In the wake of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, the best thing we can do for this country’s
embattled non-Muslim peoples is to highlight how we remain hostage even now to the ideology of national security
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
It is telling that there has not been nearly as much of an uproar amongst the chattering classes about Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder as there was two months earlier for Salmaan Taseer. A number of explanations come to mind: first, that the liberals are just tired after two months of relatively intensive activism; second, that a large number of liberals share Taseer’s social circle but have no direct connection to the family and friends of Shahbaz Bhatti; and third that the Raymond Davis affair has really caused people to sit up and rethink their political positions.
I put number three in as a possible explanation rather wishfully. I do think that many who were coming up with justifications for Davis to be smuggled out of the country are likely to be feeling a bit more sheepish about their positions now that everyone and sundry has acknowledged that he was a spook. But I doubt that there has been any serious introspection about the class and ideological polarisations that have been definitively shown up by the varying responses to Davis’ trigger-happy behaviour on that fateful day in Lahore.
Thus, the fact that Bhatti’s murder has been protested largely by Pakistanis who share his faith can be attributed to war-weariness and the fact that Bhatti did not hail from the chattering classes. Our Christian minority is amongst -- if not the most -- marginalised groups in society, and this episode has simply reinforced just how isolated Christians really are. For those of us who claim to represent the interests of religious minorities, this must count as a big indictment.
Christians in Pakistan -- even the small number who do not live their lives in abject poverty -- are too scared at the best of times to say anything controversial, let alone speak Truth to Power. They are such easy targets of xenophobes and state functionaries that it is generally considered a better strategy to understate their distinct identity. Even individuals such as Julius Salik make it a point to regularly reaffirm their commitment to ‘official’ Pakistani identity.
Given this basic fact, and especially in light of recent events, it is critical for those who claim to be at the forefront of the challenge to ‘extremism’ to stand in complete solidarity with non-Muslims. This does not mean issuing the token condemnations of ‘mullahs’ and the religious lobby more generally. Indeed, there is an urgent need to go beyond the rather superficial binary of ‘secularism’ versus ‘theocracy’ and forcefully assert that the root of the problem is still the Pakistani establishment.
In short, Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder is nothing less than clear evidence of the fact that the self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the nation’ still harbour delusions of grandeur about their role within the polity, and by extension, in our wider region. More specifically, I believe that the establishment wants to reserve the right to use Islam to maintain its political dominance, regardless of the fact that this strategy is becoming increasingly risky and dragging all of us into a deep and widening abyss.
Salmaan Taseer is perhaps a better example of the cynicism and desperation that is creeping into the ranks at the helm of affairs. Taseer had a long association with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but over the past two decades had become quite cozy with the establishment alongside its Western patrons. But the contradictions that have been thrown up primarily by imperialism’s direct intervention into Afghanistan have caused nerves to fray and given rise to tension in the oldest of political alliances. When the time came Taseer was expendable because the establishment was not willing to countenance the possibility that the religion card might be taken away from it once and for all.
If there is any doubt about this fact -- and therefore the duplicity with which the religious right has been dealt with -- then we need to cast our eyes only as far as Balochistan. Here it is clear that very little has changed in the thinking of the generals and brigadiers at the top of the tree. The elected government has more or less stopped feigning that it has any meaningful input into dealings with Baloch nationalists. Shock and awe is very much the modus operandi here: more Baloch youth and political activists have been disappeared and killed in the past six months than in the past three years. It goes without saying that a security apparatus so obsessed with crushing a genuinely representative movement for self-determination in Balochistan could not possibly be paying too much attention to the religious right.
As things stand, almost 100,000 Pakistani soldiers are stationed in Waziristan. Given the media blackout in FATA it is impossible to really know what is going on in any of the seven tribal agencies. But it is easy enough to guess that a staged game of cat and mouse continues indefinitely while Pakhtun society -- and the rest of Pakistan -- continues to be ripped apart at the seams.
Of course, as I have insisted on umpteen occasions in the past, using military means to address ‘extremism’ simply reinforces polarisation. Liberal imperialism is the other side of illiberal Islamism. Both politics take us further and further away from the world that most progressives wish to build. And choosing the former over the latter is a folly of historic proportions -- a fact that should be very clear given the dismal failure of the so-called ‘war on terror’.
In the wake of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder, the best thing we can do for this country’s embattled non-Muslim peoples is to call a spade a spade and highlight how we remain hostage even now to the ideology of national security. There have been so many debacles caused directly by the arrogance and ignorance of the establishment that one has lost count. And even now, when almost everything is out in the open, it appears that the military-bureaucratic oligarchy continues to live in its warped little dream world. How long can this go on? Perhaps more importantly, how long will we allow it to go on?