The dirty ‘S’ word in Pakistan: Urooj Zia

Guest post by UROOJ ZIA

Images aired earlier this month where lawyers and other citizens in Pakistan were seen garlanding and felicitating the murderer of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer might have made those involved look tasteless and crude, but their acts were far from shocking. All his faults aside, Taseer had stood up for a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death by a district and sessions (lower) court. He was killed because he had referred to the blasphemy statutes as ‘black laws’ which are abused at will, and had called for reform. As such, Taseer was killed because he had stood up, albeit in a roundabout way, for secularism and basic humanity. 

Secularism is an incredibly dirty word in the mainstream narrative of Pakistan. Over time, malevolent forces of obscurantism, bolstered by the deep state, have worked tirelessly towards transforming the connotations of the word in the national consciousness, until it came to represent, falsely of course, the absolute negation of spirituality.

To start things off, ‘secularism’ – the noble notion of protecting religions and religious minorities from the tyranny of the majority by ensuring that dogma had little to do with the direct business of the State – was translated into Urdu, the ‘national’ language of Pakistan, as ‘laa-deeniet’ (lack of faith). Secular individuals, therefore, were ‘la-deen’ – sans religion – ignoring the fact that many practicing Muslims in the country also upheld the concept. Repeated often enough, the ‘sans religion’ definition has today become a reality in the national consciousness. Few mainstream political parties or politicians associate overtly with the idea. Even the supposedly-liberal Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) manifesto claims: ‘Islam humara deen hai’ (Islam is our faith); inadvertently marginalising hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs even in the PPP’s own stronghold, Sindh. That Taseer, himself an old PPP stalwart, was brutally murdered for his secular credentials has done little to change mindsets within this party which has sacrificed many lives to the bloodlust of the deep state and its ‘non-state actors’.

Since Taseer’s assassination, Khateebs (clerics) have started going on a rampage every Friday during ‘Juma sermons’, decrying Taseer and anyone who supports or speaks up for him and his values, valorising his murder, and calling for repeat performances against all dissenters. And while their words can easily be classified as criminal incitements to violence, punishable under various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code as well as the Anti-Terrorism Act, little is done to bring them to the book. Intelligence agents, tasked with monitoring these sermons and providing evidence, collude with hate-mongers and claim that nothing ‘untoward’ was said. The police, meanwhile, condone these acts in their own way by refusing to lodge cases against the clerics concerned. They either claim to be helpless (‘we have no evidence!’) or openly threaten complainants for ‘going against men [and it is always a man] of Islam’. Those who dare to question these forces of obscurantism are derided and awarded inane labels such as ‘liberal extremist’ (as opposed to ‘religious extremists’) or – wait for it! – ‘liberal fascist’; thus conflating violence and real threats with merely speaking up for what one believes in.

Little wonder, then, that that seemingly normal, college-educated middleclass individuals claim to see ‘nur’ (divine light) in the face of Taseer’s murderer. Little wonder that a chunk of members of bar associations in Punjab offered to defend him in court, pro bono. In their war against the dirty ‘S’-word, the powers-that-be in Pakistan have ended up eliminating the basic humanity of a major section of the populace, converting people into sociopaths who valorise murderers and blame victims for atrocities committed against them in the name of religion.

(Urooj Zia is a journalist based in Karachi. contact at uroojzia dot com.)

7 thoughts on “The dirty ‘S’ word in Pakistan: Urooj Zia”

  1. This post goes to the heart of the problem in Pakistan. I didn’t know that secularism is translated there as ‘without faith’, but this explains why even the Left is reluctant to be seen as arguing for it. Even in India, there is a vocal minority which either denounces secularism as being against the culture of a nation where so many people are religious, or subscribes to the Indian notion of equal treatment to all religions by the state, without understanding that the separation of religion from the state (except where interference is needed to protect human and democratic rights) is the only guarantee that people of all faiths will be able to practise their own faith in their own way.

    1. Rohini ji,

      Just like secularism was translated to ‘la-deeniyet’, the ‘left’ in Pakistan — particularly the commie / socialist left — was made synonymous with atheism. To an extent, the left was also at fault too for this; instead of allowing ideology to evolve organically through local objective and material conditions, they went straight for the jugular: religion. That too in le ‘Islamic Republic’, where fundos have almost always had state patronage. The State responded by making ‘communism’ a “dirty” word too, by equating it with atheism, thus alienating people for whom religion, in some form or the other (not necessarily fundamentalism), was an important part of their identities.

      Now, when we go to workers to speak about socialism, the first question we get is: “Leikin woh tou khuda ko nahi maantey.” And so, instead of a useful discussion, much precious time is wasted merely in clarifying these issues.

      1. I totally agree, the assumption by some on the Left that secularism=atheism, and both are part of Leftism, is a problem too, as I had said in my article on the Ayodhya verdict some time ago.

  2. This article reminds me the days of terrorism in Punjab in the eighties. Many of the prominent left figures sacrificed their lives while opposing communalism and state terrorism. Avtar Paash, Jaimal Padda, martyrs of Sevewala massacre in 1991 and many others.
    The left took a determined stand against communalism but the struggle was not confined to issue of communalism in an isolated way but the struggles on day to day matters and on class issues were carried on to strengthen the fight against communalism.
    Communalism, not only torn apart the social fibre, harmony, frighten minorities but it goes against the whole of working class, it diverts real issues and suppresses peoples struggle.
    The struggle on real issues concerning people sets the context in which they can recognize their friends and foes. With a great deal of effort, centers of struggles on people’s issues set an example like a torch in dark night and it strengthen the head on fight against communalism. A consistent, determined and courageous effort need be put.
    As Jaimal Padda put in his famous song :
    “sach de sangram ne harna nahi,
    sidak sade ne kade marna nahi,
    katl hona nahiN pavitar soch ne,
    koorh da beda kade tarna nahiN”

  3. Uzi
    I came to read your post once again.
    It’s wonderful to read such well-written pieces among the kind of crap one sees every day.

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