The PPP regime has done the right thing by taking the blasphemy issue to the UN in a bid to negotiate the matter with the international community
ON 22 SEPTEMBER, the mood in certain circles of Islamabad was sombre. In the words of a friend, “I wanted to tear off my clothes and run in the streets, yelling in search for what I just lost.” She wasn’t lamenting the loss of a person but the freedom and secular values that seemed to have disappeared in front of her eyes a day earlier when Islamabad and other big cities in Pakistan were held hostage by hundreds and thousands of people — all claiming to be the followers of the Prophet Mohammad.
There is no point going into the details of how the blasphemy law is so misinterpreted because to make an argument regarding diversity of perspective requires a relatively free space that allows debate, which is fast disappearing in Pakistan. Indubitably, the country is now a hybrid-theocracy inching its way towards becoming a full-blown theocracy. A hybrid-theocracy is known for a minute liberal space, accompanied with a huge space where Sharia is informally implemented or not resisted. After all, with all the fascination that a lot of people have about revolutionary Iran, Pakistan may end up becoming a theocracy through a slow and gradual process.
The liberal-secular population, which can now be counted on finger tips, was upset by what it considered as the government’s capitulation. Why did Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf have to declare a day for Ishq-e-Rasool (love of Prophet)? The rumours are that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leadership was divided on the issue and it was Interior Minister Rehman Malik who prevailed upon Ashraf to declare Friday (21 September) a public holiday for the purpose of national protest. Malik’s explanation was that he had some intelligence inputs about possible terrorist attacks in case the government did not act. But then, others would argue that it wouldn’t take a lot to convince the premier, as he is culturally and ideologically conservative. It was less than a week ago that the First Lady had attended a Jamaat-e-Islami award-giving ceremony where she wore a hijab and distributed awards in the names of people like Aafia Siddiqui (a Pakistani neuroscientist who is serving a 86-year prison sentence in the US on charges of firing on an American soldier in Afghanistan).
In many respects, 21 September was a reminder of the capitulation during the 1970s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the secular-liberal elected prime minister, had conceded the battle to religious forces and declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Indeed, opinion within the PPP was divided on declaring Friday a holiday. But then there is a government’s administrative explanation as well. The other argument is that announcing a Friday holiday at least a day in advance allowed the government to reduce the pressure on Islamabad because some of the people had left the city on Wednesday evening to go back to their homes for a long weekend.
PPP leaders had hoped to upstage the Islamists by crying louder about what had happened — in the form of the highly derogatory anti-Islam film — so that people could appreciate that the government was sensitive to how ordinary folk felt. The police, no matter what we say about it, was quite constrained and did not react as viciously as nature would have allowed them. What happened later, in the form of brutal violence by the mob, was extremely unpleasant.
What is worth noticing is the fact that smaller towns, cities and rural areas were relatively calm. People did come out in protest but they did not burn anything or harm public or private property. The locust-like crowd that stormed the capital city was perhaps meant to strike fear in the hearts of the diplomats and ordinary people. The mayhem in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi was quite convincing for all that given a chance and a nod, the rabid forces could comfortably hold the capital hostage and wreck the bigger cities as well. By marking a day of protest, the government had probably meant to stall an even greater violence.
It also makes sense that the PPP government then went to the United Nations with the request of making a law that would stop blasphemy against all prophets, especially against what Muslims hold dear. The perspective is that there should be as much sensitivity towards Islam and other religions as towards the issue of the Holocaust and Jews. Much that people would like to castigate Muslims for their acts of immaturity, it is important to find a quid pro quo between the Muslims and the rest of the world. While a lot of us are generally critical of how Muslims behave, it is important to have a legislation that stops desecration of holy relics, text and persons for a couple of reasons.
First, what has been lately happening in the western media has nothing to do with freedom of expression. It is, in fact, insulting the concept because the freedom to express oneself does not mean a deliberate effort at hurting people or hitting them where it hurts the most. It is very sad that some people tend to draw vicarious pleasure out of trying to challenge Muslims or provoke some of them to immediately start invoking jihad and declaring a fatwa against the blasphemer. It has almost become a stereotype movie plot: an act of extreme disrespect followed by a fatwa of blasphemy after which people start demonstrating and go on a rampage in their countries. The authors, cartoonists and moviemakers, on the other hand, have a field day as their substandard productions immediately get world attention and people in the West or other States clamour to protect such individuals. It is a good industry that can tempt anyone. I remember recently being told by a ‘liberal- NGO-auntie’ in Islamabad who raised a bit of a hue and cry about being threatened by the Taliban and was then packed off to Scandinavia on a fully paid holiday for three months or more. Interestingly, she was not even involved in the ‘crime’ that had caught the attention of the Taliban.
Such a tragicomedy has to stop. Surely, Muslims must introspect a lot about how they perceive the world and must rethink a lot of concepts. However, a Muslim is not a child who has to be taught to behave and needs to get used to people laughing at and making fun of all what he or she loves.
Second, starting a dialogue with the international community by the PPP government is a sane option. This is about decently drawing a line that people ought not to cross deliberately. The boundary created thus will help in finding the much-wanted space for the more sensitive and knowledgeable people who can then engage within the Muslim community to renegotiate certain principles. It is important to note that punishment for blasphemy was really a politico-military tool rather than something that is a clear order in the Quran. It is something that those interpreting the holy book and the prophet’s life have interpreted in light of their understanding and specific environment.
ACCORDING TO 2009 estimates, Muslims account for more than 1.6 billion people or 23 percent of the world population. The rest of the world has the option to treat the lot as senile and emotional. The world of Islam can also continue to use extreme options as if god ordained these. However, a saner way is to engage in a dialogue that would ultimately bring peace across the world. For those who feel jittery about any such negotiation being a conspiracy to curb freedom of speech and expression, they must be reminded that there are already existing rules to honour the sentiments of one Semitic race. Also, stopping needless provocation, which imposes a huge cost on humanity, is something seriously worth consideration.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc