This is not about blasphemy or the honour of the Holy Prophet. This is now all about politics, about the forces of the clergy, routed in the last elections, discovering a cause on whose bandwagon they have mounted with a vengeance.
The blasphemy issue ignited by Aasia Bibi’s conviction was virtually over in November, the government making it plain that it had not the slightest intention of amending the blasphemy law, and no government figure of any consequence stepping forward to support Salmaan Taseer on the stand he had taken.
There the matter should have rested if Pakistan’s clerical armies were not masters of manipulation and cold-blooded calculation. They whipped up a storm in December, when the issue was no longer an issue, and fanned such an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred that it would have been strange if nothing terrible had happened.
There’s a danger of moaning too much. But what with the lionising of Salmaan Taseer’s killer and hailing him as a ghazi and defender of the faith, the impression is hard to shake off that what we are witnessing are the last burial rites of what remains of sanity in a Republic not particularly famous for any striking monuments to reason.
No cleric worth the name has refrained from adding fuel to the fires thus lit across the country. But if a prize has to be given to anyone, the honours will go to Pakistan’s path-breaking contributor to political gymnastics, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Professor Munawar Hasan (professor of what?...one is tempted to ask).
The Professor is a study in contrasts: soft-spoken, even beguilingly so, and possessing a keen sense of humour but, at the same time, a master of virulence and of confusion spread in the name of the faith. The 2008 elections had laid the Jamaat low. It had made the mistake of boycotting those elections and its performance in bye-elections since then has furnished further proof of its dwindling political relevance. The Jamaat’s exploitation of the blasphemy issue is an attempt to engineer a political comeback, although there’s no altering the fact that its vote-getting ability comes nowhere near its high nuisance value.
But the issue has to be faced squarely. The clerics are on the march not because they are strong but because those on the other side of the divide – the non-clerical forces – are weak, directionless and devoid of vision...without any strategy and plan of battle.
Zardari’s vision is to stay in power and further enrich his person and his family. End of story. The common belief is he has enough but, by all accounts, we are dealing with insatiable appetites. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s vision is to enrich his family. If a tenth of the stories doing the rounds are to be even tentatively believed, they are doing pretty well for themselves. Names close to the army high command are also the subject of lurid rumours.
But the problem is greater than a few names. Pakistan’s governing class as a whole has earned the distinction of being rotten and corrupt. Everyone rightly-placed is on the take. Those not so fortunate are less emblems of virtue than martyrs to opportunities absent or lost.
A leadership thus tainted, compromised by ineptitude and greed, can neither initiate reform nor reverse the tide of obscurantism now washing against the walls of the Republic.
Lest we forget, the armies of the faithful – with their fearsome beards and shaven moustaches, shalwars pulled up over ankles – have never been in power in Pakistan (the MMA’s stint as Musharraf’s co-travellers in the Frontier not really counting in this equation). What Pakistan is today, the depths it has plumbed, the failures courted, the follies assiduously pursued, have been the handiwork of its English-speaking elite classes – who wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves secular but who, for all practical purposes, represent a secularist point of view.
The mullahs have not been responsible for our various alliances with the United States; our entry into Cento and Seato; our militarist adventures vis-à-vis India; and the honing of ‘jihad’ as an instrument of strategic fallacies. This last piece of brilliance came from the army as commanded by Gen Ziaul Haq. Religious elements became willing accessories in this game but were not its inventors.
If the first Constituent Assembly lavished attention on a piece of rhetoric of no practical benefit to anyone, the Objectives Resolution, instead of writing a constitution which was its chief duty, the fault lay not so much with the clerical fathers as with the Muslim League leadership. The phrase ‘ideology of Pakistan’ was an invention of Gen Yahya Khan’s information minister, Maj Gen Nawabzada Sher Ali Khan. The central tenet of our security doctrine which sees India as an implacable foe out to undo Pakistan was woven in no madrassah or mosque but in General Headquarters, and a mindset which has been a distinguishing feature of the Punjabi elite.
Our fractured education system is a gift, paradoxically, of our English-speaking classes which have never felt the slightest need for framing a common education policy – the same books and curriculum, the same medium of education – for the entire country.
The army, a secular institution to begin with, has ruled Pakistan. The mainstream parties have been in power. Pakistan’s failures are their failures. The religious parties have been the hyenas and jackals of the hunt, yelping from the sides and helping themselves to the morsels that came their way. Lords of the hunt, lions of the pack, have been Pakistan’s generals and politicians, assisted ably at all times by a powerful and equally short-sighted mandarin class.
If the misuse of religion, the exploitation of religion for less-than-holy ends, the yoking of religion to unworthy causes – such as our never-ending adventures in Afghanistan – has poisoned the national atmosphere and narrowed the space for reasoned debate, the principal responsibility for that too lies with those who have held the reins of power in their hands. Why could they not have reversed the course of events, especially when it lay in their power to do so?
True, Gen Zia’s rule amounted to a visitation from the outer reaches of purgatory. We say he distorted Pakistan, which of course he did. But it is 22 years since his departure, time enough to have healed the wounds he caused and dismantle his legacy. But if the many temples to hypocrisy he erected survive, who is to blame? The Pakistan of today is Zia’s Pakistan not Jinnah’s. But if we have been unable to go back to our founding principles the fault lies not with the zealous armies of the bearded but Pakistan’s secular rulers, in mufti and khaki.
It is not the mullahs who frighten the ruling classes. These classes are afraid of their own shadows. And they have lost the ability, if they ever had it in the first place, to think for themselves. They live on imported ideas and the power of their own fantasies.
It is not a question of the English-speaking classes – our so-called civil society with its small candle-light vigils, usually in some upscale market – standing up to the clerical armies. This is to get the whole picture wrong. It is a question of the Pakistani state – its various institutions, its defence establishment and the creeds and fallacies held dear as articles of faith by this establishment – getting its direction right and then creating a new consensus enabling it to retreat from the paths of folly.
If the Pakistani establishment continues to see India as the enemy, keeps pouring money into an arms race it cannot afford, is afflicted by delusions of grandeur relative to Afghanistan, and remains unmindful of the economic disaster into which the country is fast slipping, we will never get a grip on the challenges we face.
The raging cleric, frothing at the mouth, is thus not the problem. He is merely a symptom of something larger. Pakistan’s problem is the delusional general and the incompetent politician and as long as this is not fixed, the holy armies of bigotry will remain on the march.