How Long To Wait?

Waiting RoomRecent incidents like blasphemy cases and the attacks on the young women in Karachi this week are terrible situations, but perhaps there is some hope that they have at least served to start a conversation about vitally important topics – how we treat minorities and women, and what we can do to improve the situation.

Dr Awab posted a blog submitted by an anonymous author that takes what I think is a popular view of social change among the middle-class: that agitating for social reforms is premature until the root causes of intolerance have been addressed.

Contrast this attitude of waiting until the time is right with another post on Dr Awab’s blog:

Hunger, poverty, injustice, oppression, unfairness, obscurantism, and darkness engulf the life of the teeming millions in this country. And all we can do is talk, talk and talk. We talk so much about the rights of the people of our country, but when the time comes for action, all we see is abuse. Starting right from the top. The basic rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness seem to be the stuff of fairytale luxury that is out of reach for the common people.

Who are we waiting for? A Messiah? He will never come. When will we stand up for ourselves?

These are two competing viewpoints from people who both claim to want to see social reforms and progressive change in society, but have two very different ways of getting there. One, the more conservative group, would like to see change, but thinks that it must wait until underlying problems have been fixed. The other is less patient and wants to see change happen now.

Meanwhile, Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights, Women’s Action Forum, Insani-Huqooq Ittehad (IHI), National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), women’s human rights organizations and several women parliamentarians have strongly condemned a ‘declaration’ of the Shariat Court that seeks to reverse sections of the Women Protection Act 2006 and revert back to the Hudood Ordinance of 1979.

These people did not stop at simply condemning the declaration of the Shariat Court, they demanded change to the system that allows such discriminatory declarations to be made.

They also demanded abolition of all parallel judicial systems such as Federal Shariat Court, Islamic Ideology Council and Jirgas. The civil society said that unless and until we were not going to resolve our contradictions with respect to the nature of the Pakistani state, these issues were not going to be resolved.

So, who is right and who is wrong? Should these groups have simply kept quiet at the Shariat Court’s declaration and waited until people’s minds have changed? Or should they be out trying to change minds?

I must admit that while I appreciate the pragmatism of Anonymous, I don’t know that this will be quite enough to satisfy those who suffer under such discriminatory laws. The group that condemned the Shariat Court asked pertinent questions:

“How any law made in the name of women protection can be taken back?” the statement questions while expressing deep concern over the decision. “What sort of confidence would Pakistani women and girls will have?”

I think there seems to be something of a ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ question here. Anonymous may be willing to sit back and wait for social change to come, but what of the girls and minorities who are affected by these laws? What of the people languishing in jail because they threw a business card in the dustbin?

Anonymous quotes a PEW poll that found that only 16 % of Pakistanis opposed capital punishment for apostasy, only 11 % opposed segregation at work places and stoning to death for adultery and 13 % opposed amputation for theft. What he determines from this is that “human rights groups are very misled in believing that they can either match the street power of these groups or have public sympathy for their cause”.

But I would offer another answer which is that this means that it is all the more urgent for human rights groups to organize and spread their message of tolerance. It’s also most important for individuals like anonymous to not sit on the sideline and wait for society to magically change itself.

Using the logic of Anonymous, Palestinians should not struggle against Israeli hardliners who are keeping them in miserable conditions. Blacks in South Africa should not have struggled to overturn apartheid. What about the struggle of blacks in America to overcome discrimination that was so deeply ingrained not only in the laws of the US but in the very social habits of the people. Some well-meaning liberals said at the time that blacks should just be patient, that change would come once people realized they were misguided in their thinking. The poet Langston Hughes wrote the poem Dream Deferred about this point:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Social change has never been easy, and there have always been well-intentioned people who told us to wait. We were told to wait under the British. Jinnah was told to wait and not rush the founding of the nation. There will always be those who tell you to wait. We need people to stand up and be counted as against discrimination, even if it isn’t the popular opinion – especially if it isn’t the popular opinion. We have too many dreams deferred already, and we don’t need any more explosions.

Arrest Yousaf Qureshi

Yousaf Qureshi

At what point is a man guilty of murder? If a man announces that he will commit a murder, must we wait for his victim to die before we act? Surely we have the right to defend ourselves against such criminals. What if the man is hiring a killer to murder his prey? Again must we wait for the loss of life before we can put a stop to the crime? Surely not. And yet this is exactly what we are witnessing today while Yousaf Qureshi walks free in the streets of Peshawar.

There should be no leniency for those who will commit murder. But it is not just the man who pulls the trigger that is responsible. Also, there may be some who encouraged or facilitated the act. These also share guilt and should be punished accordingly. Just as any common conspirator who hires a killer to do his dirty work, Yousaf Qureshi has publicly offered to pay Rs.500,000 to the killer of Asia Bibi. He should be arrested and tried for his crime immediately.

Adil Najam explains the situation perfectly at Pakistaniat blog:

It should not matter what you think of Asiya Bibi, or about what should happen to her, or of the Blasphemy law, or indeed of Masjid Mahabat Khan. What matters is that murder is a crime. Inciting others to commit this crime is a crime. Paying or promising to pay others to commit this crime is a crime.

This here is not a matter of theology, it is a matter of the law. And not a matter of constitutional law, but of criminal law. This is a test of our society’s appetite for tolerating criminality in the name of morality. But more than that it is a test of our polity’s ability to implement its own laws. Can the government of the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa province, sitting in Islamabad, or the government of Pakistan, sitting in Islamabad, ignore this blatant and so very public disregard of the laws of the country? And if they do, what does it say about them, about their own disregard for the most fundamental laws of the land, about our society, and indeed about us?

Are we a nation of laws? Or are we a nation of outlaws? How we treat the case of Yousaf Qureshi has a lot to say about the answer.

The Evolving Relationship Between Pakistan and the United States

Technology never ceases to amaze me. Wikileaks aside, technology has opened up a whole new window into the world of diplomacy, and our own Ambassador to the US can be followed on Twitter and on video all over YouTube. When he Tweeted that he was going to be speaking at the James A Baker III Institute in Houston the other night and that it could be viewed on a webcast, the nerd in me got really excited. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can watch it below:

Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani discusses the evolving relationship between Pakistan and the United States at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston Texas USA on 1 December 2010.

Ambassador Haqqani discusses the history of Pakistan-US relations and the present model of cooperation between the democratic governments of Pakistan and the US as they try to overcome historical suspicion and doubt.

Questions include topics Wikileaks, Asia Bibi, ISI, media, India, nuclear disarmament, and the positive contributions of the Pakistani-American community.

What kind of Pakistan will we choose to become?

The Army of Irate Maulvis was yelling “Apostate!” outside the home of Governor Taseer. This was in addition to burning effigies and issues fatwas against the Governor, who took a solid, bold stand against a heinous blasphemy law. The Army of Maulvis and other far-right persons seem to present the public with two disappointing ideas of God.

1. God is evil, and He obviously wants us to vilify all non-Muslims in our country. The problem with this is that it becomes rather difficult to hate people once you get to know them, so I propose all the Muslims live underground. The funds set aside for development should immediately be routed to create tunnels and cities at least a mile underneath the surface. Otherwise, a Muslim may actually befriend a non-Muslim! Imagine that…imagine knowing that a Pakistani Christian woman has the same struggles in her life, the same hopes for herself and her family, as a Muslim woman might. Or the idea that an Ahmadi child can be as cute and funny as a Sunni or Shia.

2. Oh no! Wait a second…God also wants us to be proper Muslims…that would mean no Shias. Development funds should therefore also be used to scrub the pages of history! In this version, the Father of the Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah cannot be a Shia. We should also set up tribunals of angry, powdered-wig wearing cranky men to investigate the bloodlines of all federal government employees…for purity’s sake, of course.

3.The other option is that God is an underachiever, and didn’t plan on having a planet with billions of people, of varying race, ethnicity, religion, and favorite ice-cream flavors.

Does this sound ridiculous yet? We have come to a point in our nation’s history where we cannot just look at the message. We have to look at the messenger. What are his or her beliefs? Do they serve the public good? Is this person or party capable of participating in the democratic process, with respect and civility?

Everyone, from all sides of the political spectrum, clamors for a functioning democracy. Indeed, whichever party is in power – be it the PML-N or PPP – hears criticism that it isn’t doing enough to create a stable democracy in Pakistan.

The critics remain willfully ignorant of one fact: successful democracy takes more than elections. It needs more than debates in Parliament, more than striking government buildings in Islamabad, more than the men’s suits and stiffly ironed dupattas of the women in government positions. It needs the public conscience and common sense to serve as watchdog over executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Democracy needs a national, rational discourse where each and every Pakistani’s rights are given due respect. That includes every Shia, Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu in our country. Pakistan, created as a place where Muslims could practice their faith in peace, must never take that right away from people of other faith.

We are not that country, and we must never be.

Aasia Bibi is accused of breaking an archaic law of blasphemy. Yet the blasphemy law itself breaks the law of common decency.

How can we accept laws – let alone, silently obey them – that go against all that we know in our hearts to be right and good?

This is where national common sense and conscience come into play. If there is anyone clamoring for blood of a woman, they are as barbaric and revolting as the law that gives hatred a legal platform.

Here is a tradition that needs to return: let us have mature intellectuals in power, like the honorable Jinnah, who seek to serve all the people of Pakistan. And also, let us have a population that values common decency and their own conscience.

Before We Can Change Laws, We Must Change Minds

There has been a lot of discussion about the Asia Bibi case lately, and while it’s been encouraging to see the number of prominent thinkers who are willing to publicly call for the repeal of the blasphemy laws, it’s also somewhat depressing because I can’t help but think that in a few weeks the entire issue will have blown over and nothing will have changed.

I was given something of a reality call, though, when I saw that Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani posted on Twitter,

For those asking why blasphemy law is not being repealed, simple answer is there aren’t enough votes for that in parliament

This is an important point to consider. No matter how much I or anyone else might be completely shocked that Zia’s blasphemy laws remain on the books, we do live in a democracy and changing the laws requires popular support for a change. Even if an MNA himself or herself believes that the law should be overturned, their job is to represent the people in their district. And if the people in their district support the blasphemy laws, well, what lawmaker will go against their will?

Nadir Hassan’s article for The Dawn Blog, Intolerance of the other, expands on this point.

At a time when the main criticism of the courts has been its embrace of judicial activism, we will end up sounding incoherent when faced with a case where the accusation of blasphemy, as defined by our laws, is credible. After all, if we expect judges to adhere strictly to the letter of the law, how can we criticise them for handing out severe punishments in such cases? By all means we should plead for Aasia Bibi’s release, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger battle: the repeal of all laws that discriminate on the basis of religion.

The true enemy in this fight is not the judiciary. Rather, an overwhelming majority of the population needs to be convinced that blasphemy laws are cruel and anachronistic. Britain, after all, had a blasphemy law – which made it a crime to speak against the Church of England – on the books until 2008, but the last time it was used was in 1922. When society understands that putting someone to death for their opinions and beliefs is fundamentally illiberal, the battle has already been won. In Pakistan, we haven’t even begun to approach that level of enlightenment. Keep in mind that no one has been legally executed under the blasphemy laws in this country as the higher courts, particularly the Federal Shariat Court, have overturned all such death sentences. The real threat to the lives of those accused of blasphemy comes from enraged mobs, with the police playing the role of uninterested bystanders and the judgments of lower courts fuelling the anger.

Until these mobs, and those who silently support them, are silenced through force of argument, even the repeal of blasphemy laws will bring only marginal safety to minorities.

Before we can change the laws, we must change minds. The problem is not whether militants will increase attacks – they are already attacking! The problem is that in a democracy, there must be popular support for change. So do not ask what your MNA is doing to repeal the blasphemy law, ask yourself what you are doing to change the thinking of your neighbors who still support it!