Causes of polarization in Pakistan

Developing Just Leadership

Waseem Shehzad

Safar 27, 1432 2011-02-01

News & Analysis

by Waseem Shehzad (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 12, Safar, 1432)

Last month’s events have confirmed, yet again, with striking clarity how deeply polarized the Pakistani society is. The killing of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab Province, by his own bodyguard on January 4 has scared the living daylights out of the already cowardly rulers.

Last month’s events have confirmed, yet again, with striking clarity how deeply polarized the Pakistani society is. The killing of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab Province, by his own bodyguard on January 4 has scared the living daylights out of the already cowardly rulers. If you cannot trust your own police guard, who else can you turn to for protection? This is the price of alienation from the masses. On the other end of the spectrum, there were celebrations at the killing. Even lawyers joined in and hundreds of them came forward pledging to defend the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, free of charge in court.

To understand the degree of polarization, here is a quick glance at the level of people’s misery. Power (electricity) is unavailable for at least 12 hours in a 24-hour cycle; the same applies to gas. When available the pressure in gas pipes is so low that it is virtually impossible to even cook food. People have been shivering in the unusually cold weather because they prefer to cook food with gas instead of running heaters. Many people have switched to burning wood again, a practice that was abandoned 20 years ago. Pakistan’s already low forested-area — less than 8% of the total landmass — will suffer even greater damage. Even Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif complained that his province was being denied its allotted gas quota.

The ruling elites and their hangers-on face no such problems. There is no shortage of electricity or gas for them. They live in palatial homes with an army of servants waiting to carry out their commands. Their homes are also heavily guarded for fear of being attacked. But can they trust the guards standing at their gates anymore? They send their children to study in Britain or the US and send their wives or daughters to have babies there too. Upon completing studies, the sons and daughters of the elite return to rule the “uneducated, uncultured, and unclean” masses!

The divide in Pakistan is reflected in other ways as well. The elites are completely secular and thoroughly westernized while the masses have a deep attachment to Islam even if their understanding is simplistic. The masses also feel that their values rooted in Islam are under attack. The elite’s life ambition is to please the West, especially the US. The masses of Pakistan hate the US and its aggressively militaristic policies reflected in drone attacks, Blackwater mercenaries operating with impunity in Pakistan, gross US interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan and the vulgarity being spread through television programs to the great distress and anger of the vast majority of deeply religious people.

This divide came into even sharper focus when Salman Taseer was shot and killed on January 4 in Islamabad. His bodyguard and police commando of eight years, Mumtaz Qadri pumped 27 bullets into him. Reason? Taseer was perceived as being opposed to the blasphemy law that he described as a “black law.” He demanded it should be repealed. This angered many Pakistanis. Two days before his killing, Taseer was asked by a female student at Government College Lahore as to why he had visited the jailed woman convicted of blasphemy by a court when the rulers had never uttered a word about the killing of hundreds of innocent people in US drone attacks. Instead, the rulers — President Asif Ali Zardari as per WikiLeaks — have justified such attacks and told the US to continue killing people. Sherry Rehman, another stalwart of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, had tabled a motion in parliament to amend the law. After Taseer’s killing, she went into purdah.

The reaction to Taseer’s murder was even more reflective of the deep divide. The two sides were so far apart they appeared as to be living on different planets. The secularists, many computer-savvy and communicating on Facebook or Twitter could not contain their anger. They denounced the killer as a medieval barbarian; others praised Taseer as if he were some kind of an angel. One particularly sycophantic message on Facebook had this to say: “What a great man, a liberal, a proponent of culture, youth, minorities and women’s rights, an enemy of extremism…”

In Pakistan only “liberals”, it seems, are cultured and opposed to “extremism”. One wonders whether the vast majority of people in Pakistan would accept such labels. How does one define “liberalism”? Is it the belief that there should be no restriction on immorality such as wild parties at which alcohol flows freely in the “Islamic” Republic of Pakistan, and where boys and girls mingle freely and dance and scream to loud music all night? The “liberals” also believe Pakistan’s problems are the direct result of people’s backward thinking borne of religious teaching. The Pakistani “liberal”, however, is also completely subservient to the West. The masses loathe such behavior and cannot fathom how this tiny minority has usurped power and used it to amass fortunes.

For the liberals, anyone who is religiously inclined is both backward and extremist. The westoxicated liberals cannot imagine life without subservience to the West. For them, religion is only relevant when someone dies. At that time, these “cultured creatures” need a maulvi to lead the deceased’s funeral prayers. Throughout life they have not set foot inside a masjid much less being familiar with the basic concepts of Islam but they insist on a burial with full Islamic rites. The much-reviled maulvi and his equally reviled students are also required to recite Qur’an for the deceased. For “liberals”, the Qur’an, Allah’s (saw) eternal book of guidance for humanity, is only good for recitation for the dead. During their life, they have no time or use for the Qur’an (nastaghfirullah). This was evident in the immediate aftermath of Taseer’s murder. The religious establishment issued a call demanding no imam/maulvi should lead his funeral prayers. The call was so well heeded that even imam of the masjid near the governor’s mansion dared not violate it. Taseer was buried amid tight security in the military cemetery in Lahore. Of the 6,000 people attending his burial (an insignificant number for such a high official), 4,000 were security personnel in plain clothes. Few politicians, including President Asif Ali Zardari, or generals attended, fearing for their lives.

The reaction from the other side was equally revealing. There were celebrations in the streets including distribution of sweets. Hundreds of lawyers said they would defend Mumtaz Qadri pro bono. Tens of thousands of people participated in rallies in Karachi on two consecutive Fridays in support of Qadri and warned against meddling with the blasphemy law. The rallies were followed by ethnic violence in which scores of people were killed. There was widespread perception that these had been instigated by intelligence agencies to tie people in their own conflicts and divert attention from the blasphemy law controversy that has so polarized society. The elites are under pressure from the West to repeal the law. The polarization was further boosted when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heaped praise on Taseer describing his murder as a “great loss.” Clinton’s statement merely reinforced the perception that Taseer and indeed the rest of the Pakistani elite are agents of the West. Pakistani newspapers have reported Taseer’s links to western intelligence agencies.

To view the murder merely as an act of extremism, however, would be both simplistic and misleading. Taseer himself was a deeply polarizing figure. Zardari appointed him as governor of Punjab province in order to undermine the rival Pakistan Muslim League government headed by Shahbaz Sharif. Taseer and his family were also widely regarded as immoral. The murder must be viewed in the broader context of the direction Pakistan’s history has taken since its founding in August 1947. For the vast majority of people, Pakistan was supposed to revive the long-lost khilafah or Islamic rule with socio-economic and political justice but the rulers betrayed the people’s deepest sentiments. While paying lip service to Islamic values, they have pushed the country in a direction where the masses are unwilling to go. In the grip of secularists, Pakistan has become a haven for professional thieves, rapists, and murderers.

The masses, meanwhile, are deprived of every shred of dignity. Neither their lives nor their honor is safe. The honor of the Prophet (pbuh) was the last straw they were clinging to and now they felt even that was under assault. It was the one red line the masses were not prepared to tolerate. They had witnessed assaults on the honor of the Prophet (pbuh) through such scandalous attempts as the Danish cartoons and vulgar films in the West but Pakistan’s Muslim masses could not reach there. They only vented their anger through noisy rallies in Pakistan’s scruffy streets. When the question of insulting the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) was perceived to have arisen in Pakistan and the rulers, far from defending such honor, joined in such attacks, there was very strong reaction. It is interesting to note that it was a policeman, a trained commando at that, who took the law into his own hands. Had he killed an ordinary Pakistani, nobody would have taken much notice. The lives of ordinary people are dispensable; only the lives of the elite matter.

The divide in Pakistan is also reflected in other ways. Most westernized elites are fond of quoting one of the speeches the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, delivered in early 1948 in which he said that in Pakistan Muslims would cease to be Muslims and Hindus would cease to be Hindus, not in a religious but in a political sense, as citizens. Jinnah, reverentially called Qaid-e Azam (the Great Leader), was enunciating the principle that in an Islamic State, even non-Muslims will have their rights guaranteed. In an attempt to advance their own agenda, the secularists have misinterpreted this to claim that Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a “secular” state. Interestingly, the secularists and feudal lords that currently rule Pakistan had played little or no role in the struggle to achieve Pakistan. The Pakistan movement was backed and supported by ordinary Muslims but once the country was established, the secularists grabbed power, pushing the masses aside.

There is another side to the story that the secularists completely ignore. Jinnah had in another speech delivered in Sibi (Baluchistan province) on February 14, 1948, addressed the basis of the law in Pakistan. He said: “It is my belief that our salvation lies in following the golden rules of conduct set for us by our great lawgiver, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) of Islam. Let us lay the foundations of our democracy on the basis of true Islamic ideals and principles.” Pakistani secularists claim Jinnah was a secularist. True, he was not very religious but what they never mention is that he was an extremely honest, upright and hardworking man. The ruling elites are professional thieves and grossly incompetent. Jinnah would be ashamed to be associated with such a bunch of crooks. He must be turning in his grave at the sorry state to which Pakistan has been reduced by succeeding generations of rulers.

Corruption and mismanagement have turned Pakistan into a basket case. The masses feel totally isolated and abandoned while the elite live in extravagant luxury and openly flaunt it. This was also witnessed during last summer’s devastating floods. The government, even one claiming to have a popular mandate, did not come to their rescue; only non-governmental organizations did. In their state of helplessness, the masses have reacted in unpredictable and ugly ways. The mightiest power on earth drops bombs on their heads and on their mud villages but the Pakistani rulers, far from taking steps to prevent such barbarism or even condemn it, urge the US “to do more.” Sounds familiar? If it is all right for the US to kill innocent people, why is it not OK for the poor to use the same tactics? This is not to condone violence, only to put things in proper perspective. The oppressed, dispossessed and dehumanized masses are reacting in the only way they can: with their bodies as human bombs. Call it suicide bombing (to de-legitimize it) but the fact is, the masses have found a way to strike back. In fact, some observers have wondered why it took them so long to hit back. To every action, there is an equal reaction, as Newton’s third law states. It applies in Pakistan as well.

It took insensitive and, some would say, blasphemous remarks of the elite borne of religious ignorance to ignite a spark. Faith is a matter of the heart invested with deep love of the Prophet (pbuh). Assault that and you are charting into dangerous territory. Expressing surprise at the strong reaction of ordinary Muslims is supreme ignorance.

“Honor belongs to Allah, His Messenger and the securely committed Muslims” (63:08), declares Allah (saw) in His noble Book. Anyone who assaults that honor is playing with fire and will face serious consequences. Events in Pakistan have confirmed this basic truth.

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