Keep Talking and Keep Listening!

They say listening is more difficult than talking. But what is even harder in today's world is to communicate - an intense process of listening and talking and listening and responding........
This is a forum for people to engage in a conversation which is an art that many people don't know. Lets listen to others while maintaining the courage of conviction.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Two Dead...Twenty More to Go

I had met Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti just a couple of months ago at a dinner party hosted by the Brazilian ambassador. He did not wear the airs of a minister or a VIP, was extremely personable and friendly to talk to. When I asked him about what was happening on the blasphemy law, and whether President Asif Zardari was doing anything about it, his answer was that though the president wanted to bring the change, he was surrounded by people in his party who would not let him do it. In fact, almost a year ago, the president had invited a few civil society members and told them to keep reminding him about bringing the much-needed change in the controversial blasphemy law and improving relations with India.
Unfortunately, now it appears as though he won’t be able to fulfil any of those wishes. The death of two senior members of the government, Salman Taseer followed by Bhatti, would push Zardari further into hiding. Perhaps his insistence to the civil society to keep the pressure on him was meant to create a counter-balance to the hyper-conservative elements in his party. He wanted to show them that there was sufficient demand from the liberal civil society in the country to consider a review of the blasphemy law, which was made and implemented under General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule.
One wonders if the president realised then that Pakistan’s liberal civil society is composed of a handful of people, and is getting smaller by the day. Not too long ago, Senator Farid Paracha of the Jamaat-e-Islami had challenged a liberal Pervez Hoodbhoy on television and told him that the religious right knows exactly who this handful of liberals are. And the religious zealots are now taking the liberals down, one by one. So, if you are a liberal, better write your own obituary and keep it close for the moment when your turn comes.
Why can’t civil society fight these militant forces? There are several explanations. First, the liberal sections of society have always remained confused between social, cultural and political liberalism. Therefore, liberal poets like Fahmida Riaz, who remained in self-exile in India under Zia’s regime, consider Pervez Musharraf’s government liberal and representative of middle-class values. But does she even know that the bulk of the middle class is conservative, and many of them aid and abet jihadis and fund madarsas? She probably doesn’t even realise that her middle-class hero Musharraf had actively partnered with the jihadis while holding his glass of whiskey in the other hand.
Second, this socially liberal civil society remains confined to upper and upper-middle classes that cannot fathom the socio-political growth of the rest of Pakistan. One wonders when the liberal elite interacted with real Pakistan. They seem surprised that the heroes of middle-class urban Pakistan are people like Faisal Shahzad, Aafia Siddiqui and Mumtaz Qadri. As for the lower-class Pakistani, he/she cannot afford God, like the poor in other parts of the world. No effort was ever made to liberate the lower classes socially and politically.
Third, a shift in the trajectory of the Muslim elite at the time of Partition. Having made a country in the name of religion, the elite then abandoned the religious discourse to the mullah with whom they had an understanding, so that religion and religious slogans could be borrowed from time to time to gain legitimacy. More then 60 years after, the liberal elite has no control over the religious discourse.
At this juncture, Pakistan represents a fairly slow Iranian model. What must be watched is the bridge-building between the Deobandis, the Ahl-Hadith and the Barelvis. This may translate in the medium- to long-term into creating a hybrid-moderate-theocracy. The word “moderate” implies the presence of some liberal elements that are needed to engage with the rest of the world. But in the longer term, it could push further towards a fully theocratic state.
Lest we forget, the brutal murders of Taseer and Bhatti indicate the coming of age of Zia’s children. The bulk of educated civil society, including the media and lawyers, are tilted towards the ideological right. The judiciary is known to free murderers like the head of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other jihadi organisations because the police cannot provide evidence to convict them. In such a situation, all we need to do is begin counting the bodies. It is two gone and twenty more to go.

Are You there Mr President?

Rehman Malik has yet again scattered his pearls of illogic by imposing restriction on artists visiting India who will now have to seek a no-objection-certificate (NoC) from the ministry. Initially, it sounded as if he meant everyone visiting India. It seems so reminiscent of Zia days.
            More important, I wonder what the President has to say in his defense when he had reminded some visiting civil society members a year ago of constantly pestering him to revoke the blasphemy law and improve relations with India. Creating space in the religious discourse and improving relations with regional states is critical for Pakistan’s own growth and development. Since the end of the 1980s, every government seems to have realized this logic. Or was it a different Asif Zardari than this one who seems to have gone in hiding and so allows his interior minister to shoot himself and the entire nation in the foot? Or is it that the President is too scared to implement what he had reminded the civil society members? We know that his party is completely divided on supporting Taseer and may be in a greater fix on improving ties with India.
            Such restrictions on artists is absolutely ridiculous and gives the country an image of a state with an iron curtain just like the former Soviet Union had during the days of the Cold War with the US. A singer, an artist, a writer, poet, sculptor, or anyone who can create has a right to travel around freely. Unless the government employs these people, they are private citizens that sell certain services. It brings good name to the country when they perform abroad.
The government may or may not have any contribution in training these artists or making them famous. In any case, why should the government care about its citizen making a fool of himself or herself while they are abroad when it allows its great names like Mehdi Hassan or others to die in poverty and infamy? Lets be honest, it was only after Rahat Fateh Ali made his way to a bigger market in bollywood that he got noticed in Pakistan and outside.
            Why such show of aimless ego when the government doesn’t really care about hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis that travel or live abroad? Or will Rehman Malik impose a condition on all Pakistanis traveling abroad to seek NoC just because some are caught steeling or engaging in other crimes in other countries? After all, people are people and they may or may not engage in activities that would eventually put them in trouble or embarrass them. But they do not necessarily become the government’s responsibility. In any case, if Mr Malik is so peeved about the state’s honor and wants to regulate the behavior and personal lives of citizens, he may also look into disciplining the numerous militant organizations that create trouble abroad. This might help the state’s image more than anything else.
            The interior ministry does not even have the infrastructure and system to impose such a law. Such restrictions at best will ensure that Pakistani artists don’t get invited abroad.
The interior minister is possibly trying to make the establishment happy. But then, isn’t he supposed to get his queue from Asif Zardari? Or is it that the president himself has changed the way he used to think about peace and stability in the region and changing relations with neighbors?
            I am also reminded of Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s first visit to the UK as a foreign minister. The Pakistani high commissioner gathered a few individuals from think tanks and some journalists for a dinner meeting with the foreign minister. Later in the evening, the foreign minister rose to give his speech. He passionately spoke about his desire to make his first trip to India and improve relations with the next door neighbor. It all sounded good except that the defense, air and naval attache’s sitting on my table did not see eye to eye with Shah Mehmmod Qureshi. Clearly, their brief was different from Qureshi’s. It was not too long before SQM also started following the brief from the GHQ rather than from his party’s leadership. Now, it appears that other ministers have gone the same route. A similar restriction was introduced under Zia’s rule which was fought back and removed through the efforts of Benazir Bhutto. It would help if someone saw the illogic of the above decision.