Darkness Gathers Over Pakistan

    “When we consider the founders of our nation – Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others – we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility… They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future – not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
    The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
    At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
    Where are they?”

—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, “Real Patriots Ask Questions”, p.428.

That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world’s Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there’s less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?

I don’t have the answer to this question, but it’s hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:

…Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.

The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me…Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer’s murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.

It’s tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” But giving up and turning one’s back on the world has never worked, and it won’t work here. For one thing, there’s still the question of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition – and, in any case, we’re seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can’t afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.

But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they’re so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it’s words like these from Taseer’s son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn’t been silenced. For humanity’s sake, for the sake of all we’ve accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he’s right.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Fury over doctor’s book on sex education for Muslims

    Dr Mobin Akhtar is on a mission to educate Pakistanis in sexual matters, but his latest attempt to do so has caused controversy.

    The release of his book – Sex Education for Muslims – aims to teach people about sex in a way that is in keeping with Islamic instruction…

  • http://www.luke-senior.co.uk Luke Senior

    That’s what poverty and a weak government does to a country. I would assume that all the stuff we hear are from outspoken religious nuts who have a strong grasp of power (that should really be delusional, crazy people using religion as an excuse and control for their violence and their own selfish power-hungry ways) but the majority of people don’t really care or don’t like the violence but are too scared to speak because of the outspoken extremists. The tolerable people are less likely to go and kill then intolerable people because it’s their nature.
    It’s an unstable country and the issue of nukes is problematic. In my opinion, any country that is building or testing nukes, the UN should do something. Nukes are so bad even Hitler wouldn’t have used one.

  • Brian M

    I agree totally with this article bemoaning the happenings in Pakistan. It is a horror which we in the comfortable west can watch only with sadness.

    And yet…and yet…a little bit of mirror gazing is required. I hate to be so negative, but Luke is wrong. we are a rich country and have a (too) strong government and we are doing far more harm in the world right now than the Pakistani nuts. This assassination was a horror. Yet, because of American policy and programs, thousands, yes THOUSANDS of people will be dying horrible deaths from Cancer in Iraq due to the depleted uranium ordinance we dumped on the country. That’s ignoring the direct deaths caused by the invasion or the horrible Islamic theoracies being imposed in Iraq right now due to our invasion…or the very fact that American interference in Afghanistan helped create the Taliban.

    So…the more relevant question is: Should the world give up on the United States and its government?

  • Eric

    “Nukes are so bad even Hitler would not have used one”????? Truman must be one evil dude.

    Getting back to the original point: Even the forces we think of as “moderates” in Pakistan have a pretty bad reputation, but maybe that’s OK. Secularization at gunpoint has worked in Turkey for a hundred years now.

  • Jim Baerg

    Brian: While US policies are far from perfect I think you have been reading grossly exagerated accounts of the effects of depleted uranium

  • Bob Carlson

    So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today. Where are they?

    Apparently not in Virginia, given the irony that Eric Cantor represents the Congressional District that encompasses the domiciles of Jefferson (Monticello) and Madison (Montpelier).

    So…the more relevant question is: Should the world give up on the United States and its government?

    Good question in view of the fact that Russ Feingold, one of our more progressive and rational Senators on sundry issues, including Pakistan, was voted out of office in November.

  • http://www.punkassblog.com Antigone

    Where are the modern world’s Thomas Jeffersons?

    You cannot have a “modern” Thomas Jefferson. “Great Men (and slowly, women)” are only given that title after most of their negative qualities have fallen down the memory hole. Dr. King was not a “great man” in his time- to most he was a nuisance and possible Commie or worse. Thomas Jefferson was not an infallible man, but we brush over, ignore, and reinterpret his flaws to make him look better. Reading editorials about famous politicians make it sound like they were no more respected nor less like politicians then than our modern politicians are now. So, Thomas Jefferson is Barak Obama and George W. Bush, probably. The fuzzy gauze of history will cover over their flaws and re-write the story to fit better narratives.

  • Brian M

    Jim Baerg:

    Interesting article. Still…my basic point remains. “Far from perfect” is not how I would describe overall American foreign policy.

    My main point is we should avoid such generalizations and over the top characterizations of entire peoples as beyond the pale… “othering” Pakistan without understanding why and how politics is the way it is there is not helpful. Especially given the “far from perfect” roll of our meddling in the region (and fervent support for the Saudis), which helped create the Taliban and the wave of fanaticism spreading across the region. (Note…I said “helped”. I would by no means claim that Pakistanis are innocent…there appears to be something particularly toxic in the culture and politics of that nation, but then I beleive the same thing about American foreign policy as well)

  • Richard P.

    I have learned in life that violence rarely solves more problems than it causes. However, that’s not always the case. Back in the day a friend of mine was bullied by this other kid. A lot of things were tried to solve the problem, parents called meetings with teachers and councilors. Finally, we made a plan and when this guy cornered my friend we pounded the piss out of him, problem solved. Seems we try to reason with the bullies, but it doesn’t change anything. They use violence and we whine about the injustice. Somehow we have to put a stop to those proclaiming the fatwas. Whether it is international warrants or planned assassinations, we should be nipping this at the root. Nobody seems to hold those who start the problems accountable. Why aren’t we?

    Just like the shooting of Gillford. You have a shit load of politicians calling for people to arm themselves and find second amendment solutions, yet not one leader will be held accountable. All their will be is denials and justifications. Everyone calling for answers and no one willing to place the blame where it belongs. No one will force those leaders to answer for the fact, if you incite the crazies the crazies will act crazy.

    Maybe the reason why we don’t see the jeffersons is because there all dead and those that get them killed are never held responsible. It’s time to figure out a way to hold them responsible. Maybe we need a map with cross hairs of our own. I used to think one day the crazies would get old and die off, but they just keep perpetuating the cycle. Somewhere in here we need to break that cycle, we need to find someway that produces results. Maybe violence wouldn’t be the answer, some kind of accountability would help, but there doesn’t seem to be any. We get the guys that do the shooting but, never seem to get the guys that order it.

  • Stephen P

    You cannot have a “modern” Thomas Jefferson. “Great Men (and slowly, women)” are only given that title after most of their negative qualities have fallen down the memory hole.

    Very good point. For example, most people were not very impressed by Winston Churchill for much of his life.

    So, Thomas Jefferson is Barak Obama and George W. Bush, probably.

    Obama? Perhaps, at a pinch. Bush? Not a snowflake’s chance in a supernova.

  • Alex SL

    Antigone has the right of it. And I would add that even if politicians in ye (g)olden times were oh so much wiser than today (ha!), it would perhaps pay to look at today’s selection process for officeholders instead of wondering if Jeffersons aren’t around any more. Maybe they are, but they would not want to subject themselves to the kind of eternal fund-raising, campaigning and media scrutiny circus that the USA call politics these days?

  • Maynard

    Bush? Not a snowflake’s chance in a supernova.

    Not so fast Stephen P. Look at what the Texas Board of (mis)Education has been pushing recently.

  • Tom

    Excellent point about the selection process, Alex SL. There’s an old, old joke that a frantic parishioner runs up to his local priest and says “Our lord Jesus Christ has returned to earth, and he’s on his way right here, what should we do?” and the priest replies “Look busy.”

    On a similar note, I get the distinct impression that a very significant proportion of American voters, particularly the arch-conservative right-wingers, for all that they may purport to revere the Founding Fathers, would not at all take to a modern Jefferson or Franklin or any opinions they might venture on current issues, let alone elect them to any position of authority.

  • David Hart

    For what it’s worth, ‘death worshippers’ seems such an appropriate term for terrorists such as this, anyone reckon it’s worth trying to remember to use the phrase in the hope it will catch on as a term of ridicule?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    That’s what poverty and a weak government does to a country. I would assume that all the stuff we hear are from outspoken religious nuts who have a strong grasp of power (that should really be delusional, crazy people using religion as an excuse and control for their violence and their own selfish power-hungry ways) but the majority of people don’t really care or don’t like the violence but are too scared to speak because of the outspoken extremists.

    I wish that were true, Luke, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Although it’s true that Pakistan’s upper classes are generally more secular than the poor, there are indicators that even the well-educated are embracing religious eliminationism – like the hundreds of lawyers who cheered Taseer’s killer and offered to defend him free of charge.

    I do like Antigone’s suggestion that great men and women tend to be thought of as such only in retrospect. Certainly, there’s truth to that; Jefferson himself was viciously attacked in his own day for being an “infidel” and even an atheist. But even at the worst times in American politics, there’s never been this sort of violent, eliminationist rhetoric and first-resort response to violence that’s become so common in the world. It makes me fear that any modern equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, if one were to arise, would be shot down before he could survive for posterity’s judgment.

  • Karen

    I too have been following the events in Pakistan with dread and horror. Again and again, we see that the seeming hyperbole of “religion poisons everything” is not an exaggeration but all too true.

    Thanks for your words of encouragement, Adam. I despair over such policy conundrums as reasonable gun control, which never gets done in this country no matter how many innocent children die, but we do have to “keep the faith” in a secular sense, don’t we? That applies to places even where darkness seems to be falling, such as present-day Pakistan.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Although it’s true that Pakistan’s upper classes are generally more secular than the poor

    Yeah, they generally are more secular. They also don’t pay taxes, as a report in the NY Times noted last year, which means there is no tax base to pay for public education, infrastructure and basic social services for Pakistanis in the lower economic classes.

    That’s why so many Pakistani children attend madrassas, which are largely free and provide the children with room and board to go with their very narrow curriculum of memorizing the Quran.

    There are a number of factors that have led to the rise in Islamic extremism in Pakistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the mostly uninterrupted fighting that has gone on there since has certainly played a part in radicalizing Pakistan. The dictatorship of Zia Haq (I think I’m missing part of his name, but heck, I’m close enough), who promoted Islamic fundamentalism, the ongoing dispute with India over Kashmir, which like Afghanistan, has provided an arena for those motivated by jihadist ideas to put them into practice. There is not much, if any, pushback by the forces of secularism in Pakistan, because the small Pakistani secular elite are a self-interested clique who mostly couldn’t give a damn about the lot of the Pakistani people. Civilian governments, such as those of the late Benazir Bhutto and that of her husband, are often incompetent and venal, thus making the idea of an Islamic government more attractive.

    When the occasional bright star such as Salman Taseer, as well as Ms. Bhutto, are assassinated, it probably leads to a number of secular Pakistanis to conclude it is better to keep one’s mouth shut and not speak out and hope the religious crazies leave them alone.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    That’s an excellent analysis, Tommykey. It really does go to prove that militant fundamentalism doesn’t just grow from nowhere, like a tumor. It depends a lot on the way a society is structured, and the laws and decisions of the leaders can do a great deal to either encourage or weaken it. All the more reason why we need a few modern Thomas Jeffersons for Pakistan…

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Thanks Ebon.

    I strongly believe that an important component to all of this is finding a solution to the Kashmir issue that the Pakistanis, the Indians, and most of all, the Kashmiris, can live with. While the Israeli/Palestinian issue gets most of the attention, the Kashmir dispute is just as, if not more, important.

    The conflict over Kashmir results in a needlessly militarized border that is a drain on the budgets of both countries. Part of Pakistan’s agenda in covertly supporting the Taliban is to (1) curb India’s influence in Afghanistan, and (2) to provide the Pakistani army with a “defense in depth” in the event that war broke out with India.

    The world community has a vital interest in getting India and Pakistan to resolve their dispute over Kashmir that also respects the aspirations and desires of the majority of the Kashmiri people. Otherwise it will continue to be a festering wound involving two neighboring nuclear powers.

    The idealist in me wonders if Kashmir can become a sort of giant version of Andorra, with both India and Pakistan assuming joint responsibility for the territory. But in order for anything like that to happen, it would require leaders of extraordinary courage on both sides to face down their own nationalist extremists and convince their own citizens that the benefits from peace will be far greater than what they will be asked to give up. Thus far, I am not seeing anyone in either India or Pakistan who can do that.

  • http://www.punkassblog.com Antigone

    Bush? Not a snowflake’s chance in a supernova.

    Ronald Reagan already is being lauded as a great president, and, in a fit of irony, even has an airport named after him. Andrew Jackson is considered one of the historical greats although he was a moron, bigot, and even more sexist than his time, and again, in a fit of irony is on our money. Johnson, on the other hand, is generally maligned even though he oversaw some instrumental points in our history, and Nixon goes down as one of the great villains even though he wasn’t anywhere near our worst president.

    I’m not saying Thomas Jefferson did not have some good things to say and was instrumental in the country we have. But rather what I’m saying is that people are cast into the role of “great” by myth-making and being there when history came to a crossroads. History needs the heroes to tell the story, so they make them. This isn’t necessarily wrong- we need something near-to perfection to inspire us. I just believe that it’s an unfortunate fact that a lot of times that myth-making leads us to canonize people who weren’t great, and feel as if we live in a time with no heroes.

  • Brian M


    The aftermath of our flattening of Fallujah. It may not just or primarily be depleted uranium, but the destruction of the City involved plenty of nasty things.

  • Jim Baerg

    Antigone: “I do not confuse greatness with perfection” One character speaking about another in a novel by Lois M. Bujold.

    There are plenty of people who are called great because of their achievements. Few if any were without flaws.

  • jane hay

    I’ve been reading In the Graveyard of Empires by Seth Jones, an excellent overview of the debacle in Afghanistan. One note I want to make – in the early ’80′s Bill Casey talked General Zia into defunding secular schools in the tribal areas, which provided hot meals, winter coats and a minimum of social work for the population. In the vacuum madrassas were established by the fundie Wahabbist Saudis, to provide a recruitment population of mujahideen for the fight against the Soviets. The rest is history. This was not accomplished overnight, but is a prime example of extremely short-sighted foreign policy.
    I wonder if it could possibly be reversed, albeit slowly.
    Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind

  • archimedez

    Some background on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is provided in this report by Freedom House. The section on Pakistan begins on page 69 in the pdf of the full report.
    Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights

  • http://anexerciseinfutilty.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Jane Hay, you mean that Republican saint Ronald Reagan enabled the spread of Islamic fundamentalism? Shhh! Don’t let the wingnuts hear of this.

  • sal64

    Tommykey, jane hey: not only that. Also: the first line of defence consisted in: “PUBLIC SCHOOLS”.
    Just think about that!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey