May 052008

You move around at diplomatic “do’s” having brief conversations here and there, which are usually little more than exchange of pleasantries and business cards – the real business being done elsewhere. But a conversation at one such “do” in the last couple of weeks was of more substance, and led me in the direction of another of those deeply unscientific surveys I sometimes lay before you. We were discussing the fact (or we made the assumption that it was a fact) that a numerical majority of adult Pakistanis were of a moderate persuasion and deplored the activities of a Talibanised minority who were not only spreading fear and terror but were damaging the international reputation of the country; had wrecked its tourist industry almost completely and presented to the world an image of Islam that can only be described as negative

We wondered how this might be countervailed, what could be done to turn the tide of extremism. We recognised that it was not something you turned on and off like a tap and would be a slow difficult process. Why, we wondered, are we not hearing from these millions of moderates? Where are they? Not on the streets protesting in their tens of thousands against suicide bombers, the men who publicly blow the brains out of alleged miscreants or who order the stoning to death of a couple on allegations of sexual misconduct – not on the streets anywhere. Why are they not protesting at women drivers being tailgated by bearded men on motorbikes who write down their numbers and then roar away? Where is the moderate protest against the recent warning by the Taliban against newspapers which publish pictures of women? Nowhere, that’s where.

We surmised that the reason for this silence and inactivity was that there was no “safe space” for moderate people to have a voice, that there did not exist the will or the direction of effort it would take to create a climate of denial in which the actions of a few could be loudly and publicly rejected. Rejected not just by the usual suspects, the activists and the human rights organisations that are able to mobilise small-scale protests at the drop of a hat, but rejected by the ordinary average moderate. The ordinary average moderate who, if my unscientific snapshot survey is anything to go by, is frightened out of their wits at the thought of exposing their moderation, and unlikely ever to come out on the streets to challenge the hegemony of the mullahs who have them by the throat.

“You never know who is listening; you never know who they might tell. They might say you are not a good Muslim. They might say you are an American spy or a Jewish sympathiser.” “They might say that you belong to a minority heretical sect.” “They may spread stories about your family morals.” All of these comments and many more were made to me. Virtually without exception the ordinary moderate Muslims I have spoken to in the last ten days are frightened that if they speak out in support of moderation and against the extremists, then they may be targeted themselves. They may not be blown up or shot, but they may find promotion blocked, otherwise routine or simple bureaucratic procedures suddenly becoming complicated or a host of other discriminations and harassments that let them know they are out of line.

Extrapolating my snapshot there are millions – literally millions – of ordinary people too scared to say publicly what they think and feel. In a climate of fear you are going to find it difficult to sow the seeds that will grow the climate of denial; create the space in which it is safe to challenge and confront the minority who bring terror into the lives of all of us. Until and unless such space is created — and perhaps here the electronic and print media could play a catalytic role — then there will be no moderate mechanism which can be deployed as a counterweight to extremism. Given that powerful elements in the establishment and the media are open or tacit supporters of extremism, we can expect it to continue to gain ground.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan.
Courtesy: The News, 5/5/2008

 Posted by at 7:59 am

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