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November 23, 2017



The iron claw

The events that have unfolded over the past fortnight or so in Islamabad, and continue to simmer, have exhibited to all of us just how easy it can be to hobble governments and leave them effectively paralysed.
The gathering by several thousand protesters associated with a number of religious organiaations and led by the newly created Tehreek-e-Laibak Ya Rasool Allah and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan created immense disruption for ordinary people. At least two deaths, one of a very small child, have been recorded because it proved impossible to take patients to hospitals. Many other smaller tragedies and mishaps occurred without necessarily having been recorded.
Despite this, and even though the protest was organised over what would to most rational minds appear to be the matter of a small change in a few words contained within the Election Act of Pakistan referring to the oath taken by candidates regarding the Finality of Prophethood, it proved to be impossible to disperse the protesters. They remained gathered on the highway linking Islamabad and Rawalpindi day after day, conducting themselves in a highly organised form, designed to create maximum disruption and leave the government looking particularly hapless.
The main battle cry of the Laibak, a group which has risen to the mainstream with frightening speed, is to demand the creation of a state run under the strictest interpretation of Islamic laws. The Khatm-e-Nabuwat issue happens to be one of their slogans. Mumtaz Qadri, the man who killed ex-governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer in cold blood is held up as their hero, with posters depicting him appearing at most rallies held by the organisation.
The group shows every intention of taking part in the 2018 election, and there seems to be no attempt to put in place the laws we have against hatred or intolerance so that such groups are eliminated from the contest. It is ironic that other candidates have been denied the right to contest polls on what

would appear – in comparison – to be irrelevant issues, such as the degree they hold or other similar matters.
Our country has seen repeated instances in which religion has been used as a means to gain leverage in the battle for political power. The laws introduced under the late General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s have proved almost impossible to alter to ensure more justice for women or minority groups. Extremist organisations use their undeniable street power and ability to turn out masses of disciplined people onto the streets each time this is attempted. They have of course used the same force to close down Facebook or YouTube for periods of time.
Part of the fault for this lies with mainstream political parties who have repeatedly connived with extremist groups or entered into dangerous political alliances with them in order to gain mileage in particular constituencies and acquire votes which will place them in assemblies. The PML-N, the PPP and other forces have all been guilty of this.
There are other indications too that extremism is not on the way out in our country. While we hear little from South Waziristan or from other tribal areas in our country, recent reports have stated that after the ‘victory’ over militants in the area, a ‘peace committee’ has been installed to run affairs from Wana and control the agency. Bizarrely, given the months of battle, this committee consists of Taliban elements that have lost no time at all in imposing their style of order, with the movement of women severely restricted, dance and music at cultural events barred, and other absurd restrictions put in place.
This raises the question of why we fought against the militants in the first place, resulting in a mass displacement of persons and the death of many, both soldiers and civilians. Perhaps we should simply have let the militants remain in place rather than dislodging them only to bring back an entity following much the same ideology and presenting a threat to groups within the community.
The sharp teeth of extremism sink deeper and deeper into the body of our society. The marks of blood are visible in many places and we sometimes here flesh being torn apart violently and forcefully. The policies devised by government do nothing to help. Recently a message has gone out from an official government department asking anyone who spots blasphemous content on the internet to report it immediately; a telephone number too has been provided for this. Such actions can only encourage the spread of hatred and sense of uncertainty that goes with it. We need an open, more tolerant place if we are ever to truly eliminate extremism and prevent it from creeping back again and again in one form or the other.
There is no evidence for now that this is happening. But there are some signs of hope. There may have been a crackdown on social media activists, but the people who sit behind their screens and have been given a voice through forums such as Facebook or Twitter have made their typed words create at least some impact. Recently, there has been an open defence of the right to hold any religious belief without judgment by fellow citizens. The message has been shared widely on social media.
This in itself says something about our society. There are clearly many within it who do not want the situation we live in today to continue endlessly and without respite. Sadly, there has been little space in the past for them to make themselves heard. Even now, we do not know the real feelings of people on many issues linked to extremism and hatred. Too often, the surveys conducted have been ineffective because of the caution which accompanies them and the constant warnings which make it difficult for people to say what they truly believe to be true.
We need to alter the environment that we live in. Yes, there may be protesters out in the streets of Islamabad raising a certain slogan. For fairly obvious reasons, people willing to raise another different slogan will prefer not to venture out into any arena where they become vulnerable. Ways have to be found to give them an opportunity to speak. The lid we have placed on permitting open thought and debate makes this harder and harder.
The recent actions taken against individuals on the basis of social media posts scare off many. But clearly there are plenty who remain unafraid and willing to move one step forward with each passing day. It is encouraging to see the number of people who then follow such steps. Of course social media, still accessible to only a minority, cannot help us gauge the opinions of an entire nation. But there has been some reason to believe that many, including those who live in villages and hamlets and other areas not so often explored by the media, are exhausted too by the violence they have lived with for so many years.
They seek a different kind of society and our political leaders, regardless of which party they belong to, must make it their mission to help create such a place for them.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.