Punjab's Faith factory

Last year, while on a visit to Lahore I had to meet an industrialist at one of his factories.

The discussion between us soon drifted towards politics. Just two days before our meeting, there had been a deadly suicide bomb attack in Lahore.

It was the (thirty-something and well-dressed) gentleman who began the proceedings, but he soon said something that left me scratching my head. He asked (in Punjabi), ‘So Paracha sahib, has the situation in Karachi gotten any better?’

After realising that his question was not tongue-in-cheek, I wondered what on earth he was talking about.

Here was a man surrounded by frequent sights and sounds of devastation inflicted by rabid groups of extremists on politicians, military men, police and innocent civilians, and all he was concerned about was ‘violence in Karachi’?

‘Sir, shouldn’t you be more concerned about Lahore?’ I asked, smiling.

He failed to get my drift: ‘Paracha sahib, why don’t you people do something about the MQM?’

By now my smile had turned into a polite laughter: ‘Sir, was it the MQM or the PPP that blew up the Sufi shrine in Lahore the other day?’

‘I know you’re not so naïve, Paracha sahib,’ he said, ‘you know who is behind all these terrorist attacks…’

‘Of course, I do,’ I replied. ‘These terrorists are the same monsters whom we have been nurturing in the name of jihad all these years and …’

He let out a loud burst of laughter: ‘What sort of a media man are you, Paracha sahib. These so-called terrorists are all enemy agents!’

I knew that was coming, right on cue.

‘Well said!’ I applauded. ‘Whenever there is violence in Lahore it is blamed on anti-Islam agents, but violence in Karachi is blamed on the MQM, the PPP and the ANP? Very convenient.’

Switching back to Punjabi, the gentleman gave me a sideways grin: ‘Paracha sahib, you are a Punjabi, so I wonder why the sympathy with the MQM? Is it fear?’

I then reverted back to speaking in Punjabi: ‘Sir jee, it is not fear. It is curiosity about the mindset of the people of Punjab. We are highly intrigued about how in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is our own people who in the name of Islam, are going about blowing up mosques, shrines and markets in the Punjab, but you continue living in a make-believe world of conspiracies. But what do we, Karachiites know. We are, after all gangsters, right?’ I smiled.

A strain of slight anger suddenly cut across the gentleman’s face: ‘We are more concerned about the corruption and the scoundrels in this government.’

‘Very noble of you, sir,’ I replied.

‘Give Nawaz Sharif 5 years and he will change the fate of this country!’ he announced.

‘But sir, Mian Sahib so far only gets votes from the Punjab. And anyway, isn’t a cousin of yours a member of the PML-Q?’ I asked.

He ignored the PML-Q remark: ‘Mian sahib will sweep the next elections …’

‘…in the Punjab,’ I interrupted. ‘Is Pakistan only about the Punjab then?’

He laughed and shook his head: ‘That’s the problem with you. Punjab is blamed for everything! What sort of a Punjabi are you?’

‘Wah, Sir jee,’ I said with a smile, ‘it is fine if you go on and on about the Mohajirs, Sindhis, the Pashtuns and the Baloch, but throw up your arms in shock when someone even mentions the Punjab?’

‘We have done so much for Pakistan!’ He announced proudly.

‘Were you the only ones?’ I asked.

‘Why do you think Pakistan’s enemies are targeting the Punjab? They know its’ importance.’ He said.

‘Oh, so do we,’ I replied. ‘But we, Pakistanis, are our own enemies. Those killing their own countrymen in the name of faith, politics, greed or ideology anywhere in Pakistan, are the enemy.’

‘Faith has nothing to do with this!’ He announced, now with a sterner expression.

‘Precisely!’ I said, ‘and yet we keep calling it faith!’

By now he had lost me: ‘What do you mean?’

‘Sir, Karachiites or as you would like to call us – gangsters – believe that the Punjab does not condemn extremists enough. It is as if by doing this they feel they would be condemning faith itself, is that true?’ I asked.

‘We don’t think these extremists are even Muslim!’ He shot back.

‘Well, they say they are the best Muslims out there,’ I replied. ‘And anyway, if you think they are not Muslim, then why not condemn them the way they should be?’

‘How come you guys don’t condemn the MQM or the PPP?’ he snapped back.

‘Oh, we do,’ I retorted. ‘Just the way political parties should be criticised. But then they have yet to blow up mosques, shrines and markets, if you know what I mean.’ I replied.

‘And the PML-N does?’ He asked, raising his voice a notch.

‘Absolutely not!’ I said. ‘It just doesn’t condemn extremists the way it should, that’s all. Is it fear?’

The argument ended when his cell phone rang and he excused himself.

I said goodbye and on my way out was met by his manager who gave some going-away gifts: beautiful unstitched fabric, a nice shirt and a cardboard box.

Curious about what was in it, I opened the box in the car and found 9 slim booklets – all of them were on how to become a better Muslim. Viola!

It seems that the industrialists are getting spiritually industrious as well.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

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