Use tradition ingeniously


Plan meticulously; execute ruthlessly

Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness is the story of an unnamed city afflicted by a mass epidemic of blindness. As the affliction spreads, social order begins to break down. The government’s inept and panic-driven repressive measures, trying to quarantine those already gone blind and resorting to excessive force against others, only serve to worsen the fast deteriorating situation. The result is deep moral degradation. Then one day, as suddenly and inexplicably as it had come, the affliction is gone but by then the society has been tested at the most basic, and base, level.

Saramago is a tough read for someone like me who likes it neat and ordered. His sentences are long, interspersed with commas rather than periods. The dialogue, given the lack of quotation marks, looks jumbled and characters are described through descriptive appellations rather than proper names. I have yet to bring myself to read a couple of his other novels that are likely to become a part of my anti-library, the books one has but may never read.

Even so I was thinking about Blindness as I sat next to Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Wednesday night and heard him give a summary of the interrogation of Salmaan Taseer’s murderer. Latent in the narrative were details of the Barelvi groundswell in favour of the killer, the Deobandi/Wahhabi attempts to not allow the Barelvis to capture the religio-political space and the constraints of a government on a respirator, without will and authority and unable to stand up for one of its stalwarts who has gone down defending basic human values.

Saramago doesn’t tell the reader why his unnamed city was afflicted with blindness. Pedants would talk about his style and literary technique. But our blindness, and the consequent deterioration of moral values, has a clear and explainable history. That history is also the story of those prescient people who warned at every stage of where we were headed. People are warning still but those who are entrusted with authority lack the will and the ability to formulate workable strategies.

ST could not have turned the tide singlehandedly even as he had the courage to stand up. But the government, acting through its legal-constitutional mandate, even at its weakest, can pick up its battles wisely and begin to make a difference. Consider.

The government has made clear that it does not intend to repeal the blasphemy law or even change it at this point. Fine; that was required. It is important to amend the law to ensure it is not abused, but that opportunity has been lost at this stage. However, and this is important, that should be no reason for not picking up those people who are instigating others to murder those who are citizens of this country and are agitating for rationalising this law.

There is no reason, for instance, to spare the maulvi who has called for killing Sherry Rehman. Neither is there any reason for the government to ignore the cleric who has warned Shehrbano Taseer against speaking out. It is an irony that these two women have shown more spunk than the government. They cannot and must not be left alone.
The message should be plain and simple: the blasphemy law is not being changed but there are also laws against anyone killing another person or instigating people to kill others. And if someone does that, for whatever reason, the state will not spare him.

But this is where we get into another problem: prosecution and conviction. The government has failed, as has the criminal justice system, to prosecute and convict criminals and terrorists. Not one terrorist conviction has survived appeal. Judges and prosecutors are threatened and the government has come up with no strategy to address the issue.

Extraordinary times demand extraordinary and innovative measures. If there are threats, arrangements can be made for faceless judges and prosecutors. We can find out how Italy and Colombia dealt with drug cartels and what measures they took to effectively prosecute and convict members of very powerful crime syndicates.

The next step is for the government to break this alliance. Deobandis and Wahhabis are in on the game not because they think much of this blasphemy law but because they cannot allow the Barelvis to capture the religio-political space they have made for themselves through the so-called jihad industry. In fact, in a typical Barelvi-Deobandi denominational split, a Deobandi maulvi and his son were sentenced to life last week by an anti-terrorism court on the charge of blasphemy in a case where the complainant is a Barelvi!

The government should also bring to the surface the sub-literature of various denominations which is, quite often, blasphemous, as are also their actions when they get into violent fights. Check out the Barelvi and Deobandi discussion forums on the internet to see what they do to each other, going back to Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi’s Husam al-Haramayn from where the fatwa wars began.

Raza Khan, through his various fatwas, apostatised nearly all the major Deobandi clerics of his time including Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi, Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri and Ashraf Ali Thanwi. Not just that, for good measure, Raza Khan added that all those who did not consider these clerics apostates were also apostates.

Over time other strands have been added to old fissures. Deobandis and Salafis have picked up Ibn-e Taymiyya and started killing those who don’t agree with them through the exclusion principle, becoming today’s Kharijites.

The affliction will not go away quickly; rather it will be a long and very painful process. But it cannot be avoided. The important point is to avoid the two extremes of foolhardiness and pusillanimity. Neither retreat nor frontal assaults will do. The fights should be picked up judiciously, the planning should be meticulous and the execution ruthless.

For now, ensure that the killer gets what he deserves; pick up the instigators and put them through the wringer. Put other rabble-rousers under house arrest. Get the clerics together or through the Council of Islamic Ideology and get a verdict on the issue of apostatising other Muslims. The Hadith is very clear on how, when and whether it can be done. Liberal humanism alone is not going to work here but mixed with tradition could help ameliorate the situation. Let’s make ingenious use of tradition.

This article was originally published in Pakistan Today following the gratuitous murder of Salmaan Taseer.

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