By Raza Rumi
It is perhaps too early to analyse and unpack the turbulent events of last week that shook Pakistan and alarmed the world as to its endemic instability, increasingly exacerbated by the mass radicalisation of its society. Though the grave provocation by a random, obscure amateur film-maker may have been the trigger, each segment of Pakistani polity contributed to the undoing of the façade of civilian power as well as the illusion of relative social harmony.
The civilian government capitulated way too early to an agenda set by the extremists, who not content with using the issue of blasphemy as a domestic political lever, are insistent on imposing it on the world. The ludicrous outcome of the so-called protests on what was supposed to be a day to show our love for the Holy Prophet (pbuh) was massive (but entirely avoidable) damage to human life, public and private property, and a slowing down of economic activity which cost the economy billions (in a country chasing IFIs for quick cash), and most importantly, to the future of a democracy in Pakistan.
A shameful competition ensued between political parties and religious groups and the blasphemous video stung our collective imagination. All was forgotten: the deaths of 40,000 Pakistanis at the hands of extremists, the genocide of Shias and Hazaras, the exclusion of Ahmadis from the citizenship radar and of course, the much larger issues of inequality, exploitation and a collapsing state.
Perhaps, the capitulation of the state was partly due to its inability to withstand the power and domination of extremists, carefully nurtured and consolidated by the state itself. The haplessness of Islamabad’s policemen on September 20 and 21 demonstrated how a few thousand inspired men could come extremely close to violating the essential guarantee of diplomatic immunity; central to the notion of statehood. The bitter irony was that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) would assure protection to diplomats and envoys, even if they were from hostile foreign states.
Who were these violent protesters? This is an important question to address, especially after finding out that a vast majority of people who protested on Friday remained peaceful across the country. From schoolchildren to traders and from conservative groups to moderates, most Pakistanis refrained from engaging in violence. Television footage of the protests testifies to the presence of angry and determined members of banned militant outfits such as the Jamaatud Dawa, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (rechristened for the umpteenth time into something else, but does it really matter?) and curiously, a few members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
This extreme cadre was supported by a huge number of young men and teenagers, who were in all likelihood driven by the desire to indulge in criminal looting and expressing their lack of opportunity by venting violence. The net result was the loss of around 30 lives, dozens of buildings and countless vehicles — all caused by a brazen impulse to attack the state and symbols of privilege.
The tragic burning of cinemas in Karachi and Peshawar by this lunatic fringe appeared as an attempt to close a chapter of sorts. One of the cinemas in Karachi inaugurated by Ms Fatima Jinnah (also bestowed with the title of Mother of the Nation) was also set ablaze. Cinema was to undivided India what opera was to 19th century Europe; a culmination and amalgamation of various art forms and technological advancements, shaping the sensibilities of an evolving civilisation. True, that the Pakistani film industry died before the burning of these cinemas, but the last symbols of a long-gone era were attacked and destroyed.
Singling out the political parties may be an easy route but it is a simplistic approach. The self-righteous media became an active participant of this major rupture of Pakistani society. Days before this mayhem unfolded, the media — almost through a tacit consensus — had set the stage for a collective expression of irrationality and covert condoning of violence. By relaying messages of murder — without a trial — to avenge the American film-maker, and by spinning a multitude of conspiracies against the Islamic faith, it only fuelled misled passions. It became rather ludicrous when the US government had to finance expensive advertisements on national TV to broadcast to audiences in Pakistan that the US government had nothing to do with the blasphemous video and that it deeply regretted its production. Some say it was an exercise in futility, for the media discourse had established links between the demented act of individuals and the American state; as well as to the impending presidential election in the US.
Questions, however, remain unanswered as to why the US government did not ‘do more’ with respect to the film on the Internet, considering that it has screened and managed online content in the past. To beat the drum of free expression after the loss of its innocent diplomats and the blazing Arab street was simply intriguing. Of course, there is no clear legal mechanism for Pakistanis to impose their will on the global Internet, but Western countries should not have abandoned caution altogether. After all, why is vilification of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) turning into a touchstone of free speech? There may be no method to this madness but to an aggrieved, weaker and strife-ridden Muslim world — if one can take the liberty of generalising in such a manner — the US state’s behaviour appears to be that of an aggressor.
Nothing justifies violence and, more critically, self-harm. Instead of bashing the world, I am more worried about what is happening to the society in which I live, and where I want my children to grow up. The Pakistani state has very little time left to reorient its strategic worldview and its overarching paradigm of pursuing an ambitious, expansionist regional policy by using extremists as convenient proxies and promoting extremism as the only version of a nationalist discourse.
The militants had not reached the gates of the Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad; they have already visited the GHQ, various naval and air bases, and they are gradually making inroads into the minds of those who operate the state.
A critical choice to survive awaits us all.