Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Once, when a teacher suggested no book can be perfect, the boy asked if that included the holy Quran. That sparked a candid class discussion about religion. But in today’s Pakistan, Muqtida Mansoor said he would never dare to ask the question in public.
After all, “anyone could shoot you”. Days after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, one of the few politicians openly challenging the onslaught of religious extremism, Pakistani moderates are facing a new and troubling reality: Pakistan is a country where fundamentalism is becoming mainstream, leaving even less room for dissent, difference and many once-prevalent leisures such as public music, dance parties or other social contact between the sexes.
More liberal-minded Pakistanis have been left with a profound sense of loss, alienation and fear for the future. One rights activist forecast that at the rate extremist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years. The transformation is particularly disheartening for many younger Pakistanis.
“There is no concept of freedom of speech in this country,” said Aaisha Aslam, 25, who works for a non governmental organisation. People with fanatic mindsets are “out to snatch this country from us”. The poles have shifted so much that it was not just bearded students from religious seminaries who this week praised the suspected killer of a politician who opposed blasphemy laws. Some religious scholars who oppose the Taliban also joined in – and lawyers showered him with rose petals.
“The silent majority does not want to take out a gun and shoot anyone, but at the same time they’re not appalled by it when somebody else does,” complained Fasi Zaka, 34, a radio host. “The majority are enablers.” Well before Tuesday’s killing of Taseer, Pakistan’s liberals had grown increasingly cautious about speaking out for minority protections, women’s rights and other causes. Activists who once publicly advocated repealling the blasphemy laws - which mandate death for those deemed to have insulted Islam or the holy Quran - are now willing to settle for mere amendments.
“We are vulnerable,” said Asma Jahangir, a small, hard-charging woman who is perhaps Pakistan’s best-known human rights activist. “My name has come up, and of course you have to watch as you move around, how you move around,” she added.
Some Pakistanis are frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of Western support for their causes. They complain of receiving little more than lip service from the US, which is dependent on Pakistan’s aid to turn around the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and eliminate Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts on its soil.
“We don’t matter for anybody,” said Marvi Sirmed, a 38-year-old activist.
Extremists in Pakistan have flourished in part because governments have failed to provide for people’s needs, such as in education and health care. Extremists fill the gap through their welfare organisations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries and other networks. The impoverished masses then support their philosophies and political activities.
It doesn’t help that those in Pakistan’s small, liberal, secular wing tend to be wealthier and more educated than most Pakistanis, a cultural divide that is hard to bridge, said Burzine Waghmar, who teaches about Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. And so many liberals are increasingly nostalgic for the past, before the 1980s rule of General Ziaul Haq. He , infused Islam into everything from school textbooks to the legal code - including pushing through harsh blasphemy law and statutes that treated rape victims as adulterers.
Javed Ali, 70, remembers how cinemas once flourished in Pakistan, and dance parties were advertised in newspapers. While visiting Karachi, Ali would go to The Moonlight Club, where dancers would entertain middle and lower middle class visitors. “Now, that’s a dream,” says Ali, who lives in Multan. Mansoor remembers a more live and let-live society. “I was a handsome man and had good taste as well,” he said. “I had many girlfriends and I would liberally take them to my home and nobody would mind. I would take my girlfriend to the beach and no police would harass us. But later on, the police would ask for marriage papers even if you were with your wife.”
Photographer Nazir Khan, 50, of Karachi, recalls how relations between majority Sunni and minority Shias were far more cordial. “I used to offer my Friday prayers in any mosque without consideration to which sect it belonged,” Khan said.
The radicalisation has accelerated since 9/11. Although Pakistan’s government officially abandoned its alliance with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, the US-led invasion in the neighbouring nation was viewed by many as an attack on the Muslim world. Thousands now routinely show up for anti-US rallies.
In cosmopolitan centres such as Karachi, far more women now wear face veils than in years past. Girls as young as 6 or 7 are wearing headscarves, said Roland DeSouza, a Christian who is a partner in an engineering firm. “That stuff you didn’t see 10 years ago,” he said. Even in the northwest, which is dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and their conservative culture, life used to be more free. Men would take their wives to the movies, and musicians were routinely hired to perform at weddings. Pakistani Taliban threats and attacks have changed that.