Deafening Silence

Spearhead Opinion – 15.02.2017

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Despite recent trends in legislation and public opinion, one still assumes, in keeping with the commandments on which the republic was founded, that we believe in human liberty. And for the development of an individual, and the progress of a community, a considerable degree of freedom is crucial. While certain restrictions may become necessary to ensure the welfare of the adolescent and the adult, with the burden of proof lying on those who restrict, in Pakistan’s case these strictures have often come forth as poorly thought out reactions by a paranoid state looking to either appease certain groups or to create a smoke screen to curb dissent and accountability.

As disclosed by the publishers of ‘Khabaristan Times’, a satirical website poking fun at state and society, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the website allegedly due to ‘unspecified, objectionable content’. ‘Maalik’, a movie that projected politicians in a poor light and glorified the military met the same fate. Politically motivated bans on free media and political dissent have been a reality of the Pakistani political scene, where many are forced to believe that these liberal voices clash with, and question the Pakistani identity, and somehow threaten the existence of the country and the doctrine it was built upon.

The silencing of these liberal, progressive voices creates space for those that are on the opposite stratum – voices that are dangerous in the way they clamor. These voices are least concerned with the socio-economic, and political development of the country, and more with the protection of Pakistan’s recently acquired ‘religious’ identity that first took root in the 70s, so much so that the Pakistani identity is now synonymous with a religious identity.

This works well for both parties in power: the bastions of Islam, and the government. With politics and priorities steered in the direction of religion, religious groups and clerics benefit through their accumulation and rise to power; the government, dodging responsibilities in the spheres of education, economy, and overall social and political upheaval, also avoids the question of why they can’t stay true to their promises – with the public fixated on religion. This paves way for extremists and the likes – all propagators of hate, and a polarized society along religious lines – who are given space and screen time in the Pakistani narrative, whereas, rational voices are muzzled.

But with governments openly creating avenues for violent outfits, and legitimizing their actions by adopting a good vs. bad terrorist position, and focusing on the distinctions between sectarian organizations and terrorist organizations to justify the existence of the former, it fails to understand the real problem – that Pakistan’s disposition is slowly being altered for the worse. Intolerance, with the absence of rational liberal voices, is breathing down our necks not just in the big picture where terrorist organizations and their facilitators exist, but in the way the society sees things on a basic civilian-to-civilian level. 

Freedom from Illusion

While there are many instances of minorities being on the receiving end of things, and lynching’s, and blasphemy allegations going out of control, in a recent example, a Lal Masjid linked group, ‘Civil Society of Pakistan’, filed an application for the registration of blasphemy cases against the bloggers that went missing in January, despite the fact that none of the bloggers posted any anti-religious content on their pages, and stuck to socio-political issues. It is interesting to note that these rumors could be based on many reasons, out of which three come to mind. First, that political dissent and disagreeing with the state’s handling of issues like the Balochistan issue is equated with being rebellious, and hence falling in the same category as a blasphemer. Second, that any liberal voice is considered to be clashing with religion. And third, that this campaign was carried out to justify the disappearance of the bloggers, and to silence voices standing up against their victimization.

The fact that the family of one blogger had to reiterate its faith in Islam, and that the disappearance of five people was reduced to whether or not these individuals were blasphemers, speaks volumes of the Pakistani mentality – to be protected, and to be moral, one needs to be a Muslim.

Hate narratives along religious, sectarian, and ethnic lines, and a general leaning towards issues pertinent to these domains as opposed to national issues points to the worst; the Pakistani public is becoming increasingly intolerant. This prejudice is reflected through our choice of leaders, and our acceptance of the bigotry that surrounds us in the political and social sphere. It is for this reason that we stand in contrast with societies who are not Muslim, but still protest against the ban of Muslims from American territory – while we remain silent due to our lethargy, and because we are unaffected.

But the silence of the civil society, and their lack of standing up for their own rights and those of others can also be attributed to the absence of a culture of protest participation, and mass mobilization of the civilian population as a part of contentious politics. Reasons come to mind. First, the banning of student unions and organizations, a remnant of the Zia regime, deprived the youth of becoming a part of a political culture where their mobilization and voice could translate into government policy – their power now limited to candlelight protests around roundabouts. Where student politics were the spine of most progressive movements in Pakistan’s history, now, an entire generation has passed through the education system without realizing their power through their engagement with organized politics. Similarly, the lack of effective outlets to convey dissent makes it difficult to mobilize people. Pushing however many protesters are out to retreat and accept defeat.

Another reason is class. According to Ammar Rashid, most progressives and liberals today come from relatively better-educated and financially comfortable segments of society, for whom political organizing is not a matter of survival and need as it is for those at the risk of indiscriminate eviction. Added to this is the Pakistani mentality of a) deflecting blame, b) blaming the poor for their own problems, i.e. population control, as opposed to a lack of awareness and the failure of the state machinery to provide education and economic incentives, c) the ‘fir mein ki karan’ (so what should I do), or the ‘it’s not my headache’ attitude, and you’ve got a Pakistani public that turns its back towards issues worth fighting for.

The fact that the state also has a tendency to use force against protesters, and enjoys control over the civil administration and courts when it comes to making policies than the other way around factors in. Deflecting blame of the state’s failure onto rowdy neighbors, or those far from the state’s machinery, and then silencing dissent on top of that, makes for a political society that is in tatters.

The truth is that intolerance and a lack of civility is woven through the social, political, and civil realities of the country, and our misplaced priorities don’t help our cause. The Punjab Law Minister shifting the blame of a deadly blast in Lahore onto protesters, and saying that they should’ve been dispersed through the use of force, or our government being more concerned with putting heart-shaped balloons behind bars, as opposed to putting an end to forces that have shown us many shades of red, shows us that while rational voices will struggle to get heard, prejudice and bigotry will always find a space in Pakistan’s narrative.