Pakistanis rang in the New Year with an ominous warning. While the rest of the world was engaged in revelry, activity in the streets and stores of Pakistan ground to a halt as religious parties called a strike over the possibility of amending the country’s blasphemy laws.
From pulpits from Karachi to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Friday sermons featured incendiary speeches castigating the motives of those proposing amendments and in some cases asking for the head of Aasia Bibi, the farmhand from Sheikhupura sentenced to death under the law.
The controversy over the blasphemy laws in Pakistan has been widely covered in media outlets around the world. A recent report by Julie McCarthy of National Public Radio (NPR) reflected the complicated task journalists face when pinpointing the beat of Pakistan’s public pulse. A detailed snapshot of an angry mob demanding that Aasia Bibi be hanged was followed by a cautionary mention of Pakistan’s “silent majority”.
This ‘majority’, the report magnanimously implies, would disagree with such vengeful and bloodthirsty demands and certainly pause to reflect on the injustice of a law that victimises poor and disenfranchised religious minorities. The listener is invited to assume that these benign, silent masses that form the bulk of Pakistan’s populace would not empathise with the virulent bloodlust that demands the death of an illiterate farmhand.
The NPR report must be appreciated for its efforts to elude the emerging stereotype of Pakistanis as roundly evil and inescapably shady Taliban sympathisers. However, the idea of Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ must be evaluated in the backdrop of the realities illustrated by the outcry against any debate on the blasphemy laws. This involves examining the phenomenon that is most frequently proffered as evidence of the moderate tendencies of Pakistan’s public. The crowds at Sufi shrines, the kids happily munching burgers at McDonalds and KFC and even the fashion-week activities, held under high security, have all enjoyed stints in the collage of moderation that points to the inherent tolerance of Pakistanis.
Listening to a qawwali or partaking of the temptations of western capitalism such as movies and burgers help create a cherished self-image that sidelines repugnant realities. Simultaneously, they promote rationalisations that suggest that women are never raped, Christians and Hindus are never persecuted and the poor are never enslaved.
In recent years, as Pakistan moves deeper into the dregs of ignorance, these rationalisations have become a costly and obstinate delusion. Collectively, they hinge on the idea that random acts of tolerance and the scattered successes of this Hindu politician or that Christian businessman can form a bulwark against the angry mobs that see death and destruction as the road to purity.
If the above critique questions the presence of a silent majority, an equally apt one questions its actual potency in a country where democracy has meant the recycling of feudal and industrial elites arranged in varying party conglomerations. Even if it is assumed that the majority of Pakistanis would support the amendments to the blasphemy law, the tools at their disposal to hold back the vocal minority are despicably meagre.
Take, for instance, the most recent strike called by the religious parties, whose supporters went through markets and malls intimidating all into closing their shops and businesses. The result was an impression of widespread support while the reality may simply have been widespread fear.
The cowering majority, retreating to their homes and watching lynch mobs and bomb blasts from safe distances, is not only fearful but deeply confused. While the ravages of suicide terror, and the tens of thousands of casualties that have been borne by Pakistanis, have led to the evolution of a public consensus against suicide terror, the current lack of support for amending the blasphemy laws reveals the fragility of this position.
The same religious clerics who have become adept at condemning suicide attacks in mosques and imambargahs see no contradiction in rousing mobs to kill a woman whose alleged crime is based entirely on hearsay. Nor, it seems, does anybody else, with few drawing attention to the idea that the same ideas of violence and intolerance that underpin justifications for suicide bombings are also at the root of laws that mandate state-imposed intimidation of minority groups.
The questions surrounding the existence or power of Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ become crudely magnified in the light of the realities facing the country. The thousands of casualties lost to terrorism, vast swathes of the country still reeling in the aftermath of an unprecedented natural disaster, families selling one child to feed another and the rulers in Islamabad dangerously teetering on collapse all point to the dire need of a massive awakening of the ordinary citizen.
Never before has the country so urgently needed to rise up against the petty hatreds and political bickering that could produce yet another round of military rule with a new set of agonies. But even with foreign aid, few tools remain at hand to awaken Pakistan’s silent collective. The individual shopkeeper pulls down his shutters to ensure that his store will not be burned down for defying the strike, the bank manager chooses to stay home and enjoy a Friday with his family instead of venturing out, and a group of boys on a street quickly disband a game of cricket when they see a crowd coming out of the mosque. Together, their strategies for survival point to the silencing of a nation ruled by fear.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. This article was previously published in Dawn (Pakistan).