Against Whom ?
By Bilal Ibne Rasheed
The most shocking thing which has come to light in the aftermath of Salman Taseer’s assassination in Islamabad, Pakistan is the magnitude of support Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin, has garnered among the Pakistani masses. Although 97% of Pakistanis are Muslims, a vast majority of them don’t practice the religion. Most of them don’t adhere to even the basic tenets of Islam: offering namaz five times a day, fasting for thirty days during Ramazan, going for Hajj (if one can afford to), paying zakat (2.5% of one’s wealth). It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to locate a Pakistani who doesn’t want interest on his savings despite the fact that Allah has declared it haraam, and whosoever indulges in it will be considered at war with Him. Practices like back-biting, lying, bribery, and extra-marital sex, though explicitly forbidden by Islam, are fairly common among the Pakistani Muslims. Then there are some eighty million sects and sub-sects of Islam in Pakistan (am I exaggerating?). The only differences between some of the sects/sub-sects pertain to the length of one’s beard, the place on one’s chest where one should hold hands while offering namaz, the portion of ankles (of males, of course) which should remain uncovered at all times, the colour of one’s turban, and countless other things like these. Interestingly, adherents of some of the sects/sub-sects do not consider followers of other sects/sub-sects Muslims and declare them kuffaar (infidels).
So then why and how Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salman Taseer, is able to have such a massive and unconditional support across the length and breadth of the Land of the Pure? Soon after the assassination, the Pakistani society found itself split into two opposing factions: one which condemned the killing calling it a cold-blooded murder blackening the name of Islam and Pakistan, and the other which rejoiced the assassination and compared Qadri to Ilm-ud-Din. According to Qadri, Taseer had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad and he was a gustaakh-e-rasool.
It is important to note that Salman Taseer didn’t blaspheme the Prophet Muhammad. He only criticized the blasphemy law (section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code) and asked for its revision. To him laws like this would make it difficult for Pakistan to be accepted in the countries with developed markets, thereby, limiting the economic growth in Pakistan. An aspect of Taseer’s personality which largely remained overshadowed by his corporate success, western lifestyle, and political shenanigans was his firm belief in Allah. In fact, he used to wear Ayat-ul-Kursi around his neck for protection. How a vast majority of Pakistanis have equated Taseer’s criticism of the blasphemy law with actual blasphemy is a phenomenon which needs to be looked into more deeply and carefully.
Samuel P. Huntington writes in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order: ‘We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.’ To me, it is this ideology to which Pakistani Muslims subscribe. It is not who-we-are which has brought them together, it is who-we-are-not and more importantly whom-we-are-against which is the real cohesive force behind the massive support for Qadri. For a vast majority of Pakistanis, Taseer represented and embodied the imposition of western social values on their society. Photos and videos of Taseer’s son partying with bikini-clad girls and his daughter swimming did rounds for quite a while in the Pakistani cyberspace. These photos and videos painted Taseer (and his family) as utterly westernised, morally corrupt, and extraordinarily debauched – something absolutely contradictory to the Pakistani societal norms. The Pakistani masses resent the structural colonialism and are convinced that their government is dictated by the whims and fancies of the western powers: governments such as the US, and institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. To them Salman Taseer was a representative of the west who tried to westernise them as well. It is this ideology of whom-we-are-against which has united all the factions of Islam from Bralevi, to Deobandi, to Ahl-e-Hadith, to Shias, to you-name-it.
The failure of the state and the absolutely poor governance is also one of the factors in this whom-we-are-against discourse. The Pakistani masses don’t trust their government at all and for good reasons: frequent terrorists attacks, rampant corruption, astronomical inflation, and no social capital. The politicians and the bureaucrats are busy beefing up their bank accounts and don’t even give a hoot about the condition of the common man. This attitude of the government really frustrates the masses who feel exploited and marginalised by their own representatives. I can assure you the ordinary Pakistanis wouldn’t feel even a tinge of sorrow if any prominent politician or a bureaucrat dies today of natural causes.
With this social milieu in mind, let’s revisit the murder of Taseer. To ordinary Pakistanis, Taseer was a corrupt politician of a corrupt government which is doing nothing except making the lives of the masses more miserable and its own more lavish. For those Pakistanis who were not religiously motivated to support Qadri, it was schadenfreude which convinced them of the righteousness of the assassin: now these rich and the mighty will think twice before hurting the sentiments of the lower cadre; they should know that if they can exploit us, we can kill them. It is the corrupt image of the politicians which stops a considerable majority of Pakistanis to sympathize with Taseer. A personal remark from Taseer, quoted by Tariq Ali, would be in order. When Ali asked Taseer why the latter decided to go into politics, wasn’t being a businessman bad enough, Tasser replied: You’ll never understand. If I’m a politician as well, I can save money because I don’t have to pay myself bribes.
There are some who argue that if Taseer had blasphemed the Prophet he could have been tried in a court according to the blasphemy law. This argument misses the point that the common man doesn’t trust the judicial system of the country – again a failure of the state. The masses think that the rich and the mighty have the power to distort and manipulate laws in their favour.
Another aspect of this phenomenon which has largely remained overlooked is the social class difference between the two opposing factions. Those who support Taseer (a minority) usually belong to the upper and the upper-middle class while those who support Qadri (a majority) belong to the lower and the lower-middle class of the society. The argument that the social pressures, channelled through the religion, have been manipulated and exploited by the religio-political parties for their political gains doesn’t seem implausible.
The language divide, a subset of the social class divide, should also be noted here. Those who supported Taseer, did so mostly in the English speaking section of the Pakistani media while those who supported Qadri, or openly opposed Taseer, did so in the Urdu speaking section. Although an official language, only a small minority of Pakistanis are at home in English.
Like adherents of every other religion, Muslims too practice Islam very selectively: only that part of religion which suits their worldly interests. An important question which needs to be asked at this point is why the masses resort to religion so often in cases like these? To me, it is mainly because of the uncertainty in the society. (Notice the rank of Pakistan according to social capital: 110th out of 110 countries.) The vacuum created by this uncertainty in the society is filled in by the religion which solaces the common man who is not educated and finds himself unable to model and justify this uncertainty. Religion helps him do this: the situation is bleak because Allah has willed it to be so; it’s our sins which bring calamities on us; we’ve forgotten the Koran and that’s why we are at the mercy of infidels, the hardships of this life will bear fruits in the afterlife.
The liberal section of the Pakistani society argues that the shrinking space for public discourse can only be gained by standing up to religious fanatics. This argument does not acknowledge the importance of economic prosperity and social capital in creating tolerance among the masses. As long as the masses remain impoverished, downtrodden, exploited, and devoid of social capital, Qadris will continue to star.