OVER A COFFEE : Burning between fire and fury — Dr Haider Shah
As desired by some, the UN may agree on a convention on blasphemy, but in that case, Pakistanis will have to refrain from offending followers of other belief systems as well
As the death toll reached 258, the inferno in Karachi made the fire of Lahore look mediocre. However, the blistering anguish that has shaken the whole country is not caused by the flames that burnt hundreds of fellow fellow citizens alive. From the rabble-rousers to the members of the cabinet, no one is talking about the lack of safety arrangements in our workplaces. Just two days ago, a TV channel aired a documentary where a factory owner, wearing the green turban of a religious sect, seemed least concerned that the working conditions in his factory were not different from the ones that were gutted a week ago. From Karachi to Peshawar, my fellow citizens are furious over something that happened thousands of miles away and was the outcome of a perverted mind. After the cabinet announced a holiday to join the protesters, one of Kahlil Gibran’s stories flashed through my mind that I would endorse as a compulsory lesson in all school textbooks of Pakistan.
There was a king who was loved and feared by his subjects and was held in great regard for his just and wise rule. One night, a witch entered the kingdom with the intention of causing unrest and mayhem by turning everyone mad. She poured a few drops of a magical liquid into the well from which the king’s subjects drew water for drinking purposes. The next morning anyone who drank water drawn from that well lost their sanity and within a few days, the whole kingdom was abuzz with whispers that the king had become mad and unjust. The king and his ministers kept defending their position but to no avail. One day, a wise minister whispered something into the king’s ear and he ordered a golden goblet filled from the well be brought to him. The king and his ministers drank from the goblet one by one and lost their sanity. Within days, the whispering campaign against the king died down and everyone was lauding his just and sane rule again.
The Supreme Court that kept mum over the violation of fundamental rights of a minor in Rimsha Masih’s case was also swift in taking a suo motu action over an issue that did not originate in Pakistan. It seems that The Prince of Machiavelli is read and revered by all those who are in high seats of power. No wonder no opportunity of playing to the gallery on faith-related issues is ever missed by both the executive and the judiciary. When there is a fire, it is not difficult to spread it by fanning or stoking it. Putting a fire out requires a high level of energy, acumen and sincerity. While some media personalities have tried to bring back some semblance of sanity into the national discourse, the popular media in general has done little in containing the fire.
In Bollywood, promoters of a new movie are often said to create a controversy to bring it into the limelight. The mischievous maker of the blasphemous movie desired to promote his pathetically produced work but all his previous attempts had fallen flat as no one was impressed by the movie. What no amount of marketing could have ever achieved we have done for free for the movie. Not only has the movie been ‘popularised’ but in an ironic way, we also helped the producer achieve his malicious objective of portrayal of Muslims as followers of a violent faith. The unruly protests, resulting in loss of life and public property, will only help the cause of those who are using the movie to spread anti-Muslim sentiments all over the world.
The chances of being captured by a barbarian army and sold into slavery are less likely today than a thousand years ago. But the digital age has brought its own perils as it has enabled even a 10-year old to produce a movie and then share it with the whole world in no time. In this dangerously changed world, old notions of privacy and sensitivities are no longer applicable. A princess believes herself to be far from the madding crowd, having some private moments with her husband, and the next morning finds her topless pictures in a magazine. Just a few days ago, two unarmed female police officers were shot dead by a rogue criminal in a British town and the next day, thousands of perverted minds eulogised the killer on his Facebook page. Old ways of handling sensitivities are difficult to sustain in this digital world. Unfortunately, the Muslim community is taking a bit too long to come to terms with the realities of the present era.
In his latest column, Thomas Friedman advises the Muslim community to “look into the mirror”. This advice needs serious consideration even if it sounds a bit offensive. Hundreds of video clips can be found on the Internet in which Muslim religious scholars trade extremely offensive remarks against the holy personalities of one another. More horrible are the comments on videos, where extreme vulgarity is resorted to by adherents of these sects. As if verbal assaults were not sufficient, nowadays fellow countrymen are being killed with impunity to cause offence and grievance to members of other faiths or sects. As desired by some, the UN may agree on a convention on blasphemy, but in that case, Pakistanis will have to refrain from offending followers of other belief systems as well. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Those who want equity must come with clean hands. We have a lot of washing to do before we can demand respect for our sensitivities.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org