By Rooshanie Ejaz, for HRS
Every now and then truths about the country I live in resurface which I have cleverly learnt to ignore over the time I have spent living in Pakistan, i.e. my entire life. It was when I was narrated a story by an acquaintance recently, they were standing at a traffic signal early one morning, on the way to work. Only a few cars were out at this point and joined him at the signal. Soon they were joined by two men on a motor bike, one of whom was dressed in the usual attire of a mueissin; beard, prayer cap, scarf and shalwar kameez. Everyone waited quietly for the signal to turn green when suddenly the man stretched out his arms and exclaimed “Allah-Hu–Akbar”. What ensued was surreal: most cars sped off breaking a red light and from others people ran out and jumped for cover, as the perplexed man on the motorbike wondered at this odd behavior. He had only stretched and uttered a commonly used prayer for remembering God. But, such is the tension in the air these days, as everything from universities, markets crowded with women and children, to concerts have been suicide bombed, people’s lives lost, and the most recently calculated figure totals about 13000 deaths from terrorism in the last eight years in Pakistan (ref. Institute of Conflict Management, South East Asia).
Life is unpredictable in Pakistan or the most developed countries in the world. Yet the clear difference for me seems to be the fear of that unpredictability being most prevalent in Pakistan. In the northern federally administered tribal areas (NWFP), suicide bombers are available to someone willing to pay as little as 200,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately 2 400 dollars), with some of the Taliban clerics reportedly boasting the conversion of a young boy to suicide bomber within six hours. Another study analyzing the remains of most suicide bombers has shown that their age ranges between 16 – 20 years. The nationalities of the “jihadis” collecting in the Bajaur region of Pakistan include Uzbeks, Afghanis, Chechens, Tajiks and Sudanese, and the governor of NWFP told a human rights group in the beginning of 2009 that militants are in complete control of the area, where they have begun to run a parallel state, and where they exercise their brand of strict Islamic law and operate Shariah courts. These are just some alarming figures; one can find a myriad of them upon just one Google search. Yet it’s the comments of some very high ranking officials, supposedly ensuring the protection of a democratic state, which really gives one a true insight into why this is happening to Pakistan; “Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of opinion?” (ISI chief Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha). The point remaining, and apparently too complex for the grasp of such people , that the moment opinion translates into forceful and violent implications, it goes from being an opinion to being fascist and tyrannical aggression, it loses its credence as something that stands for the ‘freedom of opinion’.
In my opinion one of the reasons militancy has been able to take such a root in Pakistan is that the moment anyone brands something as “Islamic”, Pakistanis find it extremely difficult to allow logic to govern their opinion of it. That is a terrible form of ignorance, which I’m afraid is practiced by most people here. They refuse to look into their hearts and minds and judge what feels right; instead they want to avoid repercussions by never disrespecting clerics who they themselves allow to be angry and merciless in their expectations. A clear example of this is the amount of time it took for the general opinion of Pakistanis to condemn the Taliban. It is infuriating how many well educated people projected a supportive opinion of them initially, on the basis that they are puritans, that they will bring Muslims out into a new light, and many other such absurdities, even though every action they committed went against the basis on which Pakistan was formed, the right of opinion and the right to be different. Yet people treaded softly where they should’ve been openly opposed to this breach and disrespect of a countries borders and laws. Therein lies the issue of religion clashing with state. If there was no fear of being cornered and condemned due to seemingly anti-Islamic opinions, which are in actuality opinions for freedom of opinion and don’t actually criticize Islam, people would be so much more fearless when they express their opinions of clear misdeeds being committed against them. In stark comparison, there was and still has been veritable outrage against the U.S military’s drone attacks on Pakistani soil, and I in no way speak for them, breach of sovereign limits is unacceptable, be it by the Taliban or the U.S military, yet media and general outrage against them has been loud and clear to say the least. Oddly enough, Pakistanis seem to take this trait with them wherever they go. In Norway for example it is clear as day that anytime the oppression of women, cheating for social benefits or the high crime rate amongst young Muslim men in Norway is mentioned in order to curb the relentless migration, social benefit scams and asylum seeking, they seem to immediately drag the limelight towards how ‘racist’ such allegations are, that they are being targeted only because they’re Muslims, exhibiting utter ignorance of the damage they are causing the society they’re living in and their own upcoming generations.
This comparison speaks of the basic problem I keep mentioning, our inability as a nation to stand up for what is right and to allow various groups to oppress us, may it be corrupt, landlord politicians, the Taliban, clerics or even Karachi’s prolific mafia network.
My mother grew up in Pakistan and she attended university in Lahore. She speaks of those times in a very different manner; it is clear from her experience as a young woman that our country seems to have regressed in terms of social freedom. She used to avail public transport and walk to school and college; I on the other hand don’t even feel driving alone is very safe anymore. Such a sexist thing to say but there it is; for some reason being accompanied by a man allows one to feel safer in Pakistan, it might be strictly psychological, but it is a reality of feeling. Similarly, due to the current insurgency and terrorism becoming an everyday occurrence, fear is prevalent. One might’ve thought that educational institutions, mosques and areas frequented by women and children are safe. They have after all nothing to do with the government and security institutions, yet they have been mercilessly attacked and bombed. Sending out a clear message that terrorism is geared towards destabilizing Pakistan, at whatever cost, getting away with it in the minds of the jihadis by proclaiming that such sacrifices need to be made for ‘the greater good’. The greater good being areas free of liberal thinking, education and anybody who’s different. Which also leads one to believe that Muslims in Pakistan seem to be the least tolerant group of people, from the burning of 500 Christian homes in Gujrat last year to the beating to death of a factory worker in Karachi, claiming he broke the unarguably archaic ‘blasphemy law’, all sense suggest that most Pakistanis are not tolerant.
The current incidents of terrorism and unstable political situation also causes other forms of regression Artists, singers, models and any other performers do fear for their lives and very few actually criticize the Taliban. Company’s aren’t sponsoring events which are the livelihoods of such professionals, fearing security, and this slow down in the growth of music, art and culture is only keeping us from becoming part of the global village. Talent is abound, yet only a lucky few are given opportunities which allow them to take up the arts and fashion as a form of earning their livelihood, and those few can be commemorated for their brave efforts in keeping the media and arts industry up and running.
Coming back to the incident at the traffic signal, it set off such thoughts because I have now begun to fear waiting for the light to turn green at the very crowded traffic signals of Lahore. Because; who knows when someone decides that now is the time to punish those who need punishment, and this “someone” does it through his own form of ‘freedom of opinion’?