Saturday, January 29, 2011

A revolution in Pakistan is a bad idea...for now

As most of the people in the Pakistani blogosphere (at least on the political side of things), I have been glued to my computer screen tweeting and retweeting news, facts and opinions (often pointless and completely unnecessary) ever since protests have intensified in Egypt against Mubarak following the fall of Ben Ali government in Tunisia (protests are now also underway in Libya, Yemen and Jordan). Not that my interest in these non-violent movements/revolts/revolutions is purely political. Growing up in an oppressive society where the circumstance of your birth determines your future, where there is no opportunity for upwards mobility ( not if you're unwilling to be corrupt) and where survival is a daily struggle for most, these events are affecting me at an emotional level

When I was in my early teens, I would often ask my parents that if the government was so corrupt, dishonest, unaccountable and greedy, why didn't we simply overthrow it? Why didn't 150 million people simply march in the streets and take over? After all, only a few were in power and wasn't the majority was on our side? 

A few university level history courses later and I dropped these questions all together. Political change from a historical perspective usually involved violence (of course there is post-apartheid South Africa and the Velvet divorce). Most of the time a lot of people died. Revolutions required unification around an idea, and we were short on those. Also, I had ceased to believe that Pakistanis were actually capable of a political revolt. The success of the protest movement in Tunisia (and Egypt, god-willing), has changed my opinion on this. 

This of course raises the point of whether a revolution is a viable form of meaningful political change in Pakistan?  Given the demographic pressure, the lack of economic opportunity, the floods and the lack of proper response, the increasing gap between the elite (people like me) and the rest of the country, rising food and commodity prices, the apparent failure of state institutions such as health care and education and an ongoing Islamist insurgency, dissatisfaction with the current Pakistani government has never been higher. This does not automatically translate to revolution. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, no one person or party can be blamed for Pakistan's downward spiral. As much as I despise Zardari, he is not solely responsible for the condition that we are in. After all, Nawaz Sharif  bankrupted the country, Benazir Bhutto officially recognized and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military established the policy of using Islamic militants against India, Zia ul-Haq introduced the blasphemy laws, Zulfiqar Bhutto declared Ahmadis as non-muslims to save his political ass, Ayub Khan promoted corruption and nepotism as official policy and no one invested national resources into health, education or social welfare. Pakistan is also an ethnically, socially and politically diverse country, perhaps more so than either Egypt or Tunisia, making it difficult for everyone to agree with each other on any political platform.

Let's assume for one moment, that a revolution is viable now. Does this necessarily mean that it is most appropriate course of action to take for tangible political and social change in the country? I don't think so.  Religious fundamentalism in Pakistan is at an all time high. We have an armed insurgency fighting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. We have a power hungry military waiting in the wings to topple a weakened state. If there is to be a revolution right now, it would most definitely not be the one that we liberals are waiting for. The outcome would either be a same old same old military takeover (most likely) or a more disturbing prospect of Islamic fundamentalists and militants regaining power (less likely since the military will probably not allow this). And given long simmering ethnic and religious tensions, you can be sure that any peaceful protest movement is quickly going to devolve into a violent one with many breakaway groups competing for power.

If what we desperately desire in Pakistan is real social and political change, a revolution is not the way to go about it...at least not now. If our government(s) are inept and corrupt, then we have to shoulder the responsibility of building the social institutions that are so desperately needed. Pakistani civil society, especially the liberal elites behind computer screens and English language blogs (myself included) need to create a critical mass of people willing to disregard their ethnic, political and religious allegiances to embrace a common goal of political change using non-violent means. In this process of reform, a revolution should be considered as the last step.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A religious argument against blasphemy laws

Since the murder of Salman Taseer over his position in the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian women charged with blasphemy, there have been numerous discussions in the Pakistani blogosphere on dealing with Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Specifically, Cafe Pyala's excellent post calling for the supporters of the blasphemy laws to be treated as blasphemers themselves and Ahsan's  rebuttal (also excellent) stick out in my mind as the kind of conversations that we (liberals/leftists) should be engaging in. If there is some good to come from Taseer's death, at the very least it is our responsibility to ensure that these conversations are being carried out at an increasing volume. I am not going to wax poetic about Taseer. I disagreed with many of his political decisions and his assassination will not change my opinions on this matter. However, he fought to change the constitutional basis for blasphemy and stood up for Aasia Bibi at tremendous costs. For this, he has my eternal respect.

While Ahsan makes an excellent argument against attempting to beat the mullahs at their own game, I am going to have to disagree. Considering the prevalent religiosity in Pakistani society, it is impossible for this debate to take place on any other level. As long as people continue to believe that it is religiously sanctioned and therefore acceptable to try, convict, punish and kill people for blasphemy, there can never be any real progress on this front. For this reason it is essential that debates on this issue take place within public view to at least raise the possibility of another legitimate religious view in this matter. This debate is not for the mullahs, make no mistake about is. We will (most probably) never convince them. It is for the audience alone.

Neither can a debate of this gravity be supported by a few hadith and sunnah. If we are to delegitimize violence and the acceptance and approval of its use against blasphemers (and those perceived to be blasphemers), we need to bust out more robust arguments than the some events in the Prophet's life where he was nice to people being mean to him.

This leads me to the main point of my post. Let's consider "The chapter of the Elephant" (Surah 105:1-5), in the Quran. This surah talks about the confrontation between Abraha, the ruler of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the tribes of Mecca. Basically the tribes of Mecca attack Yemen, then a protectorate of the Abyssinian empire, looting many population centers and specifically destroying churches in the region. This of course angers Abraha who decides to march on a war path to Mecca, with an army of elephants (hence the name) to destroy the Kaaba, an economically and religiously important place for Meccans (pagan and otherwise). At this time, the Kaaba is under the administration of the tribe of Quraish, specifically the clan of Banu Hashim lead by Abdul-Muttalib (also happens to be grandfather of the Prophet). Once Abraha reaches Mecca, he decides to goad the Quraish into war by taking  ~1000 red camels (number disputed by various sources) belonging to Abdul-Muttalib. Abdul-Muttalib seeks an audience with Abraha to demand the return of his camels. Abraha is surprised by this request. He asks Abdul-Muttalib, why he is only asking about his camels and not the Kaaba which he is the administrator of. Abdul-Muttalib replies that he is responsible for protecting his property (i.e. camels) and that Allah is responsible for protecting his (i,e, Kaaba). Abraha attacks the Kaaba and is defeated by flocks of starlings/sparrows dropping pebbles on his army at the behest of Allah.

So my argument is as follows. If you believe that Prophet Muhammad is a true prophet of Allah (and the Quran is the true message of Allah), then based on the logic behind the words of Abdul-Muttalib, Allah is completely responsible for his good name. The responsibility of defending the Prophet's honor is neither mine nor yours. This is not to say that one does not have the right to feel insulted by actions considered as blasphemy (if you so desire), but that you cannot act against it in the form of intimidation, violence or legal actions. After all, if you feel that those that commit or participate in blasphemy should be dealt through human intervention, either you have no faith in the ability of Allah to protect the good name of the Prophet/Quran or you feel that you can do a much better job. In both cases, you are doubting the ability of Allah to take care of his messenger and his message.  In both cases, it is you who is committing blasphemy.

P.S. For the record, I prefer the secular/non-religious argument against blasphemy laws over religious ones. Since most Pakistanis reject secular arguments as being a) foreign and b)not-religious (obvious!) and therefore not legitimate, it is more effective to debate these matter within a religious framework. It's sad that the packaging of an argument matters more than the argument itself, but this is the social reality within which we exist and we need to deal with it.