AN INSTRUCTIVE ABSURDITY
Much has been written about the Theatre of the Absurd in Islamabad on the Ides of January. I wouldn’t dignify it with comment on the agenda, the proceedings, the success or the lack of it. But I am interested in examining how it could have happened, with the support of the many thousands who braved the cold and the rain and stood their ground. Hope is a great thing. What drove the many to Islamabad in the face of security threats under the grey skies was hope. But what makes it ironic and poignant is how unworthy was that which they pinned their dreams and expectations to.
But when deprivation, helplessness, desperation beat hope up to a frenzied furore, and when you add to this the ignorance and gullibility of the average Pakistani, you have what you saw in Islamabad: men women and children risking all to lend strength to a controversial cult figure ensconced in his well-furnished mobile cabin crying hoarse about justice while the devotees that had made his absurd drama happen shivered in the cold in the open, given the ever-present fragile security situation in this country.
While the parallel with how the Lal Masjid crisis was brutally dealt with brings out the merits of democracy- any democracy, even as bad as this one- there are other lessons to be learnt. With crowds cheering to the sensational rhetoric emerging from the Hallowed Container, I wondered why the many far less controversial veteran Islamic scholars that have lived and died in this country, could never manage to call the shots or muster up a following as large or as willing to brave the billows to rally to their leader’s call. Yeats wrote: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.’
There are lessons to be learnt by Islamically inclined leaders and organizations. Qadri’s inclusive appeal, his embrace of diversity and reaching out to minority groups and sects has been clearly articulated. In the wake of 9/11, his masterstroke was in managing to emerge as one of the few voices from this part of the world categorically rejecting extremism and the Taliban’s misuse of religion to justify violence. The voluminous treatises on tolerance in Islam, virtues of non violence and the fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombings was an instant hit for the very fact that it was presented from this part of the world by a beard-sporting individual in religious headgear, when others of the kind busied themselves criticising US policies solely and exclusively, deflecting criticism away from the malaise within. The international acclaim and support he has garnered is something to speak of.
One can compare this to the fact that many religious groups and individuals had in this time produced article after article and delivered sermon after sermon almost entirely focused on refuting deviant innovative practices among other sects, democracy as a kufr-based system and the media as a vicious propaganda-machine. Islamic institutions produced work on the intricacies of theology, the curse of nationalism and the need for ruling by Islam, all in a language and manner that relates little to the average Pakistani Muslim. When the nation was beset with challenges to its very integrity and survival at the hands of those operating in the name of Islam, Islamic scholars busied themselves in traditional theological discourse, occasionally issuing fiery critique of American policy and the Zionist and secular lobby. Few voices rose to reject the rise of extremist religiosity that took up violence against non combatants and had the audacity to sanctify it in the name of Islam. Few voices reached out to the public confused between the extremist and the secular-liberal discourse, seeking a satisfying, middling narrative. Few addressed with precision and clarity the problems of the mass-man. Few addressed growing concerns in the rest of the world about violence in the name of Islam on the rise in this part of the world. It is a fundamental principle of conventional morality that self-criticism is nobler. By failing to rise to the occasion, they have reduced themselves to utter irrelevance, ceding ground to ambitious opportunists wearing the ravishing guise of religiosity like Qadri in a nation peopled by the religiously sentimental semi-educated and illiterate.
And this brings us to the most vital point- in the final analysis, the grandiose Theatre of the Absurd in Islamabad highlights like never before the fact that the greatest challenge we confront is the ignorance and lack of awareness among the common man- and this threatens to make a mockery of our still nascent democracy. It reduces a nation of 180 million to slogan-chanting, gullible, hero-worshipping rabble taken in with whoever can play the Promised Messiah best. And as long as we do not take on this enemy within, demagogues and those practised in the art of publicity-seeking theatrics will continue to claim attention they do not merit- by the sheer numbers of their ignorant, juvenile, emotionally charged and intellectually naive fan-following.