One of the most disturbing things about Salmaan Taseer’s tragic death is the manner in which his party, the PPP, has reacted. Whether it is fear, misjudgement or sheer opportunism, I don’t know, but to call this assassination a ‘political conspiracy’, when it is yet another violent act of aggression against a dissenting voice, is a grave disservice to the nation.
There is no doubt that Governor Taseer was targeted for his views on the blasphemy law. Others, including religious scholars like Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi and Dr Muhammad Farooq, have suffered a similarly fatal fate simply because there is a frighteningly large armed population of intolerant extremists in our society who would go to any length to stifle alternative viewpoints.
It is baffling if the PPP thinks that it can ride off this martyrdom and use it for political advantage instead of tackling the biggest problem in our country head on. Equally disappointing is the judiciary’s silence. When threats were made to Salmaan Taseer and Sherry Rehman, why weren’t suo motu actions taken? Why has no action been taken against those who have offered head money to kill Asia Bibi extra-judicially? Could there be more contempt and disregard for the very function of the court? And yet, we have become so accustomed to ceding space to these draconian forces that hardly anyone is willing to take them on. As a result, the few who do pay dearly, most often with their lives.
The question more and more people are asking is: are we doomed? If the devastation caused by the floods took us back a hundred years, allowing armed groups and individuals, misled into narrowly interpreting religion, to dictate policy will take us back 400 years. But how can we reorient society? How can we use religion as a force of good rather than a force of evil? How can we rectify the severe damage that has already been done? For starters, the media, especially the electronic media, must mend its ways.
The talk show, a staple and increasingly static form of discourse, needs to broaden its horizons. It is not advisable to invite bickering politicians or analysts who rely on inflaming emotions. They add nothing to the discussion and it is best to black them out till they can learn to present arguments dispassionately. There is a need, instead, to build up rational discourse.
Religious programmes need to be strictly monitored so that there is no inflaming of emotion, no discriminatory interpretations and, most importantly, no incitement to violence. Running advertisements on tolerance while simultaneously providing a platform to those preaching the contrary is counterproductive. Efforts should also be made to show Pakistani viewers how other Muslim countries run their affairs. We are, after all, not the only Muslims on the planet. For example, Saudi Arabia is mandating veiled women be fingerprinted and have their identities verified by male immigration officers, in light of security concerns, and spending enormous amounts of money on jihad rehabilitation facilities.
The media can also be a tool for adult and child literacy. English, science and math lessons can be offered via television. Television does not need to be a reflection of society. It can be a teaching tool to uplift the masses that have been robbed of a quality education. Ratings may not immediately skyrocket because of this policy but, in the long run, it will reap benefits for society that will positively affect us all. The hypocrisy of feeding readers of the Urdu press one thing and those of the English press another must end. If media owners send their own children to enlightened American schools and universities, then it is not fair to dumb down the average Pakistani viewer with nonsense.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2011.