Monday, January 10, 2011

Pakistan Governor's Assassination/Blasphemy issue


Maryam Sakeenah

‘What a great man, a liberal, a proponent of culture, youth, minorities and womens rights, an enemy of extremism... rest in peace, governor’ read a friend’s facebook status after the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. On the other side is the sentiment of celebration in the streets of my city. There are attempts to venerate the killer by some and there are attempts to venerate the killed by others_ both members of a dangerously polarized society. The rift gapes and it is hard to hold one’s balance when one is swayed by passions to take sides.

In times when everyone loves to hold judgemental, absolute opinions and slap verdicts in a pitiful ignorance, I shrink from taking sides, I withdraw from the tussle in a phenomenon far too complex, far too enormous. I refuse to help make the split gape wider till it swallows us all up. I just feel saddened, crushed under realizations, lessons, harsh realities and smothered by blatant lies. I feel the tragedy of the times, and I crave a private space that no judgements, opinions and verdicts can obtrude, a point of focus where I can see without tainted glasses, reflect and understand what went wrong, how we messed it all up. For before laying the axe on the poison tree, the roots must be looked to.

It is a common but grave error to dissociate the tragedy from the context it is rooted in_ from a centuries old history of struggles, promises, betrayals and disappointments, from laws and revisions and decisions and divisions_ it’s a long story. As a culmination of a centuries old epic strive, sixty four years ago we embarked on a journey with a clear direction that promised rosier skies: “It is my belief that our salvation lies in following the golden rules of conduct set for us by our great law-giver, Prophet Mohammad (SAW) of Islam. Let us lay the foundations of our democracy on the basis of true Islamic ideals and principles.” (M.A Jinnah, speaking at Sibi, February 14, 1948)

And then we became all selfish, forgetful, myopic_ a minority of a privileged, empowered few held hostage a majority that still awaited the fulfilment of the Promise. We slipped off mark, messed up, and failed it. The minority kept making fortunes and ensuring they remained in command, generation after generation.

And then things turned uglier still. Bombs rained down on innocents at the command of the U.S not by an enemy but defenders of the soil. And then the bombs began to come from the enraged, dehumanized monster from among ourselves that we had tried to kill off. And we began to talk of having been all wrong about who we really were at the very outset. But the people had not recovered from the dream and promise of the struggle for a homeland back in the 1940s. Promises and dearly held Ideals are not forgotten, for they reside in the heart_ just like faith. It cannot be extricated. Ever. Not with all the might of privileged and ‘enlightened’ minorities who send their sons to study abroad and go vacationing to exotic beaches.

The secular-liberal minority was gradually and systematically empowered and celebrated by the state and its media. The majority however silently seethed as death was decreed for innocents for the interests of the ‘most powerful country on earth’, forgetting that there still was the All-Powerful by Whose decree all innocent life is sacred. Decisions were made in the thick of the night to launch crackdowns and onslaughts in Pakistan’s tribal belt without bothering to seek public approval, without even allowing the people to know in what manner and by whose hidden hand their fates were being rewritten. Decisions were made to rain death on unarmed women and minor students in the heart of the capital in a relentless, bloody state-ordered assault as the silenced majority stared in disbelief and horror. The wounds festered.

Crushed by poverty, illiteracy, injustice and ignorance the ordinary clung on with all his pent up passions to what none could extort_ an ancient faith that defined him, dignified him, elevated him and told him who he was.

In a country where millions suffer while governments busy themselves piling up personal fortunes while trampling over others’ rights; where justice is elusive, delayed or denied, the anger is bound to explode in ugly ways. It is simplistic to condemn isolated instances of such exploding anger and frustration, for it is all part of a bigger picture, all a predictable consequence of a vicious cycle.

I do not endorse what was done, but I try to make sense of it, and I dare to understand_ for there is method in the madness and our failure to see it for what it is, prolongs it.

In a Q and A session with the late governor at Government College University Lahore barely days before his murder, the questions raised by students reflected the sentiment of an increasingly restive majority. A questioner asked why the governor had chosen to personally visit and show sympathy in public to a woman who had confessed to and been convicted for blasphemy while thousands continue to suffer injustices and thousands are killed unmourned in drone strikes in a country that calls itself sovereign. The question mirrors powerfully a strong sense of injustice that the large majority in the country very strongly feels. There were also comments emphasizing the divinely ordained character of the blasphemy laws. It affords a glimpse into the passionate adherence by the large majority, to the faith they have lived by for centuries, and how much it still is, as always, a matter of the heart. To then make reckless and repeated remarks playing down the letter and spirit of the law that ostensibly protects the sanctity of the beloved Prophet (SAW) of Islam is hitting below the belt. It shows an utter lack of sensitivity to the deepest fidelities of the people who, as democracy dictates, are the fountainhead of political power.

Reverence to the Prophet (SAW) is a bedrock of the Muslim faith. The person of the Prophet (SAW) embodies the best in human nature, the highest and most sacred values, the zenith of humanly attainable character and potential. Spiritual devotion, love and adoration is directed to him as an essential and integral part of faith by all schools of thought and sects unanimously. It is a point all shades of opinion within Muslim society stand together upon. The reprehensibility and criminality of blasphemy and its punishability by nothing short of death is an established canon of Islamic law about which no two opinions exist. The requirements for carrying out such a sentence, however, are to be fulfilled with utmost caution and justice, and anything that allows for misuse be done away with through legal amendment and reform.

I understand too that the assassination also reflects the intolerance among us of differing opinions. For, criticism of a law derived from Quranic directives by human interpretation has to be tolerated, and discussion allowed. It is a mark not only of a civilized society, but a hallmark of the stringent justice system that is part of a faith that lays down: ‘O you who believe! Be you staunch in justice’ (The Noble Quran, 4:135), and “take not life, which Allah has made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus does He command you, that you may learn wisdom.” (The Noble Quran, 6: 151). I also know of stringent legal procedures and requirements that must be fulfilled before considering a person guilty, and that this is to be settled in courts of law, not on the public street by the barrel of a gun. That is what my books, my teachers and my study of religious texts has enlightened me with. The mass-man living from hand to mouth does not have the luxury. A rotting, oppressive system has dehumanized him and rendered him incapable of the ethical behaviour we would like to see around us. His barbarity may be condemnable, but it is also understandable as a symptom of a society at war with itself.

The deep rift in Pakistani society over issues integral to our very identity and existence bodes ill for the future. The only way to stop our descent into abysmal darkness is to begin the healing which will come through understanding rather than ‘othering’, sympathy and sensitivity to ground realities. We have to rise above personal prejudices. The basic lesson is to understand that attempting to impose a secular agenda on an overwhelmingly conservative Muslim population is self-defeating, undemocratic, foolish, wrong, dangerous. The rift shows the gap in the two worlds that exist side by side in Pakistan: the privileged elite monopolizing power at all levels influenced by Western secular liberalism, and the majority that fights a daily battle to survive and still dreams of the fulfilment of the promise on which Pakistan was demanded: to live in a fairer system under the laws of Islam.

The rift will not be bridged except by revamping the education system that engenders mutually contradictory mindsets and making values and ethics enunciated by the religion of the vast majority of the people central to education at all levels. It is only these values that will both liberate the madrassa-goer from obscurantist and extremist interpretation of religion and the liberal-fascist from reviling the letter and spirit of religious law. The rift will not be bridged until we begin to be and to value who we really are and build on the original objectives to direct our national journey:

“1. Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone but He has delegated it to the State of Pakistan through its people for being exercised within the limits prescribed by Him as a sacred trust.

2. The State shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people.

3. The principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed.

4. Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teachings of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

5. Adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures.

6. Pakistan shall be a federation.

7. Fundamental rights shall be guaranteed.

8. The Judiciary shall be independent.”

(Articles of the Objectives Resolution passed by Pakistan’s constituent assembly as a guideline for constitution-making in the future, 1949)

Appeals to shun Pakistan’s Islamic ethos and go secular are now undisguised and unabashed in a country with an overwhelmingly conservative religious majority; in a country whose genesis was a promise to enable its citizens to live by the Code of Islam; in a nation whose history is rich with narratives of heroic struggle in the way of faith and whose literature is infused with passion for an ideal springing out of faith. When we talk of switching to a secular identity and breaking free from our deep Islamic roots, we reflect a disregard of democratic principles, an unawareness of history and even of human nature. We show an inhuman insensitivity_ reeking of our stubborn prejudices_ to the most precious sentiments and the highest aspirations of our fellow countrymen, our brothers and sisters in humanity.