The dark ages of Pakistan

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In medieval Europe, heretics were burnt alive, rebels were quartered and their body parts were sent to the remote corners of the country, those who believed that the earth revolved around the sun were admonished and threatened. The Christian church held sway over kings, queens and princes, theology was knowledge and science was profanity. That period in history is called the Dark Ages.

Times changed. Europe saw the period of enlightenment, industrial revolution, ascendancy of philosophy over theology, pre-eminence of science and rational thought over dogmatism and superstition.

European civilisation produced Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Darwin, Freud and Marx. From James Watt to Graham Bell, thousands of discoverers and inventors completely transformed human existence. At the same time, they began to dominate the rest of the world – politically, culturally, militarily and economically. Even today, what we see in the form of the United States, Canada and Australia are the projections of European civilisation and culture over other parts of the planet.

The state of Pakistan began with a promise. Even the scars of the Partition of British India and the massive bloodletting it entailed did not held us from dreaming, from planning, from progressing in different walks of life. In our history, there were power struggles, political upheavals, dismemberment of the country, wars, economic downturns, martial rules, riots, corruption, mismanagement, et al, but there still was a faith in the future, a desire to improve and be better, an optimism and hope. But we slipped back and slipped back fast. We retrogressed. We plunged ourselves into the dark ages.

In today’s Pakistan, people are bombed, killed, maimed, beheaded, mutilated, looted, plundered and terrorised with impunity. If you look, think, talk differently, or are even perceived to be different from a person or an organisation with the means to eliminate people physically, you become extremely vulnerable. People are virtually lynched and their bodies charred.

I can recall one such episode from last July when work took me to London. The print and electronic media were full of commentary and analysis on a new discovery in the realm of particle physics and the praise for a British physicist, Dr Peter Higgs, who had discovered the so-called ‘God particle’ – a particle in the atom whose discovery is supposed to bring humanity closer to understanding how the universe came into existence. The particle was termed ‘Higgs boson’.

The remnants of science education left in me from my schooling years get me excited at times. The day I was absorbed in reading the details of the feats of Dr Higgs and other scientists in a British newspaper during a short train journey, one small news item from Pakistan on an inside page caught my eye. A man was dragged out of a police cell by an angry mob in the presence of the police, lynched and burnt to death. He was accused of blasphemy and was taken into police custody upon someone’s complaint. Those who knew him said that he was mentally deranged. He was not a Christian or a Hindu either. He was a born Muslim.

Even after having a blasphemy law in place, people could not wait for the man to receive a trial, let alone a fair trial. Without getting into the merits and demerits of having such a law in the country, nobody who participated in killing him thought even once that the man could have been wrongly accused. I folded the newspaper, put it away and stared blankly out of the window. I felt a chill in my spine and thought how do we compare as a nation with other countries and civilisations of today? We did not even know if the person was a heretic.

There have been about 1600 such cases filed against people. But the person who was killed belongs to the other list – the list of those against whom no case was even filed before they were murdered.

Who have we not killed, individually or amass, in the past twenty years? Whose places of worship have we not bombed? Whose shrines have we not desecrated? Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Shias, Sunnis – who has been spared? Churches are burnt down, temples are vandalised and mosques are blown-up. Funeral processions are attacked. Then we have the gall to say that this is all being done by the enemies of Pakistan, the external forces, the international agencies, so on and so forth?

Even if there is international interference and ‘wicked’ foreigners operating on the Pakistani soil, who on earth has provided them the hotbed? Haven’t we promoted a national narrative of hatred, intolerance and narrow-mindedness ourselves – through the hypocritical religiosity of state institutions, defective and short-sighted foreign policy, discriminatory laws, twisted evangelism of mainstream media and bigoted school curricula?

But what the Shias of Pakistan are facing today is the worst onslaught of terror on any group of people on religious basis compared to what has happened in the country ever before. January 2013, it was Alamdar Road. February 2013, it was Kirani Road. March 2013, it is Abbas Town. There are nine more months to go. May God have mercy on us!

While professionals and doctors belonging to the Shia community are targeted and killed from Karachi and Lahore to Quetta and Gilgit, the murder of two naval officers in Karachi, bearing names that sound Shia even if they are not, is a shocking new development. Women and children are not being spared either when Gilgit-bound or Zahedan-bound buses carrying Shia passengers are attacked or indiscriminate bombing and firing takes place on processions and congregations.

In dealing with those we consider rebels and them being quartered and their limbs being sent around the country, we have decided to do it differently from the medieval times. We make them disappear. They may have rebelled more against our political and economic interests rather than the state but if our narrow interest and lopsided understanding of the issue sees them as rebels, they must be condemned. But who has the time to try them for treason? We make some of them languish in unknown prisons for times unending, while some others are killed and their bodies thrown out in the open. Balochistan is a case in point.

So where do we go from here as a people? Immediately and urgently, the formal and the not-so-formal institutions governing the state and society of Pakistan – the political parties, the military, the media and the civil society – have to resolve that no time is left if we ever want to come out of this cycle of brutality and violence.

There has to be a consensus among all centres of political and military power to take purposeful action to eliminate terrorism – be it religious, sectarian, ethnic or political. In tandem with the administrative and structural measures, the Pakistani state and society have to do what the Europeans did to come out of their dark ages. We have to establish the ascendancy of philosophy over theology, pre-eminence of science and rational thought over dogmatism and superstition, power of knowledge over ignorance, preference of pluralism over singularity, choice of diversity over uniformity.

It is time to start writing a new narrative of hope, of love, of inclusion and of mutual respect. This respect has to be achieved between communities within Pakistan and between Pakistanis and other nations. Those championing a particular brand of Islam in Pakistan in the name of anti-imperialism must be made to understand that, while they do not want the west to dominate them, they must also not aspire to dominate the rest of the world.

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