Razzle-dazzle ’em-By Cyril Almeida

Every so often an optimist pipes up, “Pakistan isn’t all that bad.” It is. Forget politics, militancy and the economy for a moment; this is still a wretched place.

By any measure, by any test Pakistan fails to provide its citizens a healthy, modern, varied life.

Thank God for women. Chicago, the Broadway musical and Hollywood hit, came to Karachi and scored a triumph for women. The play’s lead characters are sexy, saucy and bold. They are everything that a Pakistani woman is not supposed to be — at least in public. Yet two Pakistani women took up the challenge and didn’t flinch. They danced and sang and performed as the script required, not as Pakistani norms demand. The critics will criticise and the musical aficionados will throw in their tuppence but as a political statement it was an emphatic victory. Elsewhere, friends Zeb and Haniya having been wowing the world of music. Their debut video is about a woman who ends a relationship on a mature, sensible note. Zeb and Haniya are cousins from Kohat so the media — home and away — has leapt at juxtaposing the politics of that neighbourhood with female musical talent, much to the chagrin of the cousins who would rather the focus be on their music.

These women ought to be celebrated. Sure, the rabid mullahs will chant prayers for their souls and wish hellfire and brimstone upon them but that’s what rabid mullahs do. While the Chicago actors and Zeb and Haniya are caught in a battle not of their choosing, it ought to be of some consolation that they are on the right side.

What these bold women are doing is recapturing the public space that has been denied to them since Zia. The generation that came of age during the time of the Islamist dictator are all children of Zia — a generation whose public voice was stifled unless it was used to intone religious mores. A decade of democracy and a near-decade of enlightened moderation have followed but our national discourse — a lofty term for the tripe that is offered for public consumption — continues to be framed by the general. Everything we do, everything we drink, everything we say, everything we think, the parameters of what is publicly acceptable or not has been dictated by Gen Zia.

The Taliban — Zia’s ideological progeny — are simply taking his ideological purge to the next level. Social scientists analyse the destruction of girls’ schools in antiseptic academic-speak. Treatises on patriarchy and institutionalised misogyny and the conflict between individual and society are trotted out. Less erudite people talk of obscurantism and uneducated, poverty-stricken, wild-eyed, bushy bearded men chewing tobacco and holding prayer beads while making the world in their likeness. At its core though it remains what it is: a crude mechanism of social control which acknowledges that a society without women is easier to tame. Nudge women out of the mainstream and half the job of ideological purity is complete.

The difficulty for the moderates is that pushing back is dangerous. A media group took on the Lal Masjid brigade and sundry militants with irreverent political cartoons and an unequivocal editorial stance against militancy. Soon enough the death threats poured in. In an email exchange, an editor told me “there’s nothing we can do about a strike if they choose to make one, short of capitulating or closing shop. That’s the asymmetric advantage they enjoy over their opponents.” Most would choose not to fight. Some — the brave — do.

But what most unwittingly do is feed the beast. It is true that most Pakistanis do not want the Talibanisation of the country. But there is a hesitancy to criticise the Taliban and their ilk, if only because they wrap themselves up in the cloak of Islam. The ascetic lifestyle, heroic resistance and virtuous future that the Taliban offer tug at emotional strings that are difficult to repulse. Even if most would — and do — choose the material over the spiritual on a daily basis, there is a reluctance to judge the pious. It’s a general feature of organised religions, but in Pakistan it is worsened by the failure to distinguish between a Pakistan-for-Muslims and Pakistan-as-an-Islamist-state. The Taliban are alert to this dilemma of Pakistanis, as were the Americans, the Saudis and the ISI when they pumped money into the jihad culture here. Resistance is futile.

Or is it? It is the sharpening of the wrong distinctions that has gotten us in this fix. The Pakistan-state-has-failed versus the Islamist-state-by-definition-is-a-success model is a false choice that few are willing to explore. I tried to during the quintessential cabbie conversation. A clean-shaven man with otherwise moderate opinions, he surprised me by arguing for the Taliban and cursing the Pakistani state. “I’m a sinner,” the cabbie told me, “but I know the Taliban are right. They want to bring Islam.” We happened to be driving through Karachi’s commercial district at the time, so I pointed out the window to a skyscraper. Could the Taliban give him that? Or even the taxi he was driving?

Incontestably the economic argument is neither sufficient nor necessary. Al Qaeda recruits are known to be middle-class and educated. The connection between poverty and Islamic radicalism is often assumed but far from clear.

Yet economic progress is an undeniable aid in pushing back religiosity, especially its more radical forms, at the level of society. A small family would have paid the effective minimum monthly wage to watch Chicago. The play would probably not have been staged were it not for corporate sponsors. The media group debunking the militants’ lies relies on rising incomes to gain readers and viewers. Zeb and Haniya’s musical expedition has been expensive and their outreach would have been limited were it not for a fledgling music industry.

So while growth is important because it can dull the allure of a religious ideal for a cabbie dreaming of a better future, it’s the spillovers that are perhaps the more valuable. For a media group growth has meant more readers and viewers whose false notions can be challenged. For the women of Chicago and Zeb and Haniya growth has created the space to fight back through their art, knowingly or otherwise.

The first step to winning a battle is to acknowledge its existence. Next is the hard part: fighting it. So far Pakistan has not shown much of an inclination to wrest away the public space from the mullahs. That’s why it’s so important to tip your hat to those who do put up a fight.


Source: daily Dawn, 6/8/2008

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