Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Citizens and Political Forces Unite Against Oppression and Disinformation

Previously there were scattered voices waging the fight, alone or in small groups – mainly members of civil society. But all that has changed now. Political parties and groups, and workers unions have come together and joined hands with civil society.

Organised by the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), which describes itself as “an umbrella group of professional organisations, political parties, trade unions and individuals outraged by the consistent misuse and abuse of the Blasphemy Law and of religion in politics,” a reference for Salmaan Taseer held at the PMA (Pakistan Medical Association) House on January 18, 2011, drew a crowd of 500. This, despite the fact that just a day before there had been a change of venue as the Karachi Arts Council, where the event was initially supposed to take place, refused to host it stating security concerns as their reason. The reference was also held after the rally in Lahore on January 16 organised by Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM), whose vice president, Dr Ashraf Jalali, had remarked at the event: “Mumtaz Hussain Qadri is a hero of the Muslim ummah. Whoever criticises him or Section 295-C will have their tongues pulled out.” He also issued a stern warning to the media, directing it not to invite people who spoke against Qadri.

The reference was a response to the constant unveiled threats and pressure tactics adopted by the “religious” lobby, their manipulation of the debate on the Blasphemy Law and Taseer’s murder, their campaign to make Taseer’s murderer a hero and their strategy to misinform the masses about facts regarding the law and Taseer’s stance. Thus, the evening began with a presentation on the history of the Blasphemy Law, how it came to be in its current form, its misuse and the number of false cases that have been registered over the years. Following this was a screening of Blind Faith, a documentary by Sara Naqvi (see it here). Both of these aimed at dispelling some of the widely believed untruths about the law and generating awareness about its (mis)use.

The most lively and uplifting part of the evening was when the speakers, of which there were many, addressed the crowd and paid tribute to Taseer. Among them were well-known personalities such as Iqbal Haider (former secretary-general, HRCP), activist and WAF member Amar Sindhu and Mohsin Sayeed, who read out a message from Taseer’s family. Others included members of various political and workers parties, including Kaiser Bengali (Advisor to the Chief Minister Sindh for Planning and Development), Asif Buledi (General Secretary Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz), Jan Mohammad Buledi (National Party), Kunwar Khalid Yunus (MQM), Nasir Mansoor (Labour Party), Ramzan Memon (Awami Party) and Farid Awan (Deputy General Secretary All Pakistan Trade Union Federation and Secretary Sindh, Pakistan Workers Confederation) who expressed their solidarity with their friends from civil society and assured them of their and their organisations’ support. Members of minority communities, Amar Nath Matomal (HRCP and President Hindu Panchayat Karachi Division) and Father Thomas Gulfam (Korangi Parish) spoke on behalf of their communities and joined hands as well.

All the speakers vehemently condemned Mumtaz Qadri and his supporters. Many of them raised the same point: years of silence and submission have led to the magnanimity of the problem – especially the religious intolerance and the use of religion for political motives. However, this they hoped would now be a thing of the past as the struggle and cause for which Taseer too died, will neither be thwarted by pressure, nor remain within the confines of closed rooms. They stressed that religion and the state needed to be separated. A resolution prepared by the CFD, which has been endorsed by several individuals and organisations, was shared with the audience. It requests the government and the law enforcing agencies to comply and take immediate action (see the Urdu text of the resolution here).

To date, the PPP continues to adopt an apologist position towards both the murder of their governor and the Blasphemy Law debate.

Nobody expects much from the government; this was made quite clear. Perhaps this is why Fauzia Wahab, information secretary, Sindh, was not bombarded with questions and counter arguments after her speech. Only when she said there was a need to begin the sensitisation of the masses on the issue of blasphemy did audience members and moderator Rahat Saeed of the Progressive Writers’ Association suggest that she could perhaps wield her influence and have Sarah Naqvi’s documentary aired on PTV, Pakistan’s state run channel, at the very least.

While venues continue to be denied for this cause, that too by institutions such as the Karachi Arts Council and the Press Club, the Lyari Town Administration has generously offered CFD the People’s Stadium, which can hold up to 15,000 people. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pakistan’s Real War is with the Poisonous Mindset Within

Domestic politics was already on shaky ground at the end of 2010. The government had been jolted from its cosy coalition to a precarious minority perch at the top. Scandals, rising militancy, economic disaster and endless charges of corruption had already damaged the ruling party, leaving few Pakistanis with any confidence in the country’s rulers.

As such, the brutal assassination of Salmaan Taseer came as a big, big blow to the nation. Taseer, although a controversial figure, had in the weeks leading up to his murder courageously criticised radical and fundamentalist elements in Pakistani society by supporting death-row inmate Aasiya Bibi and terming the blasphemy laws that put her there as “black” and discriminatory, saying they had no place in Jinnah’s minority-respecting Pakistan. His honesty was one the few sources of light emanating from the PPP. Few politicians dared to be as courageous, even the infamously vocal federal interior minister was quick in giving assurances that the government would not tinker with the fundamentally oppressive piece of legislation.

Now, a secular, progressive and key figure on Pakistan’s political scene has been lost. Lost to a much too common mindset that sees murder as justifiable — a mindset that is shaped by ideologically fuelled hate.

In Pakistan, it seems so easy to kill political figures, and by extension anyone else, for their beliefs. Taseer was clearly shot because of an intolerant religious philosophy that has spread throughout our society. The ugliness of fundamentalist thought has become so bloody stark that it seems to have completely overtaken simple human decency and civilised actions. The confession by the security guard who shot Taseer in the back 27 times is not merely an indication but solid proof of how deeply the country has been plagued by this deadly and unforgiving mindset. There are unmanned drones violating Pakistani airspace every other day killing ‘suspected’ militants, but unless there is recognition and realisation about the extremist mindset that has embedded itself here, nothing is going to bring peace to this extraordinarily damaged and fractured country.
It is exactly this mindset (the lack of tolerance and acceptance) that is the real enemy Pakistan should be fighting every single day. Jinnah imagined a Pakistan where people with differing ideologies and different faiths would be free to go to their mosques, temples or churches. But the murder of Salmaan Taseer has exposed how vulnerable we the citizens, including our government, are to the forces of destruction and ideological fanaticism. Freedom is at stake. The ultimate price is attached to standing up for your principles and even for declaring your support to a weak, poor and oppressed woman. Not long ago, Benazir Bhutto was also lost because of this war between democracy and oppression, between hope and hate, between promise and despair.

The extent to which Pakistan has been radicalised is even more obvious when examining the media. Many in the media have handled this tragic incident by either sitting on the fence and not openly condemning this horrific criminal act, or by giving a powerful pulpit to the voices of hate. Some 500 members of the ulema of the Barelvi community called for a boycott of the funeral of Mr Taseer, a media and business magnate who had become a successful constitutional head of the province of Punjab. It seems that the late governor’s relief work for the flood victims of 2010 has all been forgotten. His ethical stands for justice have been swept aside or distorted. Bigotry, moral corruption and a mind-boggling absence of rationality have come to dominate the national landscape as a mullah takeover of society has unfolded. This is not in the interest of Pakistan. On the contrary, this is most detrimental to development and democratic discourse in the country. We have already lost too much and too many in this war of hatred and vengeance.

This is the war within, and it has to be won. This country of ours is way too big and beautiful to be lost to the fundamentalist forces – they are still a minority. Justice needs to be done for all the people who have been killed by this destructive dinosaur. I appeal to all my Pakistani sisters and brothers not to give up, not to become fearful and not to lose hope. We will continue to fight for our country and our beliefs, and we will eventually win over this handful of ill-guided people. And I appeal to the international community, human rights groups and democratic voices everywhere to help us in our struggle for civil liberties and religious rights for our minorities, and for all Pakistanis.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

US continues to work with Pakistani government: State Department

The United States, while reaffirming its strong support for Pakistan, has said it continues to work closely with the democratic government in Islamabad which is facing internal political challenges common to a coalition setup.“By every indication the government is taking steps to deal with this political situation.

This is how coalition governments handle these issues all over the world,” Assistant Secretary of State Philip J Crowley said at the daily briefing. Crowley was answering a spate of questions on political developments in Islamabad after two coalition partners said they were withdrawing their support for the majority Pakistan Peoples Party-led ruling coalition while some other parties outside the coalition indicated their backing for the current government.

The spokesman said Washington “continues to work closely with this (incumbent) government on the issues that we’ve outlined as part of our strategic partnership.” “A civilian government, we think, is essential to the future of Pakistan and to building institutions of government that can transform the relationship between the Pakistani people and the government. So we continue to support the Pakistani Government,” he stated.

The current situation, he remarked, is about “internal politics within Pakistan, which has a parliamentary system, and you have a coalition government, and there are, there’s activity within that coalition, and the government is working to clarify what their support is.”

The spokesman also saw no immediate impact of the political situation on the key South Asian country’s anti-militant drive.

“I can’t say at this point that the fact that they have this current political situation necessarily distracts them from what they’re, what else they’re doing,” he responded when asked if the political situation is diverting focus from the battle against militants.

In reply to a question on economic reforms and fight against terrorists, the spokesman said these are decisions by Pakistan in its own interest. “Fighting extremists within its borders that is a threat to Pakistani civil society is definitely in Pakistan’s interest. Getting its financial house in order is definitely in Pakistan’s interest.

Building and expanding the capacity of civilian-led government in Pakistan is definitely in Pakistan’s interest. But the government obviously is confronting a challenge within its coalition. That these things happen in parliamentary systems all the time.”

“We are going to encourage, we are going to continue to work with the Pakistani Government and provide the support that we’ve outlined to help expand its capacity, address the challenge inside its borders, and help put its finances on more solid footing,” he said.