Our Muted Moderates
The recent Tahafuz a Namoos I Risalat rally in Lahore boasted a gathering of around 40,000. The participation was all male, mostly bearded and wore a variety of sect specific head gears. Apart from anger over the Blasphemy issue, the speakers also seemed disgusted with the onslaught of western influences.
Although this outpouring was impressive in its numeric strength, by and large it was from the more conservative segment of our society. Mainstream Pakistan, let’s call it moderate Pakistan, has some traits in terms of its appearance and norms that makes it different from conservative Pakistan. Our moderates usually have no qualms about listening to music, and have favorites from Hollywood as well as Bollywood. Men don’t grow beards and women are not that keen on donning a scarf, burqas are usually unheard off among this lot. There is a higher acceptability of women education and an increasing number is opening up to the idea of women employment.
Recently, a good friend who considers herself a moderate explained that in the post Taseer scenario, our country has been split into two extremes; the liberal as well as the conservative. The moderates according to her were part of neither. After putting me into the liberal extremist category, she went on to agree with me that the murder of Salman Taseer was an unjust act.
To me that sounded a bit confusing, if we both agree that Qadri was wrong in doing what he did, then how come I am a liberal extremist and she is a moderate? What did I do differently from her that equalized my stance with the outright fascism of our conservatives? She responded that, in this situation, liberal extremists were those who were making the conservatives angry by picking up issues that are dear to the conservatives. Salman Taseer apparently could have avoided his death, had he not taken up this very “sensitive” issue. But then subsequently, she agreed that the Blasphemy law has been misused to target minorities, the case of Asia Bibi being an example. Yet again I probed, if it was an injustice, then didn’t Salman Taseer do the right thing in speaking out against it?
While we went on and on, her point was very obvious, do not anger the religious right by speaking out against them. The sad thing is that, she is not alone in this; this is the exact attitude that is exhibited by our elected Government. It would be good to remind ourselves that this present Government came into power with a secular mandate; PPP, ANP and MQM are all parties that have secular agendas, and got into power because of the moderate sensibilities of the Pakistani people. But yet, the capitulation of these secular parties is evident, our senate could not even agree on doing a fateha for Salman Taseer. With Sherry Rehman bullied into a retreat and the unavailability of a prosecutor to charge Qadri, conservative Pakistan has scored a major victory, despite their routing in the last elections.
But the triumph of our religious right, which was achieved through murder and intimidation, has major consequences for the future of Pakistan. Those who think that the sacrifice of a few Christians or Ahmadis would be enough to appease the growing blood-lust of our conservative fascists are in for a surprise. The speeches made at the recent rally in Lahore, were not limited to the blasphemy law, “displeasure” was shown at suggestions for changes in Madrassa curriculums, or trying to bring to justice those responsible for suicide bombings and be-headings, or any attempts to control the spread of violence through mosques, and the list goes on. These are all issues on which there is a broader consensus for the need for reform. This forced compromise on the Blasphemy Laws is bound to be followed by forced compromises on other issues concerning the religious right.
My friend is educated and employed; she shops without any mahrums accompanying her, and doesn’t cover her face or her hair. The description of her lifestyle would fit that of a rising number of young Pakistani women, and they all owe their liberties to the current norms prevailing in our society. Consider for a moment that she is transported to the Kandahar of the Taliban, with the same fashion sense and the same liberties. In that case her mere existence would be a source of displeasure and ire, she will be a liberal extremist by merely existing.
By appeasing the demands of our religious right, Pakistan’s moderate majority is helping in pushing this society towards more conservative norms. Norms, that would eradicate the liberties and choices enjoyed by these very moderates. A continuation of this process will only make the silent moderates of today be the liberal extremists of tomorrow.