Strengthening positive ones should be priority
Pakistan represents a complex reality of positive and negative trends. Like a large number of Asian and African states, Pakistan manifests discontinuities based on ethnicity, language, culture, region and religious orientations. There is no single method to cope with these diversities and bring them in a state-wide national framework. However, the capacity of the political system to moderate these diversities and build these into an overarching framework goes a long way to determine the extent to which the state and society can function as a coherent socio-political entity.
Pakistan is experiencing different kinds of societal conflicts and violence in different parts of the country. In Karachi, violence has become so endemic that during the last six months three to five people were killed on average every day. In Balochistan, especially in and around Quetta, sectarian killings have become a routine affair. At times, the people from other provinces are also killed in a pre-panned manner.
Other problems that threaten the fabric of Pakistani state and society are religious extremism, hardline socio-religious attitudes and the use of violence to pursue religious-cum-political agendas. An unfortunate expression of religious extremism was witnessed on September 20 and 21 when the activists of different but recognizable hardline Islamic groups damaged public and private property while protesting against the YouTube-based film on the Holy Prophet. A church in Mardan and a Hindu temple in Karachi were damaged and the adjoining properties of Christians and Hindus respectively were also vandalized. In Islamabad, the army was called out to help the police to stop the protesters from entering the Diplomatic Enclave where most embassies were located. Had security been weak on September 21, the possibility of an attack on American embassy could not be ruled out like the attack on the American embassy in Islamabad in November 1979.
It may be pointed out that under international law if any embassy or consulate is damaged by mob attack the host government has to pay the cost of repairs. In November 1979, when the US embassy in Islamabad was damaged, Pakistan paid the cost of its repair which amounted to dollars 13,652,000.
There is another reality very different from the ugly scenes in the streets of major cities on September 21. On the next day, the young male and female students from mainstream educational institutions in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad decided to clean up the streets by removing the debris and repair and paint some road signs. They undertook this task voluntarily and brought the required equipment and material needed for this task. It was very encouraging to see the young people working voluntarily in the streets, showing the soft and humane face of Pakistan.
The subsequent protests were peaceful and orderly for two major reasons. First, violence on September 21 was condemned across broad and the media named the Islamic parties whose activists engaged in violence. The police used the footage of close circuit TV to arrest some of the violent protesters. Second, the leadership of Islamic parties decided to be personally present in the protest marches to deflect the criticism for being absent on the day Pakistan witnessed one of the worst violence in the recent past. They wanted to show that their activists were peaceful and orderly and violence was resorted to by criminals and anti-social elements.
An orderly and peaceful protest march was organized in Karachi on September 30 by various Islamic parties and groups and their affiliated madrassas, identifying mainly with the Barelvi Islamic traditions. The top leaders were present in the march.
By the first week of October, the protest movement was confined mainly to Islamic parties and groups. The mainstream political parties returned to their routine political activities. The film-issue has provided the much needed opportunity to Islamic groups and parties to activate their workers and show their strength in streets. The Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC), established after the Salala border post incident (November 26, 2011) to launch a movement for not resuming the transit of supplies to US/NATO troops in Afghanistan, became somewhat inactive after the resumption of supplies in early July. Now, the film-issue enabled the DPC to return to the political scene.
Despite their best efforts, the Islamic political parties have not been able to outsmart the mainstream political parties. The best ever vote obtained by Islamic parties was 11 percent in the 2002 general elections for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. They formed the provincial government in Khbyer Pukhtunkhwa in 2002-2007. They were pushed aside in the 2008 general elections. Now, they want to stage a comeback for the next general elections. Therefore they will keep the present protest alive as long as possible. Another significant development is that some sectarian and militant groups are endeavoring to enter national politics by working with other religious parties. These are expected to enter the electoral contest.
It is a positive development that the protest marches by religious parties have become peaceful. However, the manifestation of religious hardline is noticeable in their demands, including the display of the photograph of the killer of Governor Salmaan Taseer in the Karachi rally on September 30. Some of the Islamic groups project him as a hero.
The political and societal developments over the last two weeks show that Pakistan’s reality manifests positive as well negative socio-political and cultural trends. The violence on the religious issue was condemned all over Pakistan, forcing the religious parties and militant groups to adopt a peaceful course of action and they attempted to shift the blame of violence to anti-social elements. The students created another positive example.
There is a need to build on the positive reality and discourage the negative reality. Pakistan’s political parties and societal groups, including Islamic formations, should join together to build Pakistan’s internal strength with reference to internal political cohesion, a moderate and tolerant societal disposition and stable economy. This will moderate various socio-cultural diversities, reduce societal violence and strengthen all-embracing Pakistan-wide social and political processes. These strengths will increase their capacity to engage in a dialogue with the West for convincing them to respect the top personalities of all religions and that none should be able to use the cover of freedom of expression to hurt the religious and cultural sentiments of any community.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.