Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Post Op-Ed (April 17, 2006)

Exceptional men

The past week has seen a rise in sectarian violence in Karachi — if one were to think for a moment that there had ever been a time in the recent past when there had been a de-escalation. As I download the newspaper headlines of recent days, other than details of the horrible deaths, one reads about the war of words between the offices of the high command of the Sunni Tehrik (ST) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Newspapers have carried the challenges issued by leaders of both groups. In the wake of the Nishtar Park killings, the leadership of the ST has given a 48-hour ultimatum to the federal government to arrest the killers and publicly hang them or “be ready for any consequences”. The challenge to take action, says the party, started from Wednesday afternoon.

This challenge has been issued by Shahid Ghouri, Qari Khalil ur Rahman Qadri and Engineer Adbul Rahman, all members of ST’s Rabita Committee, who according to reports have taken over the central leadership. The group organised press conferences to inform the Sindh government of the time and location of the funeral prayers for the deceased ST members. Any disruption or change in arrangements on the part of the provincial government would be ‘at their risk’. So as far as one can see it is the ST that will have ownership of ‘public memory’ regarding the tragic event, it will be they who will oversee the direction of the inquiry into the event and what they see as ‘justice’. At this stage it is the Sindh government that is bearing the brunt of their ire. In the same press conference I read angry words like, “If the investigation into this targeted killing is not carried out, the rulers will not be exonerated by the nation; terrorists had succeeded in their targeted aim but would not be successful in eliminating the party, which was purely based on truth and patriotism.”

I am trying to understand this shift in power — who calls the shots in any inquiry in Pakistan now? I have seen it happening before in the aftermath of the cartoon controversy when a fatwa was issued in Peshawar (I refer here to the million dollars or so bounty for the death of the Danish cartoonist). And Lahore wanted to decide how the ‘investigation’ into Copenhagen is conducted and the appropriate punishment to the offenders to be meted out. How can one explain why what is decided in Lahore tries to counter the power and judicial structures in Copenhagen? How groups in Karachi threaten decisions taken in the corridors of Islamabad? Ghassan Hage, an academic at the Sydney University, reminded me of the parallels when he explained the paradigms operating for migrant Muslims. Being Muslim is now a ‘transnational idea’. The British Pakistani on the streets of London in the late eighties would have announced that he would follow what the Ayatollah in Iran is saying rather than the laws of Britain regarding the freedoms of a certain writer. ‘I am a nation of the ST law and not the Pakistani state’; this is what I believe is being uttered in the streets of Karachi right now.

But maybe I am going too far ahead at this stage. At this moment I am observing how political and religious offices continue to valorize a belligerent rather than a more rational and pacifist attitude towards each other. It has been a pet gripe of mine that members of the religious elite and militant religious groups continue to operate as members of legislative parties at both the national and provincial level in Pakistan. And even those operating outside elected and nominated bodies continue to easily quell any political or ideological opposition by proclaiming eternal damnation for anyone challenging them or what they stand for.

Where the situation in Karachi is concerned, the MQM has been quoted as asking President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to ban the Jamaat-e-Islami and remove the NWFP government for supporting political and religious unrest in Sindh. The MQM legislator Kunwar Khalid Younas has declared that Qazi Hussain Ahmad should be held responsible for “protecting terrorists and suicide attackers.” For him the NWFP government stands accused of totally failing to maintain peace, of protecting the life and property of the people of NWFP (and beyond) and that it does not deserve to continue to rule the province.

I try to make sense of what the NWFP religio-political elite is being depicted as and by default what the (ethnically) Pathan political contribution to Pakistan will be remembered as. As the situation appears at present, the leadership stands accused of propagating a very monotheist definition of what political Islam signifies. I have written elsewhere how in other Muslim societies political Islam and even the term ‘jihad’ must have been translated as doing away with inequities. The term corruption rather than being translated as ‘moral corruption’ would be understood as economic violence. To ‘fight against all evils’, would be the sins outlined in Islam and not just physical violence against those believe in causes other than yours. In recent years the political leadership in the province has believed in their own interpretations and have ignored the rest. They do so in the name of Islam and of course through their own understanding of what stands for ‘Pathan values’. In doing so they have bought into the worst kinds of Orientalist representations of the martial Pathan hero. This when the province has inspired and contributed other movements and heroes, which challenge all the stereotypes of the ideal Pathan hero. It is sad that no one remembers the social structures introduced by the Khudai Khidmatgars. Though I have grown up with stories regarding the life and time of its leadership, it is only in recent weeks that I have revisited them through Mulkulika Banerjee’s tribute to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in The Pathan Unarmed (Mulkulika Banerjee: The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier, Oxford University Press and School of American Research Press). One relearns how Ghaffar Khan negotiated an understanding of non-violent political Islam, of reminding us that ‘while Islam condoned violence, it valued forgiveness more highly’ (Banerjee, 2000:212). I find this useful as Khan infers that the discourse of ‘non-violence’ is not Gandhian alone but has been an Islamic ideal as well. Similarly, he also decodes the model of Pukhtoonwali: ‘A man gains more honour by showing restraint and responsibility, particularly in the context of an enemy who has requested sanctuary’ (Banerjee, 2000:212). The Khudai Khitmatgars managed to execute the ideal of ‘positive masculinity’ through their code of what constitutes the ‘complete man’ from a framework that was local to the region. Sadly, they went unrewarded as happened to their political counterparts elsewhere in South Asia — the prestige, acknowledgement in history books, and a philosophy that is still considered as exalted though sadly not emulated by many. In Pakistan the movement faced the brunt of political violence and repression by successive regimes. Family members involved in the movement and their later generations still continue to suffer in a country where those who have suffered far less are celebrated as national heroes. This is tragic and the loss is not just of their community and the particular province but of the entire country. Every day the violence and aggression on the Pakistani streets never fails to remind us of the alternative that could have been possible if we had acknowledged and fêted these exemplary people.

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