January 08, 2011

Pakistan's dilemma at Salmaan Taseer's murder

Pakistan confounded analysts once more on January 4 when a policeman in the security detail of the governor of Punjab turned his gun on the man he was supposed to be guarding.

Pakistanis - let alone the rest of the world - have gotten depressingly used to bombs in markets, mosques and government buildings wiping out dozens of people in one go. They, like the people who study the politics of Pakistan, thought they had it sussed: Deobandis are the school of thought of the Taliban. They want to kill all those that think any differently from them.

But the killer of Salmaan Taseer, a consummate twitter user (@salmaantaseer) and governor of Punjab, wasn't a Deobandi, he was a Baraelvi; the "good" school of thought, the ones that are also getting targeted by the Taliban. (I've staked out the differences between Deobandis and Baraelvis before.) The reason the killer gave for his actions was Taseer's support for a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy and his call for Pakistan's blasphemy law to be changed. (Read Mosharraf Zaidi here to get an idea of how the blasphemy debate works). To many observers, it wasn't just the killing that was shocking, it was the reaction - the seemingly widespread idea that Taseer deserved it.

So where does this leave Pakistan? Well, it leaves many Pakistanis profoundly depressed about where their nation is heading. Those people who when I arrived a year ago said that Pakistan had a moderate majority and religious parties never got more than 15 percent of the vote sound much less self assured since the death of Taseer.

Taseer's death, like the blasphemy debate that preceded it, was about much more than religion; it was about the politics of resentment in a state that's failing. Not long before his death, Taseer posted on twitter; "It is the rich educated & privileged who have destroyed Pak not the poor illeterate & dispossessed". He had a very good point. Decades of failed governance in Pakistan has led to the emergence of very different communities living side by side in one country. I don't mean ethnicities or religious groups. I mean world views fashioned by opportunity; whether that means economic opportunity, educational opportunity or the opportunity to gain exposure to the wider world or the rest of your country beyond your village/town. That opportunity comes with a cost implication. As the decades have worn on in Pakistan, less and less people have been able to afford that opportunity. Those that have it guard it jealously. Wealthy families in Pakistan, it is often noted, send sons into politics largely to guard and expand the family fortune. Those that have gone from poor to rich have often managed it through an uncommon degree of ruthlessness. Once they succeeded, their pasts were laundered by establishment figures in need of moneyed allies. For most of its life, Pakistan has been a system that rewards bad practices and punishes good ones.

I've spent a large part of the last 10 years working in the Middle East and Africa, but I've not seen a society as economically segregated as the one in Pakistan. The rich - the ones who were able to afford the opportunity - often do not share any public space with the poor. The chai khaane (tea houses) are similar to Arab qahwas in that they both serve hot caffeinated beverages. The local area's wealthy and not-so wealthy do not sit in corner cafes  reading the same newspaper. In fact, often, the wealthy and poor read newspapers in different languages; the English ones being much more balanced and sophisticated than the Urdu ones. With very few reference points in common; to the wealthy, the poor are to be mistrusted. To the poor, the wealthy (the "elites") are practically aliens. Having recently spent time in various rural parts of Pakistan, I find myself being asked to explain the rest of the country to Pakistani friends. To many Pakistanis, much of their country is a foreign place.

Like many other elements of public discourse in Pakistan, your position on the blasphemy law has become a measure of you as a person; much like the abortion debate in the US. Those "elites" who don't reflect "real" Pakistani/Muslim values are portrayed in the argument as sellouts and traitors. A much cleverer person than I (Ms Henley-on-Thames) suggested this was economic resentment manifesting itself as cultural resentment. The wealthy in Pakistan, it seems, drew up the drawbridge on the rest of the country many years ago, but in the process left themselves outnumbered and at risk of being overwhelmed.

In a country falling apart at the seams, where the ability of the government to enact its will is extremely limited (as is its ability to formulate effective policy in a timely manner), violence and death is becoming a regular feature of public discourse. If you don't believe the authorities will stop a local official acting in a corrupt manner, what do you do? Beat him up. What happens when you think a couple of kids have been stealing and the police don't care? You beat them to death.

Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that all wealthy, English-reading Pakistanis were appalled by what happened to Taseer and the poor were all convinced he got what he deserved. As a Reuters story shows, regular, working-class Pakistanis were shocked by the killing. Whereas, many wealthy Pakistanis were perhaps most alarmed by the support people of their own background gave to the killer's actions. A Facebook page in praise of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, attracted 2,000 followers in a few hours before it was deleted. In an increasingly polarised international context where the Muslim and Western worlds see themselves at odds, it has practically become an affirmation of your "Muslimness" (and your self esteem) to be as opposite to the West as you can. Whereas the West allows people to ridicule the prophet, in Pakistan, you'll get killed for it. 

The problem transcends religious ideology. Why is it that the blasphemy law becomes a litmus test for people's religious credentials and not bonded labour? (Millions of peasant farmers in Pakistan are forced into slave labour by landlords who saddle them with dubious debt and then charge interest of over 200 percent a year NB. Charging interest is a sin in Islam). The blasphamy law may have become a benchmark against which to measure your identity, but that didn't happen by accident. Religious political parties and even rightwing largely secular parties and individuals have tried hard to present it as such. In recent times, their efforts have been echoed by a sensation-loving media in competition for the most attention-grabbing headline. In previous years, extremist ideology was encouraged as a recruiting tool in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which Pakistan's leaders at the time saw as a perfect opportunity to keep themselves relevant on the world stage.

If events such as the killing of Taseer are the symptoms of a failing
state, would a succeeding state be the solution? In a word, yes. Pakistan's
antidote, if it arrives, will come in the form of good, effective
governance, social justice, accountability and transparency. At the end of the day, only Pakistanis can achieve those things for their country.