A blood-dimmed tide - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, January 09, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

Shaken by the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in a high-end market in Islamabad on the fourth day of the New Year, many of us have been struggling to contend with the message that it bears for the future of Pakistan. And it is not just the brutality of that murder most foul that disturbs the mind. What has followed in the abject display of admiration for the murderer and the response of so many religious leaders presents a dreadful portrait of our society.

Logically, the assassination and its aftermath should have compelled our rulers to reflect on the existing state of affairs and make an attempt to understand the implications of this obvious surge in religious extremism and intolerance. I keep wondering about what our military leaders would be thinking about this situation, considering that they have to bear some responsibility for promoting and protecting this trend. What, for instance, are the thoughts of our erudite chief of the army staff? Is the military top brass engaged in any serious appraisal of a situation that has a bearing on our national security?

We may also refer to the ability of our politicians to comprehend and then deal with the challenges that Salmaan Taseer’s assassination has posed to the survival of a democratic system that is rooted in the freedom of thought and expression and in the cultivation of an environment in which rational debate is possible. But, ah, they seem rather powerless in shaping our national priorities. We know where the levers of power are located and who calls the shots when the chips are down.

Also, the politicians must dance to the tune of popular opinion and in the absence of any concerted efforts to educate or enlighten the populace, the clandestinely empowered Islamists, though still devoid of majority support, are able to intimidate even the supposedly liberal and democratic parties. The manner in which the Pakistan People’s Party has sought to camouflage the meaning and the significance of Salmaan Taseer’s admittedly courageous stance is a plot that would be fitting for a Greek tragedy. Even otherwise, the quality of governance and the propensity for corruption that our political rulers have demonstrated is in itself a tragic tale.

There is this intriguing attempt to ignore the antagonistic social division that the event has brought into a sharp focus, in spite of the fact that political parties of the ilk of the PPP, ANP and the MQM are morally bound to confront socially regressive and bigoted elements in society. In fact, the repeated policies of appeasement by our rulers have led us to the brink of disaster. This process, sadly, was launched by the founder of the PPP.

Anyhow, now that we are perched on the very edge of the precipice, what is to be done to salvage the option of creating a liberal, socially plural, egalitarian and democratic polity in Pakistan? This question is to be posed with the presumption that our ‘establishment’ has nurtured some factions of religious extremists – the so-called assets – only for tactical purposes and that it still believes in a Pakistan that keeps pace with the modern world and is mindful of the natural aspirations of the people of this country for peace and economic development.

A forbidding thought comes to mind: does the ‘establishment’ have the necessary intellectual resources to be able to understand the crisis of Pakistan with an open mind and in the light of historical and contemporary realities? As individuals, we may safely presume, many senior functionaries would have doubts about policies that have led to our present impasse. Perhaps the social divide that has acquired a deadly dimension at this time also pervades the higher levels of the establishment. What matters, however, is its collective mind and its deep-rooted biases – so deep-rooted that some major shifts in domestic and regional affairs have apparently not touched the contours of our national security policies.

What has happened in the wake of the murder of Salmaan Taseer is alarming in the specific context of the range of intolerance and extremism in Pakistan. We were always aware of the fundamental divide between the liberal and the orthodox, militant forces. We were also conscious of the fact that a rational dialogue between the two sides was difficult because of intolerance and prevalence of violence in society. Still, what we have now is devastating in its possible consequences.

When the floods came some months ago, we were astonished to see the deprivations of those who had been herded into relief camps. It was a kind of revelation. A similar revelation about the dominance of obscurantism in our society has now hit us. So much so that a cloud of fear has descended across the land, leaving so many liberate and moderate people to wonder if Pakistan is their country, too. The issue is not whether this country is safe for democracy. Also threatened is the culture of civility and human values and open-minded discourse.

Obviously, this is a situation that should readily attract the attention of our rulers, including the elected ones. Even though the blasphemy law has become an urgent point of reference, the basic issue is the surge in religious extremism and intolerance. Is this not an existential threat to the survival of Pakistan? And how can we deal with this threat?

Looking at it from another angle, it seems that the problem is not so much the rise of extremism as it is the continuing decline in our intellectual and humanistic values. Our social indicators remain very dismal. The scope for cultural and artistic creativity as well as appreciation is shrinking. The mass media, catering to the lowest common denominator, is reinforcing this trend. In the first place, we cannot provide universal primary education. Then, the ones who are able to go to school do not acquire any meaningful education. Our educational institutions do not encourage learning in its real sense.

To return to what I said at the outset, shouldn’t our military leaders who seem to have a veto power in defining our national sense of direction, be worried about this state of affairs? Can they not collaborate with our civilian rulers to at least make a serious review of what is happening to this country in its immortal yearning for peace and social justice?

The point is that the present drift is frightening in its potential to subvert the initial vision of Pakistan as a modern, moderate and democratic country. The political scene, too, is promoting instability and social discord. Against this flaming backdrop, the impression that any one who has the courage of his convictions is very likely to be silenced would tend to suppress the very spirit of resistance to forces of death and destruction.

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

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