Pakistanis mourn nation’s change
Fundamentalism has supplanted tolerance, dissent
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A 60-year-old university administrator in the southern port city of Karachi is wistful as he recalls the more tolerant, freewheeling Pakistan of his youth.
Once, when a teacher suggested that no book can be perfect, the boy asked if that included Islam’s holy book, the Koran. That sparked a candid class discussion about religion. But in today’s Pakistan, Muqtida Mansoor said he would never dare to ask the question in public.
After all, “anyone could shoot you.’’
Days after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, one of the few politicians openly challenging the onslaught of religious extremism, Pakistani moderates are facing a new and troubling reality: Pakistan is a country where fundamentalism is becoming mainstream, leaving even less room for dissent, difference, and many once-prevalent leisures such as public music, dance parties, or other social contact between the sexes.
More liberal-minded Pakistanis have been left with a profound sense of loss, alienation, and fear for the future. One rights activist forecast that at the rate Islamist groups are rising, a religious party could be ruling the country in 10 to 15 years.
The transformation is particularly disheartening for many younger Pakistanis.
“There is no concept of freedom of speech in this country,’’ said Aaisha Aslam, 25, who works for a nongovernmental organization. People with fanatic mind-sets are “out to snatch this country from us.’’
The poles have shifted so much that it was not just bearded students from religious seminaries who last week praised the suspected killer of a politician who opposed blasphemy laws. Some religious scholars who oppose the Taliban also joined in — and lawyers showered him with rose petals.
“The silent majority does not want to take out a gun and shoot anyone, but at the same time they’re not appalled by it when somebody else does,’’ said Fasi Zaka, 34, a radio host. “The majority are enablers.’’
Well before Tuesday’s killing of Taseer, Pakistan’s liberals had grown increasingly cautious about speaking out for minority protections, women’s rights, and other causes. Activists who once publicly advocated repealing the blasphemy laws — which mandate death for those deemed to have insulted Islam or the Koran — are now willing to settle for mere amendments.
“We are vulnerable,’’ said Asma Jahangir, a small, hard-charging woman who is perhaps Pakistan’s best-known human rights activist. “My name has come up, and of course you have to watch as you move around, how you move around.’’
Some Pakistanis are frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of Western support for their causes. They complain of receiving little more than lip service from the United States, which is dependent on Pakistan’s aid to turn around the war in neighboring Afghanistan and eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts on its soil.
“We don’t matter for anybody,’’ said Marvi Sirmed, a 38-year-old activist.
Islamists in Pakistan have flourished in part because governments have failed to provide for people’s needs, such as in education and health care. Islamists fill the gap through their welfare organizations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries, and other networks. The impoverished masses then support their philosophies and political activities.
It doesn’t help that those in Pakistan’s small, liberal, secular wing tend to be wealthier and more educated than most Pakistanis, a cultural divide that is hard to bridge, said Burzine Waghmar, who teaches about Pakistan at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
And so many liberals are increasingly nostalgic for the past, before the 1980s rule of army General Zia ul-Haq. Zia, a fundamentalist Muslim, infused Islam into everything from school textbooks to the legal code — including pushing through harsh blasphemy laws and statutes that treated rape victims as adulterers.