DISCLAIMER: This piece was written March 2, and then languished overnight due to a PTCL outage. It contains emotion and other profanity.
I am rarely at a loss for words. I certainly wasn’t this morning, when I started out on a smarmy skewering of George Fulton’s ‘I’m leaving Pakistan because she’s being mean to me dammit!‘ piece in the Express Tribune yesterday.
I was going to run with his personification of the blessed motherland as a flighty female prone to self-destructive megalomania, I was.
I was particularly taken with the bit featuring the Bryan Adams song where Pakistan, the impenetrable, fecund, feminine other, sings to him the lyrics To really love a woman/ To understand her – you gotta know her deep inside/ Hear every thought – see every dream/ N’ give her wings – if she wants to fly/ Then when you find yourself lyin’ helpless in her arms/ You know you really love a woman…
Then I ran it by another Pyala who, with what is in hindsight admirable self-restraint, politely asked me if I’d bothered turning on the TV or reading the news today. I did both and found out that our Federal Minister for Minorities had been assassinated in Islamabad. And then there I was, open mouthed, shell shocked, silent, on the dreaded Island of Lost Words. In such a situation, what is the value of mere words?
Ironically enough, it is Infinite, according to those behind the latest assassination in Islamabad this morning. I will be happy to issue a retraction should the motives behind this senseless tragedy be conclusively proved to be something mundane, like extortion, or something exculpating to the national conscience, like ‘a hidden hand’, but until then I shall continue to assume that, like the late Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed because of the words he uttered.
These words, for which he had been receiving death threats for the past month, had specifically to do with the late minister’s position on our blasphemy law. Mr. Bhatti, representing as he did some of the most disenfranchised citizens of this blighted nation, bravely and ceaselessly kept pointing out the way the law has been misused to harass and oppress his constituents. His essential argument, that a law that leads to injustice more often than it does justice merits reform if not repeal, was in direct opposition to the simplistic, ignorant stance taken by most of the participants in what passes for public discourse on the subject. For this principled stance Mr. Bhatti, like others before him, paid with his life.
Words then, I have to continue to assume, are powerful enough for other people to feel threatened by. Words that carry truth, particularly when they touch upon the misinterpretation of religion, intimidate those whose words don’t. In our history, or rather our collective amnesia, we have often responded to words of truth and beauty with the vituperation, forcing into exile or silencing of those who utter them. But now I have to ask myself a different question, i.e. what is the value of mere words when the other side is using guns?
There was a time when some of us would have leapt at the chance to throw words into this maelstrom, to comment on a senseless tragedy like the one today. As journalists, as commentators, as columnists, it would have been like going to the Promised Land. High profile murder? Check. Law and order issue? Check. Spectre of extremism? Check. Possibility of point scoring against toothless government? Check. Energizing, empowering, emboldening feeling of being part of a struggle that is bigger than one’s self? Check, Check, Check and Check!
That time is long past.
Now, when we sit down at our keyboards, our desks, or take our notebooks in our hands to begin the process of writing another Pakistani’s obituary, another summation of the life of a brother or sister felled by the demon of militant extremism we have allowed to feed on our children, it is not the purposeful elation of a collective struggle we feel but despair. Despair, in someone else’s words, “of the possibility of ever changing the prevailing state of affairs, of ever being redeemed from it..”
Faced with this insidious, creeping bleakness, even the strongest of us might be tempted, fleetingly, to embrace the self-anesthetization, the comfortable numbness, of those who survive by not speaking at all, by not writing at all, by not thinking at all. But we must. We must because there is soft ground beneath us and if we stop, even for a second, to rest or lick our wounds we might sink and be lost.
So today I write this not as a journalist or a commentator or a columnist or a wiseass but as a Pakistani. I write this for those moderate Muslims who no longer wish to think, write or speak into an apparent vacuum so that you know you are not alone. I write this for my Christian, Hindu, Scheduled Caste, Atheist, Agnostic countrymen and women, so that they know that they are not alone. I write this for me, so that I know I am not alone.
I write that I condemn, in the kind of language I would like to hear from our gutless, myopic leaders, the brutal, unjust slaying of a brave, principled man advocating a return to the pluralistic principles on which this country was founded. I write that I condemn those within the political and military establishment who protect the nest of vipers in our midst. I write that I condemn the spineless, self-preserving hedging about of the spineless, self-preserving fuckwits swarming TV and newsprint. I write that I condemn the willful, witless intolerance seemingly decent people practice through their silence during bloodthirsty sermons delivered in mosques and drawing rooms. I write that I condemn those whose reaction to events like this is a diminishing of their personal and political engagement with the world around them rather than an expansion. I write that I condemn every parent, grandparent or caregiver who lets strangers dictate their child’s moral code.
And I write that I take personal issue with every man, woman or adolescent who says ‘but’ when debating whether dissension merits death.
I picked up the papers with trepidation this morning, precisely because I was afraid to read passages like the one below, taken from Dawn‘s story about PM Gilani’s ‘new strategy to fight extremism’.
“THREE REMAIN SEATED: But many in the house and the galleries were surprised to see three bearded members of the opposition Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman remaining seated in their chairs when the rest of lawmakers stood up to observe two minutes’ silence for Mr Bhatti.
There was no immediate explanation what motivated the JUI back-benchers, in the absence of their party leader, to violate a parliamentary etiquette, and a directive given by the chair, in agreement with some voices raised in the house, that members stand up to pay a silent tribute to their assassinated colleague.”
Here’s a new strategy for you to fight extremism with PM Gilani: name and shame those who will not rise against it.
This piece originally appeared on Cafe Pyala, a Pakistani blog about politics and the media.
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