A gut reaction of hatred engulfs me when I see the triumphant face of Qadri, Governor Salman Taseer’s bodyguard who shot him so cold bloodedly on Tuesday evening at Islamabad’s Kohsar market. To my liberal-minded, upper-middle class psyche, this Qadri stands for everything that I currently hate about my increasingly Talibanized and radicalized country. Violence in the name of religion, maddening intolerance, crippling narrow-mindedness, annoying self-righteousness.
But after some soul-searching, I realise that I think the way I do because of my relatively privileged life experiences. My family and I have never known poverty. We are relatively well read, well travelled and have had the opportunity to receive a well-rounded education. I am currently living in a first world country with a very cushy lifestyle.
Its all very well for me and others like myself to read the headlines and register our outrage and anger against the ‘inhuman’, ‘brutal’, ‘disgusting’ man who shot Taseer, and the equally ‘misguided’ and ‘abhorrent’ religious right that is applauding the killer and declaring him a hero. It defies what to our minds is well-reasoned logic about the ‘true message of Islam’ and shakes our ‘moderate’, ‘tolerant’ selves to the core. How could our country come to this? What’s going to become of us? And once again, as the battle lines are drawn across social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, blogs and opinion forums between those who are condemning the killing and those who are celebrating it, the widening chasm that exists between the two diagrammatically opposed ideological groups becomes even more painfully clear. And its posing a threat to our very co-existence as a nation.
The background story to the killing seems straightforward enough. A poor Christian woman became the latest victim of the (outrageously unjust) blasphemy law. Governor Taseer, unusually one of the most controversial and widely derided political leaders of the country, found a soft spot for her plight, and became a champion for her rights. For once he was not making headlines because of corruption, self-serving politics or lavish lifestyle, but standing up for the downtrodden. This made him a target of the ‘mullah brigade’ who drummed up their usual hate-mongering vitriol and issued angry fatwas. But the Governor’s stance resonated with us - the ‘liberal’ and ‘educated’ segment of society, who could identify with his sentiments and are finding overt Islamization a threat to our Western-influenced lifestyles and belief systems. We might consider ourselves patriotic Pakistanis and proud Muslims, but there is no denying the heavy influence of the West in things that shape our opinions, like our education and media consumption (books, magazines, movies, music, television, internet etc.), as opposed to the lower middle class and working class, which have a more indigenous viewpoint about things.
So with such widely differing influences and life experiences at play, it’s only fair to ask: Is demonising Qadri and his huge number of followers a constructive approach on our part?
Aren’t we guilty of being as intolerant as the group we are so eloquently condemning since the past few days?
Aren’t we being as small-minded as the Americans who divide humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and indiscriminately bomb countries and citizens without addressing the root cause of the resentment in those parts of the world?
Shouldn’t we think about what makes a ‘Qadri’ in the first place?
I believe its simplistic to think his ideological opposition to Salman Taseer’s blasphemy law stance was the only reason that caused him to pummel 20 rounds of ammunition into the chest of the man he had been recruited by the state to protect.
Is he not the product of the complex matrix of the region’s geopolitics, the warped ‘war on terror’, the cruel policies of the West and their cohorts that pan the fires of resentment in the local people? Not to mention a reaction to the self-serving elite of our country whose corruption and greed knows no end and who would never part with a penny to help their poor fellow countrymen.
And poverty and deprivation and social injustice all play a role. Back in 2005 when I was working with a media company in Islamabad, I worked on a documentary about police reforms. I remember visiting the living barracks of the Punjab’s Elite Force Guard, the outfit that Qadri belonged to. They were housed in a makeshift ancient Hindu mandir and there was certainly nothing ‘elite’ about the place. These guys, clearly the cream of the police crop in terms of fitness, training and ability – were sitting around swatting flies in the stifling heat, made to live in a place barely fit for animals to live in.
What kind of life-prospects do men like Qadri and their families have to look forward to? They are the ‘have-nots’, and as the country plummets deeper into economic crises and basic amenities become harder to afford and access, the extravagant lives of the ‘haves’ must be becoming harder to stomach. It should come as no surprise that signs of a social revolution have begun to surface. And with some of the ‘have-nots’, these frustrations are readily channelled into an extremist mindset, with religious self-righteousness fuelling the need for their ego to somehow feel superior to the elites of the country whom they are forced to serve every day, and the Western superpowers who walk all over their rights. Thus Qadri’s deep-rooted resentment towards the ridiculously rich, well-dressed, well-educated, partying Government functionary was turned into a deluded sense of self-belief of being a better Muslim – a ‘custodian of the ‘honour of the Prophet p.b.u.h.’, a cause higher and more ennobling than his own life of drudgery and deprivation could ever offer.
And thus he shot the ‘atheist’, and hence he smiles.
He knows he is not a nobody anymore, and probably expects to be showered in rose petals in Jannat just like he was in the courtroom yesterday.
Deluded mindsets like these must be battled against, and we must speak out against the pervading extremism and those who espouse violence in the name of religion – but we shouldn’t hold our breaths as to what that would achieve. After all, what credibility do us privileged but apathetic lot have when making statements? We can choose to look at this simplistically, or try and scratch beneath the surface to confront the uncomfortable truth. There is a grossly unfair social divide that is helping to fuel this twisted, bigoted thinking. We need to come off our high horses and start thinking about ways we can lessen this divide and give back to the less fortunate. We need to think up of ways to share our wealth and privilege, and work tangibly towards improving our society and the plight of the poor. Only then might we have some credibility when we preach a doctrine of tolerance and non-violence to the ‘other side’. In his own way, Salman Taseer was doing his bit right before he died – using his status and influence to speak out against religious intolerance, and trying to protect the rights of a marginalized community. And since he died so dramatically because of it, he is being hailed today by many as a hero who stood for something – not a petty politician with a shady past.
We must ask ourselves what we are prepared to do to wash away our sins. It might not be long before the pitchforks reach our own gates.
6th January 2011