By Kamila Hyat
October 19, 2017
The highly inflammatory speech from PML-N leader Captain Muhammad Safdar in the National Assembly, demanding that Ahmadis not be posted in positions of influence within the army, judiciary or bureaucracy, quickly stirred up a social media storm.
The incident also raised questions over Captain Safdar’s alleged support for certain right-wing segments. We also have the newly formed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan in Lahore, which had received over 7,000 votes in the NA-120 by-poll last month. The TLP had taken voters away from the party to which Safdar himself belongs, the PML-N, and of which his father-in-law Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is chief. The TLP campaigned carrying posters of convicted killer Mumtaz Qadri; the posters are still pasted across areas of that constituency.
So, we ask the inevitable question. What is a man like this doing within a major party and what is he doing in parliament? Why do other politicians not speak up and join forces across the political divide to do so? After all, as representatives of the people, it is their duty to take on roles of leadership and save their constituents from the forces of hatred that are turning the country into a battlefield where fear has become the dominant driving force. Merely tweeting out condemnations privately or posting them on Facebook pages serves little real purpose.
We have not heard any serious condemnation of Safdar’s speech on the floor of the National Assembly, the forum that matters most as far as national policymaking is concerned. Are we then to assume that most politicians – including those from all major parties – agree with what he says? Or are they too scared to speak out?
Whatever the case, it does not auger well for a country where intolerance has spread like wildfire over the last two decades. Since Safdar’s speech, at least five Ahmadis have been killed in cold blood in various parts of the country merely on the basis of their beliefs. They have of course been a community targeted for years, since that unfortunate day in 1975 when then Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and his PPP government declared the Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslims.
Scientists have been possibly braver than politicians. They have openly stated why Dr Abdus Salam, the country’s Nobel Prize winning physicist, is a far greater man than any other scientist in the country and why the Physics centre at the Quaid-e-Azam University must continue to use his name. The centre had been named for Dr Salam only months ago by former PM Nawaz Sharif.
Extraordinarily, it is the first such naming of a place in the country after a man who has been honoured around the world for his achievements with institutes named after him in Italy, in South Africa and in other places around the world. The refusal by Captain Safdar to accept that Dr Salam could be one of our own of course encourages others who promote similar damaging ideas.
These ideas are gaining pace as they run through society. More and more seem to follow them and at individual and group level, discrimination grows. It can be stopped only if there is an active campaign to do so. The civil society is called upon time and time again to conduct such campaigns. But why should individuals and groups who make up society alone be responsible? Where our political parties are and what role are they playing in directing the future of our country?
It is absolutely true those individual politicians who hold rational, humanist views, are now scared to speak out. The fate of ex-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, former minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and other politicians at all levels notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is before them. But courage makes true leaders. The very nature of politics and leadership demands bravery, a willingness to step forward and put ideas, ideologies, the people ahead of one’s self.
To avoid anything like a suicide mission, it is important that political parties join hands for this purpose. Surely some are ready to present their own views on what Captain Safdar said. Until they do so, his words hold sway and point out in which direction we are moving.
There are more concerns too. How many remain who are willing to speak out? Or willing to protest? Or willing to put forward an opinion that goes against what seems to have turned into popular opinion? Are the numbers too limited to matter? Is the inflammatory language of Captain Safdar all that can be put forward in the environment we have created?
This is a frightening thought. But there is some evidence that there are fewer and fewer willing to take a stand for those who have been rendered helpless beings in a society that kills with astonishing ease. This is a society where people are willing to gun down those they believe to be infidels or who they believe are somehow inferior because of the beliefs they hold. Of course, Ahmadis are not the only victims. There have been others.
We have seen the hatred and the rage that underpins it, unfold before our eyes over and over again. The posters that ban the entry of Ahmadis from major shopping plazas or other centres are not a coincidence. They have been churned up by the kind of society we have created.
Someone somewhere has to take the lead in undoing this work. The PML-N itself has been accused of conniving with extremist groups to improve its own electoral chances and to win popular appeal.
There are however other parties, who at least on paper claim they still stand for the progressive Pakistan in which the equal rights guaranteed by the constitution to all citizens are still in practice. Do they have the fortitude to stand together on the assembly floor and say what they think? The truth is they probably do not.
The threat of a bullet, of a bomb, of an attack on a home or a vehicle is, after all, very real. How many are willing to take the risk of possible death or injury, perhaps inflicted on a family member? Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the former information minister of KP, suffered the death of his son because of what he had said. How many, after all, are willing to take such a chance? And let us be truthful, let us be honest. How many of us – if in their places – would do so?
So many of those who have in the past spoken out have been forced to leave the country. They include journalists, bloggers thinkers, and many others from all walks of life. We cannot be certain if extremists stand alone or if there are powerful elements which back them. But we do know that the voice of reason is fading away in our country, like the signal from a radio station that has moved further and further away.
That station once anchored the meaning of life in our country. It held people together as a whole in a nation made up of people who vary in belief, in ethnicity and in ideology. Today, the notion that some are superior to others has left the shadow of possible death hanging low over the horizon.
Kamila Hyat is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.