Thursday October 21, 2021

A cleric vs a newsman

September 26, 2021

While the world is watching it with an increasing sense of alarm and distress, Pakistan is playing a leading role in interpreting the crisis of Afghanistan and drawing attention to what must happen to avoid a civil war and humanitarian disaster. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi are familiar faces in the global media.

But there seems not much concern for the impact of the upheaval in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s national sense of direction. Are we consciously accepting a Faustian bargain? Or is further radicalisation of the Pakistani society a bearable cost of pursuing some elusive strategic goals?

Apparently, Pakistan had applauded that dramatic triumph of the Taliban on August 15, close on the heels of its Independence Day. In Imran Khan’s view, Afghanistan had broken the shackles of slavery. Indeed, the victory that the Taliban had won was momentous in historical terms. That the victors were immediately found to be in need of assistance from those they had defeated is another matter – and one of the many paradoxes that are rooted in this situation.

One aspect of this enigma is that a victory of this magnitude would be expected to usher in new ideas and a new arrangement in social relations. But this was no revolution, in any historical context. Actually, it seemed logical that it would be an action-replay of the first incarnation of the Taliban nearly two decades ago.

In any case, despite promises that the Taliban rule this time would be inclusive and cognisant of the rights of women, it is not realistic to expect that the Taliban would, in essence, mend their ways. In an interview with Associated Press in Kabul, veteran Taliban leader Mullah Nooruddin Turabi has been quoted as saying that executions and amputation of hands will resume for criminals they convict.

Against this perspective, the great tragedy that Afghanistan projects is hard to comprehend. And the point I am making is that this tragedy is entangled with our destiny. In the wake of the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the potential for Pakistan’s evolution into a modern, democratic nation state is diminishing. Our society is becoming more intolerant and more conservative.

Let us bring up some specifics. First, I would like to put two incidents that reveal the state of the rulers’ mind side by side. Here are two individuals who represent two conflicting philosophies and worldviews. Both had an encounter with the powers that be, though one of them was certainly not seeking it. In both cases, the authorities demonstrated their disdain for rule of law and principles of justice. Both cases, in a symbiotic sense, illustrate the strategic choices our rulers have made.

The one you are more likely to know and have opinions about is Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid fame. He figures in this episode on the basis of some videos that circulated last week on social media. There he was outside Jamia Hafsa in Islamabad, reprimanding a number of policemen who had apparently come to remove the Afghan Taliban’s flag from the rooftop of the Jamia. There was a photograph of the maulana sitting on a bench and holding an SMG.

Imagine the authority that the frail maulana commands that the policemen were there standing meekly and listening to threats of what the Taliban would do when they come. In effect, he was suggesting that the Taliban will eventually prevail – in Pakistan. It was reported that the flag was taken down as a result of negotiations between the police and the maulana.

What happened next would be expected as a matter of course. A case was registered against Maulana Aziz, his wife and several madrassah students on charges of sedition and terrorism.

On Monday, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a press conference that the government had resolved all issues with the maulana through dialogue to ensure that the situation in the federal capital remained normal. He said that the cleric had an issue every other day. “That’s why we keep talking to him”, he added. In an editorial published on Thursday, Dawn wondered: “Where is the writ of the state when it comes to Maulana Aziz?”

Let us now turn to the other episode. It features a person you may not have heard about. He would not stand out walking on the street. He exercises no temporal power. He is not a man of privilege. I would call him an intellectual, an endangered species. His name: Waris Raza. And I am sure it rings no bell for you. But why has he intruded into this story?

Well, Waris is a senior journalist and columnist who writes for an Urdu daily. As a proclaimed leftist, he espouses progressive and liberal ideals and has the courage of his convictions. He was ‘abducted’ from his house in Gulshan-e-Iqbal’s Sahafi Colony in the small hours on Wednesday, allegedly by some personnel of the security apparatus.

Fortunately for him, this happened in the midst of a nation-wide movement for the freedom of the media and his arrest was widely protested. Waris, who had been blindfolded and kept in an unknown place, was dropped on a roadside and he reached home in the evening.

What happened to Waris has happened to a number of other journalists better known for their defiance of authority. There have been instances of journalists being abducted for hours, being beaten and threatened by people who have never been arrested or identified. Waris Raza’s name is now added to that list.

There are other derelictions – disorders – that are seen to be escalating. At one level, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has become more active in tandem with the victory of the Afghan Taliban, as some observers had foreseen. But the main concern should be a steady rise in violent extremism and a disturbing surge in violence against women, whose freedom personifies progressive social change.

Do we know where we are headed if we hitch our wagon to the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan?

The writer is a senior journalist.

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