. Or should we leave it to the likes of Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi to recreate this nation in the image of their essentially intolerant and extremist vision?

This brings me to another symbolically significant event. On Wednesday, a number of political and religious parties announced the launching of their campaign to protect the blasphemy law. They called for country-wide protest demonstrations on December 24 – on the eve of the Quaid’s birth anniversary – and a ‘shutter-down’ strike on December 31.

It would be worthwhile to consider the circumstances in which our religious leaders are trying to provoke ordinary citizens over a very emotive issue. There was the case of a poor Christian woman who was sentenced to death by a lower court in Nankana on a charge of blasphemy. It led to a protest by human rights activists who underlined the cases in which the law was used to settle personal disputes and how it was also used to whip up mob violence in which a number of individuals were lynched.

Another focus was provided by the PPP MNA Sherry Rehman when she submitted a private member bill to the national assembly secretariat to seek some changes in the law so that it could not be misused.

Now, it should be noted that the decision to launch a movement was announced on Wednesday by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the JUI-F, who has just taken his party out of the federal cabinet. But some more ominous aspects of Wednesday’s Namoos-e-Risalat conference that was held in Islamabad were highlighted in a report published in an English daily on Friday. Its heading: ‘Banned groups being guided back into mainstream?’

This report pointed towards the presence in the conference of Hafiz Saeed of Jamaatud Dawa and Maulana Ludhianvi of a party that was formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba. Both these leaders delivered fiery speeches. The report began with the assertion that “the Jamaatud Dawa, a controversial religious organisation which had hitherto kept its focus on Kashmir and the ongoing militant movement in the Indian-held valley, has decided to enter Pakistani politics”.

Finally, let me also refer to a news analysis by Azhar Abbas that was published in this newspaper on Thursday with the heading: ‘A tactical move or the main strategy?’ It related to the publication of the fake Wikileaks story, a subject of my comment in this space last week, and posed this question at the outset: “Is it a case of an honest mistake, overzealousness on the part of the writer, or a calculated plant by a section of our establishment?”

So many questions are obviously prompted by these developments. The real issue is whether the establishment is serious in dealing with the clear and present danger of religious extremism. There are observers who decipher a dangerous trend of systematic sponsorship of extremism by the establishment. It seems like we may have to wait out a long night of terror.

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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