In Pakistan, an assassination and the death of words

March 4, 2011

bhattiWhen I first heard about Shahbaz Bhatti’s assassination, there seemed to be nothing sensible to be said about it.  Not yet another prediction about Pakistan’s growing instability, nor even an outpouring of anger of the kind that followed the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in the English-language media.  The assassination of the Minorities Minister did not appear to portend anything beyond the actual tragedy of his death.  And nor could anyone say it came as a  surprise. A loss of words, then. A painful punctuation mark.

Cafe Pyala has now articulated far better than I could what went through my mind when I first heard about the assassination.

“There was a time when some of us would have leapt at the chance to throw words into this maelstrom, to comment on a senseless tragedy like the one today. As journalists, as commentators, as columnists, it would have been like going to the Promised Land. High profile murder? Check. Law and order issue? Check. Spectre of extremism? Check. Possibility of point scoring against toothless government? Check. Energizing, empowering, emboldening feeling of being part of a struggle that is bigger than one’s self? Check, Check, Check and Check!

“That time is long past.”

It is that loss of words that is perhaps the most troubling. Everyone already knows that publicly challenging the blasphemy laws in Pakistan can be a death sentence.  Everyone already knows the government appeased the religious right by pledging not to amend the laws after Taseer’s death (that appeasement, incidentally, is not unique to the current civilian government — the Musharraf government was also quite clear the laws could not be touched.) Everyone already knows that Pakistan’s minorities are particularly vulnerable (according to The Express Tribune, they comprise almost 10 million people, equal to everyone in Tunisia, or one-and-half times all of Libya. )

Shahbaz Bhatti was a Christian, and wanted a reform of the blasphemy laws. What more was there to say?

And the many bewildering causes of the current state of Pakistan have already been listed and debated so many times. The war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s difficult relationship with the United States and a history of confrontation with India. Pakistan’s own troubled history and the challenge of finding an identity for itself as a mainly Muslim country that is not Islamist.  Its economic problems, exacerbated by a global financial downturn. The corruption of its elite.  The political shenanigans of an infant democracy in a country dominated by the military. The desensitisation created by near-daily killings along with a tendency for false moral equivalence – each condemnation of a death too often accompanied by a “but”.  What more is there to say?

“Faced with this insidious, creeping bleakness, even the strongest of us might be tempted, fleetingly, to embrace the self-anesthetization, the comfortable numbness, of those who survive by not speaking at all, by not writing at all, by not thinking at all,” wrote Cafe Pyala.  “But we must. We must because there is soft ground beneath us and if we stop, even for a second, to rest or lick our wounds we might sink and be lost.”

The alternative, wrote Nadeem Paracha at Dawn, was to accept a society “that has started to respond enthusiastically to the major symptoms of fascist thought”.

Echoing that theme,  Cyril Almeida, also at Dawn,  wrote that Pakistan was ripe for a demagogue who would offer a facile mix of Islam, nationalism and quick-fix economic promises to ride a populist wave to power.

“Our silence is criminal because one day, there will be no one left to speak out for you or I if we continue to remain silent,” wrote Mehmal Sarfraz at Tehelka.  “We cannot let anyone mute us, come life or death.”

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