Hidden emotions, hidden agendas

December 6, 2008

Wow, Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times let fly with a zinger with his opinion piece “Calling all Pakistanis“, presumably aimed at stirring compassion in Pakistani hearts over last week’s horrifying attack in Mumbai.

Pakistanis were Peace protesters in Lahoreready enough to take to the streets to vent their anger and indignation over cartoons in Denmark, why can’t they demonstrate a shared sense of outrage over the cold-blooded killing of 171 people in the country next door, asks Friedman.

Of course, anyone would like to see spontaneous public displays of grief and empathy for the people of Mumbai. Can it happen in Pakistan, a country that has fought three wars against India? The army doesn’t trust India and the people have been fed an anti-India diet by governments and media since 1947.

I think we can understand why it won’t happen in Peshawar, or faraway Quetta — cities where conservative, religious forces have a lot of influence.

But why not Karachi, Mumbai’s twin across the Arabian Sea, or Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital? After all they host the most progressive, liberal sections of Pakistan’s deeply fissured society. A few bravehearts from that tiny minority might risk some candle-lit vigils.

The trouble is that they also have a strong Islamist presence, which is why thousands of people turned out to protest against the cartoons in both cities.

Even remembering the genuine warmth that was shown to Indian visitors during the heady days of cricket diplomacy in spring of 2004, expecting a sudden, collective outpouring of sympathy from ordinary Pakistanis is probably expecting too much.

What people looking from a distance don’t understand, and I’ll risk including faraway news editors in this, is that reactions in Pakistan are often politically engineered, and delayed rather than spontaneous.

It probably has something to do with the fatalism of people who’ve seen generals overthrow their governments, who’ve been brutalised by bombs and suicide attacks in their own towns, who are so confused by their own powerlessness that they readily believe the most outlandish conspiracy theories.

Look at those cartoon protests in 2006. Yes they were big.

Indeed the protest in Lahore, to the shock of most Lahoris, turned violent and destructive along the city’s famous Mall road.

But it took weeks for the Islamist parties, some say egged on by rogue anti-Musharraf agent provocateurs in the agencies, to mobilise their cadres in Karachi and Lahore.

The demonstrations in Pakistan were bigger than elsewhere in the Islamic world, but came far later and appeared contrived.

In contrast, the displays of public support in 2007 for the Supreme Court Chief Justice who Musharraf dismissed were genuinely impressive as he criss-crossed the country addressing bar associations.

Yes, the lawyers and Sharif’s party, and to some extent Bhutto’s People’s Party, organised these too.

But they generated a groundswell of public support in a way that cartoon issue never really did — look how Islamist parties were wiped out in February’s election.

So Pakistanis clearly respond to injustice, if someone gets them going.

Which political party is going to risk filling them with compassion for Mumbai, given India’s suspicions that the killers were trained by the Pakistani military.

Remember the politicians are in the middle of a transition from military rule, that the army chief has himself supported.

Still, perhaps the politicians should risk getting people involved. After all, it would fit nicely into the government’s avowed campaign to turn people against militancy and religious extremism.

Perhaps that was Friedman’s purpose.

Because otherwise an article that only a few well-read people in Karachi and Lahore are likely to see could simply play to the anti-Pakistan gallery, and harden attitudes of ordinary good-hearted Pakistanis who feel outsiders take cheap shots to malign them.

Let’s see, maybe the President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party will recognise this is an opportunity to reach out to India in a common war against jihadis who’d like to take over Pakistan and break up the Indian federation.

Maybe Kayani could lay a wreath.

Maybe that would give people confidence to show their true feelings of horror an sympathy for what happened in Mumbai.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

PHOTO: Peace activists hold placards as they demonstrate for peace between Pakistan and India in Lahore December 5, 2008. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza (PAKISTAN)

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