Is Pakistan Becoming a Progressive Nation?

On Sunday afternoon on March 27, 2016, after their midday prayers, thousands of protestors headed in the direction of Islamabad, the federal capital of Pakistan. These were supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, the slain police constable responsible for the assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, the same person he was assigned the task of protecting. Boastfully the assassin stood on the body of the Governor, as his colleagues looked on. Some reports emerged later that Qadri had announced his intention to a few of his colleagues beforehand.

Disturbing scenes emerged after this assassination. Thousands rallied outside the court where Qadri was to be presented to garland him with flowers. Hundreds of lawyers, including the former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Muhammad Sharif, offered to fight his case for free. On the other hand the officially appointed maulvi of the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore, refused to offer Salman Taseer's funeral prayer. He still holds his office. Salman Taseer had come out in the support of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, accused of blasphemy. In the process he criticized the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. For supporting a "blasphemer" and criticizing the blasphemy laws he was accused of blasphemy as well.

The debate on the blasphemy laws of Pakistan came to an abrupt end after Taseer's assassination. Sherry Rehman, another liberal politician who had proposed a resolution in the Parliament for the review of the law took it back and took up the charge of Pakistan's Ambassador to America. According to reports there was credible threat to her life and this was her way of staying out of the limelight for some time. A couple of months after Taseer's assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian minister for Minorities Affair, and another critic of the blasphemy law, was shot down outside his home in Islamabad.

The assassination of Salman Taseer represents a pivotal event in the history of Pakistan. It was at this time that the myth of the silent-tolerant majority was busted. Before this it was felt that religious extremism was only confined to the fringes of the society, whereas the majority of the society was tolerant. However with the way public came out to support Qadri the miniscule liberal population of the country realized that it was fighting a lost cause. It was around this time that I was working on my first book and interviewing different members of the minority communities. Most of them saw Salman Taseer as a hero and felt that due to public pressure Qadri would eventually be released. One of them even suggested that he would run for office after being freed and would become an MNA.

Mumtaz Qadri's case lingered on for several years, when finally this year the Supreme Court turned down his petition and his sentence was upheld. Strategically on the 29th of February 2016, without any prior announcements he was hanged. For the liberals of the country his assassination emerged as a beacon of hope. Only a couple of days later Shahbaz Taseer, the son of Salman Taseer, who had been kidnapped and missing for 5 years was recovered miraculously. Pakistan received its second Oscar award through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's documentary, A girl in the river, prompting the Prime Minister of the country to seriously take up the issue and strengthen legislation against (dis)honor killing (I can't bring myself to refer to this form of murder as honor killing. To term it such is a reiteration of structural injustices that allow a perpetuation of such atrocities). Women Protection Bill was passed soon after providing solace to victims of domestic abuse. Whereas the men's cricket team at the T20 World Cup received a thrashing, the women's team made a mark. About a couple of decades ago, under the same Prime Minister women sporting teams from Pakistan were barred from attending Saarc games because it was deemed "un-Islamic". Operation Zarb-e-Azab against the militants was reported to be going successfully and it was being stated by the army that the fighting capacity of the militants had been broken. The operation in Karachi was successful and peace it seemed had returned to this battle-ridden city. After a long time it felt as if Pakistan was on the right direction.

However parallel to this there is another side of the picture, the uglier side. Spontaneous protests erupted all over the country after Qadri's assassination. For a couple of days after Qadri's hanging, the city of Islamabad remained partially shut, as protestors roamed the streets, halting all traffic. According to some reports as many as 200,000 people attended his funeral ceremony in Islamabad. There was a public outpour of grief. Some religious parties traveled all the way from Karachi to catch the last sight of Mumtaz Qadri. He had become a martyr, a shaheed and a ghazi, holy warrior. A small shrine has been constructed around his grave, whereas more donations are pouring in from other parts of the country. Soon his shrine would be one of the most prominent shrines in the city of Rawalpindi, the garrison city. That Sunday about 2000 protestors entered the Red Zone of Islamabad, an area cordoned off from the rest of the city. This is where the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Presidential and the Prime Minister House are located. Civilians are not allowed here without prior permission. However for these protestors all the road blocks and the hundreds of police officials deployed all over the city did not serve as an impediment. They became violent as they gathered momentum, burning cars on their way.

With the way things have played out in the past couple of weeks questions are being raised once again. Is Pakistan actually heading in a progressive direction? I would argue that Pakistan is desperately attempting to recast itself, more so internationally, as a progressive country, hence the gestures mentioned above. However there are graver structural issues that need to be addressed if Pakistan truly has to redefine itself as a progressive country. One of the most crucial features of that would be jettisoning a few of our national heroes which we have cherished for several decades.

Much before there was Mumtaz Qadri there was Ilm-ud-din the son of a carpenter from Lahore, who murdered a Hindu publisher called Rajpal, for publishing a blasphemous book. On 6th September 1929 Ilm-ud-din murdered Rajpal in broad day light and pleaded guilty. Muhammad Ali Jinnah defended him in the court. Other prominent Muslim leaders too rallied behind him. He was hanged on 4th October 1929 and became Ghazi and Shaheed. His shrine was constructed in Lahore and is attended by hundreds of devotees even today. Various Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats have over the years acknowledged and praised his contributions to Islam. In a state where Ilm-ud-din has been projected as a hero it is only natural that Mumtaz Qadri would also become a Ghazi and Shaheed.

Another example is that of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan King, who attacked India several times, leaving behind havoc. Pakistani textbooks refer to his attacks as Islamic jihad meant to combat Hindu kings. The political complexities are glossed over, neither is it mentioned that he fought and killed many Muslims while he was at it. Ahmad Shah Abdali reined terror in the Punjab and today in the schools of Punjab he is celebrated as a Muslim hero. The same students, whose ancestors once suffered at the hands of this Afghan Kind today, sing songs of his bravery. In this context it is therefore no surprise that Munawar Hassan, the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the most important political parties in the country can make a statement declaring Hakimullah Mehsud a shaheed, the same Hakimullah who for years waged a war against the Pakistani state and its people.

Not too long ago I was talking to a cousin of mine who during the course of the conversation said that ISIS represents true Islam. I would be lying if I say I was horrified at his statement. In fact it came as no surprise to me. We are taught to celebrate kings like Mahmud Ghaznvi in Pakistan, because they destroyed the idols of Somnath. We are taught that they were true Muslims. Why would then we not view the Taliban and the ISIS who destroyed the statues of Bamyan and archaeological ruins of Palmyra as Islamic heroes? As long as Pakistani historiography celebrates Ilm-ud-din, Ahmad Shah Abdali and Mahmud Ghaznvi, we would continue to be tolerant of the Taliban, ISIS and people like Mumtaz Qadri.