First published and cross-posted from Huffington Post
I was in Kasur, a small town near Lahore, Pakistan, where the celebrated mystic poet Bulleh Shah is buried. Thousands gathered for the 254th anniversary of his death. Slogans chanted on that occasion would be branded ‘blasphemous’ by extremist organizations in Pakistan.
Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.
Bulleh Shah penned these verses challenging religious extremism and orthodoxy that plagued Muslim society hundreds of years ago. He was exiled from his home town and, history has it, he was denied a burial in Muslim cemetery. His advice has clearly gone unheeded as my country is still yet to find peace. Not even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been spared being labelled ‘the great infidel’.
Incidentally, the same ilk of religio-political parties who now manipulate public discourse were at the forefront of using religious narrative for political point scoring before Pakistan came into being.
4 January 2011 is a day I cannot forget. Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab, was gunned down by his bodyguard. He was killed for supporting a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. He was shot twenty six times.
For the entire week after the killing, I was scared. I don’t remember being in that state of mind since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. It’s not a very heartening sight to see fellow ‘educated’ countrymen glorifying a murderer and justifying his actions based on ignorant rhetoric. Scores of fan pages popped up on Facebook, many of my friends changed their profile pictures to one of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, exalting a murderer as hero.
Very few turned out to pay homage to the slain governor in days to come, as ‘liberals’ arranged vigils in his remembrance. Yet thousands poured on to the streets to defend Mumtaz Qadri, his assassin. The media, which has been a primary tool in fanning conspiracy theories in public, had again played a pivotal role in enticing ‘religious’ emotions on this issue.
The killer of Salman Taseer had confessed proudly. The brave judge who sentenced him to death has gone into hiding and will not be re-appearing anytime soon.
7 March 2011. The start of another week of gloom and, if I’m honest, I was ashamed to be a Pakistani. We had arranged a protest to condemn the killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Federal Minister for Minorities who was brutally assassinated on 2 March. He was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the only Christian in the cabinet. Only a few youngsters turned up.
When it comes to numbers, we can gather thousands but the ’cause’ has to be against India, Israel or America. Not many will show up if the demonstration is against radical organisations, or asking for introspection within.
Many who rallied for Gaza in early 2009 were not seen in protests condemning Taliban atrocities in Swat at the same time. Many who burnt down shops in anger at the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad never stood up for Parachinar, a small town near the border of Afghanistan where thousands have been killed in sectarian violence between Sunni’s and Shia’s.
9 October 2011. I was stuck on the Islamabad Highway, the main road that connects Islamabad with Rawalpindi as it was blocked by flash mobs protesting for the release of Mumtaz Qadri.
Two decades and 40,000 deaths later which includes top politicians, generals and clerics – not many things have changed when it comes to checking radicalism within Islam.
Many attacks on places of worship of minority sects within Islam, recurring violent brawls between followers of different schools of thought, reaction to the murder of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, recent acts of violence in Baluchistan and the tale of Parachinar are chapters in recent history which expose the extent of radicalisation in Pakistani society.
Soon, we as citizens of a country founded because a minority felt discriminated against and followers of the great religion of Islam, need to face up to the challenge of the radical minded and their extremist ideology.
This is a war of ideologies and is inevitably a war that must be fought with opinions and ideas; it must encourage discourse and exchange of reason. It is a war that must form the basic pillar of a new and improved national paradigm for Pakistan
We as a society cannot ignore an emerging threat from radicalism within our ranks, because if it gets too late, there might be no ‘music’ left to face.
Follow Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Ali_Abbas_Zaidi