Losing Our Voice

A recent column by Ardeshir Cowasjee for Dawn was one of those pieces that connects the dots and makes a picture of the world start to take shape. His column, Killing the Messengers, addresses a major obstacle in moving Pakistan beyond the mess that we’re in. It’s not that we’re having the wrong conversation, it’s that we can’t have any conversation at all.

Our inability to have a civil debate has become increasingly apparent. But this is not a ‘pox on both houses’ situation, as much as we like to cast blame equally. When Marvi Sirmed appeared on Shahid Nama with Zaid Hamid, she didn’t accuse anyone being a traitor or unpatriotic. She just offered an alternative point of view. More recently, it’s been Mubashir Luqman lobbing such accusations against Najam Sethi of being an American agent. Nevermind the fact that in listing the top ten mistakes of Pakistan, the same Najam Sethi lists as number one the alliance with America. But he also criticises the decision not to recognise Sheikh Mujib’s electoral majority in 1970 elections, and the Kargil assault, which some want to pretend happened differently than they did.

This is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2008, Javed Chaudhry wrote a scathing attack against Najam Sethi. But Javed Chaudhry didn’t debate his positions then either, rather he attacks him personally, saying Najam Sethi is mafia lord of a Lahore NGO sponsored by America to spread anti-Pakistan views.

If you take the time to actually listen, what these so-called “liberal extremists” say isn’t really extreme at all. Is it really “extreme” to suggest that secret conspiracies are not responsible for all of our problems? Or that maybe, just maybe, military officers have not always made the wisest decisions? People like Marvi Sirmed and Najam Sethi aren’t advocating an athiest Marxist-Leninist revolution. They’re not anarcho-syndicalists who want to replace the National Assembly with a federation of worker’s councils. Could it be that the right wing finds them far more threatening because when they speak, they actually make sense?

If someone says something the right wing doesn’t like, they don’t offer a reasoned counter-argument – they resort to character assassination. They term you a traitor and say you are spreading anti-Pakistan views. They say you’re a paid agent. And this is used not only against journalists, but politicians, government officials, and even private citizens who dare to have their own opinions. Zaid Hamid calls for politicians to be “hanged by the trees” and Ahmed Quraishi calls for a “ruthless military coup”. They resort to threats of violence because they cannot convince people with their ideas alone.

It’s easy to dismiss such threats as online taunting, but this right wing mindset has a bad habit of crossing the line between uncivil talk and uncivil behaviour. What starts as character assassination too often escalates to just plain ‘assassination’. Whoever killed Saleem Shahzad, there is little doubt that his killers were motivated by what he wrote. The killers didn’t offer any counter argument to Saleem Shahzad’s claims; they just didn’t like what he had to say, so they shut him up. Permanently.

Mumtaz Qadri murdered Salmaan Taseer not over any blasphemy that the governor committed, but because he disagreed with him about whether a law should be reformed. Once again, nevermind the fact that by advocating for rahma (mercy) Salmaan Taseer was not challenging Islam, he was living it. What he was challenging was a political ideology that can’t bear to be challenged. So, without a trace of shame, Meher Bokhari says he’s ‘Western’ and reads a fatwa against him on TV. When the character assassination doesn’t deter Salmaan Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri shoots him in the back.

In a way, it’s rather ironic. The self-appointed defenders of Islam have replaced the central message of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with central message of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. They’re replaced itjihad with jihad, reason with guns. Similarly, these same self-appointed guardians of the national honour (ghairat) are turning Pakistan into a pariah state, increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

So who’s really being anti-Pakistan here? Is it the so-called ‘liberal extremist’ commentators who are merely telling what happened in the past so that we may be saved from repeating it? No, the real extremists here are Pakistan’s wanna-be coup makers who want to kill (literally) any criticism that threatens to expose their delusions and the self-defeating adventurism it justifies.

This brings me back to Cowasjee, who wrote:

In our universe, Pakistan is in the middle of a party celebrating its greatness and no one wants a messenger of bad news to interrupt the self-glorification. But in the real world, we can kill as many messengers as we like, the message that Pakistan is in big trouble is unlikely to go away.

You don’t have to agree with everything Marvi Sirmed or Najam Sethi or anyone else says. I don’t. But I respect their right to say things that I don’t agree with. It’s not anti-Pakistan to want the country to be the best that it can be, and it’s not extreme to recognise your past mistakes so that you can improve for the future. It’s your real friends who will tell you when you have food in your beard. It’s your enemies who let you walk around looking like a fool.

Wanted: Principled Leadership

The Raymond Davis saga took a turn for the worst over the past few days as principled leadership on the issue has been sacrificed on the altar of political ambition and populist groveling. The explosive statements of former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has changed his reputation in the media from an American puppet to a Ghazi almost overnight. We should stop and ask ourselves if what is really going on is as it is being spun in the media (that would be a first) or if perhaps this new story line is once again not exactly as it seems.

FM Qureshi with US Secretary of State ClintonFirst let me say that a lot of people have taken to attacking Mahmood Qureshi, which is unfortunate. He’s not a bad guy. Actually, he’s really smart and capable man, if a little out of his element lately. Trying to define him as a demon does not do anything for the case of reason and rule of law over rule of mobs. Unfortunately, those same people who would demonize him as an American puppet last week are now ready to present him with his very own laal topi and declare him as one of the faithful. So let’s throw out all the self-serving statements and take a look at the facts.

Qureshi’s recent behaviour is unfortunately not out of the ordinary. Between Rehman Malik’s telling that he will kill blasphemers with his own hands and Babar Awan‘s trying to trade Raymond Davis for Aafia Siddiqui as if he were a bakriwallah bartering in a market and not Law Minister – too many of our politicians continue to play to the populist gallery rather than provide real leadership on hard issues.

When I first read Malick’s column in the The News I thought, ‘this is rich’. Suddenly the Americans’ darling Mahmood Qureshi is now their victim? The whole thing seemed a bit too tidy to me. It was just too convenient a headline. But there was more to the article than simply the headline that bothered me.

According to Malick, this supposed story starts in a high level meeting in Islamabad that was attended by President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, Babar Awan, Rehman Malik, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the DG ISI Gen Shuja Pasha. Let’s stop here for a minute. If this is the cast of characters who was in attendance, it means that one of them has to be the leak. Reading the rest of the article, it’s clear that the source for Malick’s article is none other than Qureshi himself. This becomes even more clear as more articles begin pouring into the media with quotes from Qureshi which shows that the man whose silence got us into this mess is now incredibly accessible to every journalist in the country. So we must ask what is the purpose of Qureshi leaking his own story to The News which is not exactly a mouthpiece for the government?

And let’s consider Qureshi’s previously impenetrable silence, can we? The shooting that started this whole mess happened three weeks ago. According to Qureshi now, he has “strongly argued the case that Raymond did not enjoy unlimited diplomatic immunity under law, flatly refused and even said that if need be, he’d rather resign”.

Really? Since when? Because everyone has been demanding that the FO decide the question of diplomatic immunity for weeks and Qureshi was nowhere to be found. If he was really being pressurized to act against his convictions and was so adamant about resigning rather than facing the tune, why did he never resign? In fact, it’s only since he’s been sacked that Qureshi has suddenly found this adamant conviction on the issue.

And then there’s the issue of Qureshi’s sacking, which wasn’t really a sacking at all. When the PM dissolved the cabinet in order to reduce the bloated number of ministers and began making reappointments, it was decided to offer Qureshi a new portfolio – Water and Power. Unfortunately, Qureshi felt that he deserved foreign affairs, and if he wasn’t given the position he wanted, he was going to take his ball and his bat and leave the game. In fact when he was supposed to be sworn in as a cabinet minister, he didn’t bother to show up at all, rather he sent a terse note saying, “I am not interested in water and power ministry in place of foreign affairs”. This is a curious response to the offer of a cabinet portfolio, a position for which only a handful of people are selected out of the 180 million citizens. Could it be that Mr Qureshi’s reason has fallen prey to his personal ambitions?

And rather than a punishment, offering a cabinet position to Qureshi was actually something of a token. After all, has there not been constant frustration with his performance as FM over the past years? Manmohan Singh blamed Qureshi personally for his poor handling of talks last summer. This was an ongoing problem that Qureshi had, pushing his Indian counterparts away when it was his job to hold talks and find solutions to issues. And it was under Qureshi’s guard that India has become considered for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while Pakistan remains without a civilian nuclear deal. Also he has taken great criticism from diplomats such as Tayyab Siddiqui for his comments on Iran.

He skipped the SAARC meeting in Bhutan last month, and in the midst of the negotiations over Raymond Davis, he even skipped a meeting with an American delegation last week. More on that point: As I stated earlier, if Shah Mahmood Qureshi truly felt so  adamant about Raymond Davis’s status, why was he silent and missing in action for the past weeks? Why did he not make statements when it could have mattered? If he was actually being pressurized, why did he not resign then? He said himself that he would have kept his position of FM if it was offered, so don’t try to have it both ways please.

And let’s not forget that it was only a few short days ago that the Foreign Office under the leadership of FM Qureshi stated that Raymond Davis at a minimum does enjoy at a minimum “partial immunity”. Then Salman Bashir calls the newspapers and says that if he committed some immoral act, he would not request diplomatic immunity for himself, which is essentially admitting that Raymond Davis does have diplomatic immunity, but it is annoying to the FO. This is another example of the failure of the foreign office by trying to have everything both ways. Whether or not Salman Bashir would invoke diplomatic immunity is irrelevant – Raymond Davis has invoked it. If Qureshi was unable to make a decision one way or the other, the country needed someone in the Foreign Office who could.

But the problem is not just Qureshi’s failure to act on principle. We’re also seeing other leaders like Babar Awan trying to barter Raymond Davis for Aafia Siddiqui as if Islamabad was filled with goat traders at a market, or Altaf Hussain comparing apples to peaches by saying that “Just the way US court gave the decision of Dr. Aafia’s case, US must also wait for Pakistani court’s decision on Raymond’s case”. Whether or not Aafia should be repatriated, she has no claim to diplomatic immunity, so her case is nothing like that of Raymond Davis.

Last fall, Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned against being influenced by concocted messages sent through media over Pak-US relationships. He now seems to be playing the same game. Unfortunately, he is not the only one doing so. It is now three weeks since the tragic incident that has brought diplomatic relations with the US to stand still. As Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi could have ended this mess weeks ago by declaring Raymond Davis’s status one way or another. But when Qureshi had the opportunity to speak, he was silent. Now that his opinion carries no consequences to his own skin, suddenly he has found his voice. Elsewhere, our political leaders are asking the courts to help them out of a difficult situation and making populist speeches and goat trading to protect their own hides. The courts are telling those responsible in government to please do their jobs. Outside in the street it is the same as in the media – we are blinded by ghairat when the situation requires objective reason.

Again let me state that I do not think any of these are bad, dishonest, or incompetent people. I think the problem is one that is a larger problem in society. We allow issues to be hijacked by people who use emotional blackmail to keep us from using our brains. As a result,  good and capable men lose all sense of reason and proportion.

At present, everyone appears to be playing hearts and demanding to take the trick. But spades are trumps in this game, and diplomatic immunity is the ace of spades. If Raymond Davis plays the trump card, he takes the trick no matter how many hearts are thrown. But we should also keep a sense of proportion. The Raymond Davis case is only one trick and it is not for game. We need to stop acting like it is for all the chits. We need leaders with the courage and principles to play by the rules instead of trying to upend the table when they don’t like their hand.

Reem Wasay: The Forever Governor

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reem WasaySalmaan Taseer left the Governor House with both honour and dignity intact. In a country where the megalomaniac pull of power and politics has sold many souls to the devil, our forever governor was a force to be reckoned with. Contrary to popular opinion, Salmaan Taseer did not offend people – he intimidated them. In a society harnessed to hate, that is a dangerous precedent to set.

Coming from a family distant from the flaws of feudalism, Salmaan Taseer was a rarity; he rose to gargantuan heights on no secondary shoulders but on his own two feet. Where dynasty and imaginary lineage have, for decades, mauled the mandate of true democracy and progress, Salmaan Taseer became a somebody from the long line of nobodies who live and rise among us.

Defining a liberal Pakistani dream, Mr Taseer epitomised everything that this land promised its newly christened citizens back in 1947. His very existence demonstrated to people that even in this gloom and pallor of a state riddled with rustic curses, one man’s determination can free him of the antiquated sermon of submission that all us Pakistanis have fallen prey to.

His life, travels, views, raw honesty, ascendance and dynamism emboldened the quiet moderates to voice their ideologies without fear for the very first time in a manner unheard of in a country rocked and ruled by men and women who have no identity because they have departed from integrity and progress. He was an intimidating man because he did not suffer the malaise of hypocrisy that has penetrated the pith and principle of most human beings in this land. He spoke his mind and he spoke it without fear, but with plenty of wit and, at times, stinging valour; it stung because he said what we all felt and knew was right but were too intimidated by the wrong factions to say it. Intimidation is a strange thing; it can either make you cower in submission or it can make you a gallant of Goliathan proportions.

Salmaan Taseer intimidated his peers, his subordinates, his fellow liberals and even the swarm of extremists who orchestrated and celebrated his death but are, in actuality, responsible for making the man into the first true martyr for a more liberal, more just Pakistan.

‘Muslims’ are so fond of quoting worldly examples to expunge their irrationalities that I would like to take a leaf out of the bigot book for this. Many Muslims hold the opinion that God shows to the believers the true value of a man’s worth only in his death. Salmaan Taseer died fighting for a cause he believed in and that makes him a hero. Dear fanatics, what do you think God is trying to tell you?

His last rites, the mammoth turnout of mourners to pay their final respects, a hero’s goodbye and the colossal grief that has confounded the country are not the reactions awarded to a sullied soul. In a nation where men and women have been booted out of power and governors have been unceremoniously kicked out of the Governor’s House – some without shoes on – Salmaan Taseer left with homage and honour. If we are so blinded by convictions, let us take stock of the man’s final farewell.

The Blasphemy law has demonstrated in practice that it is not a devout law; it is atonement for the lunatics who achieve their only worth in life on the burdened back of our Prophet’s (PBUH) exploited honour. The underbelly of extremist Islam is swarming with individuals who would rather promote a desecrated dogma than salvage a strengthened sanctimony of compassion, human rights and tolerance.

The real blasphemy does not take place in open fields between women of two different cultures, different beliefs and different opinions; it takes place in the house of God where different edicts are screamed from the speakers by men who have made themselves false prophets – as warned from the times of Abraham.

Blasphemy occurs when the gunning down of a progressive is met with celebration instead of castigation and sanction instead of sentence. When mullahs incite further anger over the sands that falter on the grave of a man who had so much more to say, they practice blasphemy.

They read upside down from their scriptures when they condemn any attempts at mourning and offering prayers for the fallen. They, by the very essence of their existence, are walking, breathing examples of blasphemy because they have intervened between God and man; they have demonised our own personal spirituality with their rituals, symbols, rules and rewards for violence.

When a certain maulana on the television recently said that the governor’s death had no association with blasphemy but the anger generated in the people due to his “excessive” lifestyle, the bearded bastion’s arrogance screamed of blasphemy for he failed to grieve the death of a fellow citizen, something our Prophet (PBUH) would weep over. Such mullahs and radical rejectionists practice blasphemy by baying for the blood of a woman the governor died trying to set free.

It is time we fought fire with fire. If they can call voicing an opinion blasphemy, we can demonstrate extremist existence as blasphemy. A voice of moderation and liberal ideas has been snuffed out between the thorny fingers of misconstrued and manufactured ideologies. His death must not be in vain.

It is time the PPP sprout a spine and address the very laws their governor died to amend. In the end, he was the lone voice in a rampage of irrationality; his party deserted him but he did not abandon a just cause. Blasphemy is real when we do nothing over the death of a true progressive.

Blasphemy becomes us when we sit back in silence and drown out the rabid, white noise of the mercenaries of the minarets by ignoring these issues, a stance that Salman Taseer did not take. He truly was “the last man standing”; let us pay due tribute and work to amend the cruelty that comes with the blasphemy clauses.

Reem Wasay is an Assistant Editor, Daily Times. Her column was originally published in Daily Times on 7 January 2011.

Marvi Memon vs. Ghairat Brigade

Marvi Memon

Marvi Memon (PML-Q) has been making quite a name for herself lately. Her recent statements saying that we should get the facts before making a martyr of Dr Aafia has certainly raised the blood pressure of drawing room politicos. What’s crazy is that what she’s saying really isn’t even that controversial – just that we should have the facts before we make a judgment. She still calls for the Aafia to be returned to Pakistan, she just thinks that we should find out for ourselves what the truth is. But since when has the truth mattered to the Ghairat Brigade?

Writing for Express Tribune this week MNA Memon said,

Having heard plenty of evidence corroborating Dr Aafia Siddiqui’s alleged links to CIA and al Qaeda, from all those who had held important and relevant posts then and now, it became incumbent on me not to follow the herd. It became necessary for me to call a spade a spade and for that reason I was not part of the National Assembly walkout in her favour. Having said that, I have always maintained that she should be brought back to Pakistan and be tried here because she is a Pakistani, even though there are doubts that she may now have American nationality. Her trial in the US was far from fair with many human rights violations against her, but till allegations against her dangerous links are proven wrong she could not be called ‘qaum ki beti’. I also added that real leadership did not ‘cash in’ on wrong popular moods.

Real leadership may not ‘cash in’ on wrong popular moods, but too often our elites – especially in the media – do just that. Fasi Zaka called out these elites on their hypocrisy last week in his column, “The Aafia Mafia”:

I have a friend who works in the production unit of Pakistan’s most watched channels, and she told me an interesting anecdote that when the verdict was announced for Dr Aafia (not the sentencing which has been done separately now) the news team all thought Dr Aafia was not entirely innocent because of other facts in the case, but when they went on air they agreed to do so with the unequivocal line that she was innocent.

I imagine politicians are in the same boat, even if they have doubts, voicing that opinion is almost like a taboo. I suspect it has to do with the same line of logic that causes many to be inadvertent sympathisers of the Pakistani Taliban despite their bloody war against Pakistani citizens. Any overt sense of religious symbolism throws out rationality in a sense of what could loosely be described as “catholic guilt”.

Of course, throwing logic and reason out the window and hyperventilating about conspiracy theories is a popular pastime, and so we saw all sorts of attacks on Marvi Memon even in the National Assembly where all manner of people from various parties knocked each other over trying to get on the bandwagon first.

Her statement invited harsh criticism of the parliamentarians not only those of PML-N but her party colleagues also criticised her and condemned her statement, saying she is following the agenda of other forces including NGOs. Sheikh Rohail Asghar of PML-N said that US courts could not prove any allegation of terrorism against her. Dr Aafia is a woman and victim of oppression, he said.

This has got to stop. Not the defense of Dr Aafia, not the statements by Marvi Memon and Fasi Zaka…I’m talking about the way that every time there is some difficult or controversial situation, we through all reason out the window and go off half cocked.

You can agree or disagree with Marvi Memon, but you don’t have to accuse her for having her own opinions. If we allow ourselves to get carried away on the Ghairat Brigade bandwagon. We need reasonable and civil discourse in this country, and what we’re seeing around the Dr Aafia case is not it.