The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
This holy month has been a grim reminder of how intolerant we have become as a people. Whether it the massacre of Hazaras or the indiscriminate killing of Shias across Pakistan, the continuing persecution of the Ahmedis or the oppression chasing away Pakistani Hindu, whether it is support for the khakis ‘sorting out’ traitors in Balochistan or finding excuses for the murderous TTP attaching our soldiers and law-enforcers, if there is a shared state of mind that explains the increasing violence and injustice staring us in the face it is intolerance.
With the latest attack on Kamra one knows what to expect. On the whole there will be the regurgitation of conspiracies of all hues explaining how all evil forces in the whole wide world are conniving again this citadel of the faithful being defended and held together by our dutiful soldiers. A minority view will highlight that we are the architects of our own doom and point to the fact that our blundering khakis still refuse to dispense with notions such as strategic depth and strategic assets. But after pointing fingers and venting anger there will be little introspection.
Let us face it, as a society and as a state we have failed to build and strengthen institutions, customs, traditions and practices that enable expression and accommodation of divergent opinions. Unless we focus on finding ways to accommodate choices that we personally might find disagreeable or even offensive the vicious cycle of injustice breeding anger, revenge and violence that is consuming us from within will not end. The actions of the Taliban or terrorists of the sectarian variety are unfortunately only extreme versions of attitudes that our moderate majority happily wears on its sleeve.
Part of the problem is that we find all means, fair and foul, generally justifiable so long as we are sold on the ends. Why is there no grand outrage against drones? Is it not because the drones are a foreign policy and not a human rights issue for us? Are they abhorrent because they are being fired by the yanks? What if the US handed over the technology to our khakis? Would these summary assassinations then be kosher? If the rebellious Baloch youth go missing and turn up dead, the khakis are playing judge, jury and executioner. But if the bad Taliban are executed instead of being arrested, it is good riddance for most.
It is commendable that our army chief has candidly stated that in fighting terror we are fighting our own people and it is not easy. But is our army or any army for that matter trained to fight its own people? Have we even paused to consider the consequences of using the army as our lead internal security force and the ISI as the prime investigation agency? Have we made any changes to the organisational structure of the army or the police, or the law regulating internal security functions to accommodate this new reality?
Is it not amazing that our society still seems comfortable with a national security policy that first trained and nurtured jihadis and then began to distinguish the good ones from the bad depending on who they were killing? How do you understand a nation that loses over 40,000 of its people to terror within a decade and still finds excuses for terrorists doing the killing? Let’s turn to the overarching societal attitude that accommodates the multitude of smaller contradictions afflicting us: our tolerance for violence and intolerance for what can at best be regarded as poor taste but is projected as immorality.
This paradox of being tolerant and intolerant about the wrong things at the same time is nurtured by a flawed historical self-image, a myopic worldview and a misconceived sense of national purpose. Two recent events highlight this paradox. Sheikh Rasheed, a peoples’ representative who has served as a cabinet member under various regimes, stood in a public rally in the heart of Rawalpindi and implored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary to kill President Asif Zardari. (Does Imran Khan’s inexplicable presence on stage during this rant amount to an endorsement of the message?)
Let us assume that our president is a loathsome man. But can one imagine another democracy where a contender for public office would exercise his freedom of expression not just to indulge in hate speech and hurl filthy abuse at the president but also publicly incite the chief justice to violence? If you acquire the reputation of being a jester is it then not illegal to indulge in hate speech or incite violence? But what about the thousands of maulvis whose nuisance value springs from their ability to incite hate and violence that actually claims lives?
Have we as a society then concluded that the actions of hate-spewing maulvis or filthy-tongued politicos are harmful, but Indian movies and soap operas are and should be declared illegal? A few angry old men wrote to the Honourable Supreme Court beseeching it to take strict notice of the obscene and vulgar TV content that is corrupting the morals of this unsuspecting nation, and in its infinite wisdom our apex court decided to take heed. It summoned chairman Pemra and directed him to take measures to ensure no obscene and vulgar programmes are aired.
This is not the first imprudent judicial move applying restraints on freedom of the media that in turn undermines right to information and free speech. We have previously suffered the Lahore High Court’s directive to shutdown Facebook in Pakistan, also in the name of morality and religion. There are at least three problems with this train of judicial thought.
One, it projects the misperceived sense that judges are the guardians of our moral fabric (just as the khakis have historically viewed themselves as guardians of our ideological frontiers). Judges are interpreters and enforcers of the law and not morality. It is not the job of the judges to transform collective moral standards of a society into law, but that of parliament. Our Constitution bestows on the courts the responsibility to uphold fundamental rights of the citizens and renders non-justiciable the principles of policy that cater for collective rights. Shouldn’t judges then consciously restrain themselves from presenting personal moral choices as law?
Two, each society ought to strike the right balance between individual and collective rights. The speech that incites violence or hatred and in turn threatens the safety and security of individuals is the speech that offends fundamental rights. The speech or TV-content that offends one’s sense of propriety or modesty is a matter of taste and not law. In conjuring up a standard of modesty or vulgarity that cannot be the product of anything other than personal choice, the judges could end up undermining rather than protecting individual right of speech, expression and choice.
And three, the healthy progression of a society is not about absolute conservation or complete change, but about blending best practices of others while preserving one’s worthy traditions and customs. As a society we have many ugly realities and oppressive practices not worth preserving. Likewise, the successful nations of this age have practices and values to offer that we would do well imbibing. And it is neither for a few angry old men nor our judges to decide for the rest of us what part of our tradition we ought to conserve and what we need to change.
We need to vigorously debate what is the preferred balance between individual and collective rights, what are the acceptable standards of morality and what moral standards have such consensus behind them that they can be converted into law. Unless we transform the existing coercive consensus on pressing security, governance and social issues within our polity into a conformist consensus, the manifestation of personal choices will remain violent.