By: Cyril Almeida
THE green flag of Islam was vigorously waved Friday, the government wants us to believe. But to anyone who knows anything about this place, it was really a white flag of surrender in the PPP’s hands.
That the PPP has pandered to the religious right in the hope that giving them space will make them leave everyone else alone is true from the time of ZAB. The problem is, 35 years on, the camel’s nose and much of the rest of him is already inside the tent.
Cowardice and a myopic survival instinct dictated the PPP’s decision to embrace the mobs. The thinking was fairly rudimentary, as it often is here: get on the right side of the outrage; co-opt the raging few by giving their protests an official imprimatur; after Friday, treat the matter as adequately protested; and with the government’s flanks protected thus, push back if the protesters refuse to get off the streets.
As far as the government is concerned, the Friday ruse worked.
The protests weren’t enormous, they weren’t as violent as things can get in Pakistan and the government is now insulated from accusations that it is soft on the godless US. In a situation loaded with downside risks, the government thinks it has prevented the grenade in its lap from going off.
By any other measure, it was a very stupid thing to do.
The original provocation came from outside Pakistan. In the US, in Europe, the hostility to Islam in fringe quarters is very real.
The Internet has made the dissemination of hate material all too easy. There will be, almost without any doubt, more firebombs lobbed by the crazies over there.
Friday has set a precedent here. The next time someone somewhere produces material offensive to Muslims and it gets some international traction, the state will be expected to go a step further. For the Day of Love has shifted the goalposts.
During the Danish cartoon episode, the state was expected to stand back and let the rioters vent their anger. Interfere too much and it would have meant the state was against Islam and righteous Muslims.
The on-going movie episode has established that the state needs to be proactive in channelling the rightwing’s outrage and mainstream society’s hurt.
The next episode will require a bigger gesture. An empty, meaningless gesture it will be in terms of preventing hateful content from being created and disseminated in the West, but form matters more than substance in such matters.
The problem is obvious: rage expressed against external actors has corrosive effects internally, on Pakistani society.
For the same folks out here fulminating against the US and the West want to first and foremost remake Pakistan in their own likeness. Clumsy, disorganised and disunited as they may be, the various strands of intolerance have already squeezed the space available for everyone else.
Much is made of the PPP’s pusillanimity. The mullah will never vote for them, so why appease him? Particularly when appeasing the mullah erodes the space for the PPP’s brand of politics.
But the PPP politician is already dealing with his own base being infected. A PPP leader from a part of Punjab not known for being in thrall to extremism shared an anecdote with friends recently.
A long-time supporter in the minister’s constituency came to him with a suggestion the jiyala believed was sure to guarantee the minister’s re-election. Go pay your respects to Mumtaz Qadri in prison, the PPP loyalist said.
I can’t go visit a convicted murderer, the minister replied.
The PPP worker was shocked. Qadri isn’t a murderer, he’s a hero of Islam, he said.
That is the secular and liberal PPP of 2012.
Cowardice also plays a role here. The right has its foot soldiers, ready to come out on the street and cause mayhem. Where are the moderates and how many of them will come out on the streets, the PPP leadership asks.
Except that is to turn leadership on its head. Politicians who look to the public to provide leadership have long lost the plot. But the rot is even worse.
When the idea of declaring a national holiday on Friday came up in the cabinet meeting last week, several ministers expressed their reservations. They understood exactly what giving oxygen and space to the protesters would mean.
One man who pressed hard for the holiday was said to be our very own Rehman Malik. When put on the defensive by counter arguments, Malik claimed he had intelligence that Friday would be a very bloody day and many people would die. A national holiday was a security imperative. That’s when the others relented.
Had the pressure come from the street, the government’s capitulation may have been understandable — though it would have still been hard to forgive. That the impetus came from the government’s leadership ranks while the street was still fairly quiet, and more than manageable, makes the bankruptcy at the top even worse.
The trajectory of these protests is hard to gauge at the moment. Will they sputter out in the days ahead or will some other provocation, or another surge of hate from the right, cause them to flare up again?
If it’s the latter, the government’s theory will be tested severely. For what if the protesters still mass on the roads and set out to invade embassies and attack businesses and state property?
The theory was that after the Friday sop, the government would be able to use force, even lethal force if necessary, because it has protected its flanks from accusations it is soft on hate against Muslims and Islam.
Except the Friday concession has made it that much more difficult to draw a line in the sand. For who will have the courage to order a crackdown on violent protests now, if protests do continue?
And why shouldn’t the protests continue? After all, everyone has seen the government wave the flag of surrender once.
The writer is a member of staff.