I recall when Pakistan was tolerant. What happened?

The number of intolerant in Pakisnan may be small, but their apologists and sympathisers are swelling in numbers, writes Shaukat Qadir

On May 15, Khalil Ahmed, a Pakistani of the minority Ahmedi sect, was killed by a teenager. The youth walked in to the police station where Ahmed was being held in custody, asked to see Ahmed and shot him dead.

Ahmedis were declared to be non-Muslim by the state during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s prime ministership in the 1970s. It is one of the many controversial decisions by Bhutto that left an indelible mark on Pakistan’s history.

Ahmed’s crime was that he dared request a shopkeeper in his village not to display material that inflames people against his sect. The shopkeeper filed a complaint accusing Ahmed of blasphemy; an accusation that no policeman dare ignore. He was promptly arrested – but the teenager could not wait for justice and decided to mete out his own.

Days earlier, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and human-rights activist, was targeted and killed. His “crime” was that he volunteered to defend an individual accused of blasphemy.

Blasphemy has become the easiest ploy for eliminating someone in Pakistan. A rival, an individual with whom you have a dispute, or even someone whose possessions you covet, can be easiest eliminated by an accusation of blasphemy. If the accused happens to be a non-Muslim or from a minority sect, it only makes it easier.

This is not the Pakistan that I grew up in. A tolerant, progressive, fun-loving people inhabited this land when I was a boy and a young man. I will not reminisce too much, but Pakistan was populated by far more tolerant people who enjoyed themselves; people who did not live in fear of religious discrimination and intolerance. What happened and why?

It would require a book to respond to the foregoing question and I do not intend to try encapsulating it here. In my view, Bhutto started it and his successors improved on the initiator’s efforts.

I have no intention of entering into a theological debate either. I am aware that laws against blasphemy exist in the UK but are not implemented any longer and yet, in my view, even these should not exist.

Intolerance – religious, racial, ethnic, or any other – seems to be on the rise all over the globe, but I will confine my discussion to my country. Let me also make it clear that all over the world, the numbers of the genuinely intolerant are usually an infinitesimally small percentage of the population.

In Pakistan’s case, I estimate this to be less than .05 per cent of the 200-million population – about 100,000 people. However, the worrying part is that their apologists and sympathisers are swelling in numbers. These apologists sit in positions of influence in almost all walks of life, even among the country’s political leaders on both the treasury benches and in the opposition. The only ones making a determined effort to seek out and eliminate these are the armed forces; but even their success is well short of 100 per cent.

What is far worse is the fear that these people generate. The poor of countries such as Pakistan have always lived in fear, but of a different kind of oppression. This fear is not confined to any class, culture, creed or religion, and it is palpable.

Any one accused of blasphemy can be certain of being convicted in the lower court. The chances of a fair trial increase at a higher court but even there one cannot be certain of justice. The scales weigh heavily against an accused of blasphemy.

Rashid Rehman’s family cannot find a reputable lawyer to replace Rashid and defend the blasphemy charge that Rehman was defending.

Then there is the case of Qadri, a personal guard of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Qadri killed Taseer before dozens of witnesses because Taseer had raised his voice condemning the misuse of blasphemy laws. The judge who found Qadri guilty of murder has fled the country.

Some of my friends have an explanation for these and connected travails: continuous bad governance. While not wrong, it is a simplistic view.

A mob is easily roused but far more easily can it be subjected to fear. The vast majority of Pakistani people are silent because they dare not speak.

Like everywhere else, throughout history, the deafening silence of the many makes the many hostage to the few. Germany under Hitler, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China ... the list is unending. If we do not speak out against the oppression of others; it will soon visit us.

As Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I am reminded of historical figures like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, who resisted injustice at a high personal cost. We have some of them in Pakistan, but very far from enough. As is the case all over the world, the most courageous among them are women.

But, I believe that the best example of what Pakistan needs was provided by the American people of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the US rose to its pinnacle and found the identity of the dream that it was created for: a collective conscience. (In all fairness, though, it’s been downhill for the US since.)

This is the period when many Americans united to voice their opposition to the country’s Vietnam policy and raised the cry to their president, Lyndon Baines Johnson: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Their voice was so strong that it was one of the reasons Johnson found the courage not to seek re-election. That is what Pakistan needs today: a collective conscience. But can we find it – and the courage of the many to make it succeed?

Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer

Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM


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