What is happening to Pakistan? That’s not just a rhetorical question. It’s also one many Pakistanis are asking themselves. An email from a friend expresses the shock, horror and incredulity she feels: “We’ve gone mad”. The urban, middle-class, professional Pakistanis I know are both perplexed and deeply disturbed. It’s as if their world has started to crumble and they can no longer hold it together.
But first let’s start with the Pakistan I knew and felt great affection for. I would readily say I’ve always believed Pakistanis are not a fundamentalist or extremist people. No doubt they have fundamentalists in their midst but the vast majority are like us — ordinary, law-abiding, god-fearing folk imbued with a deep sense of culture and tradition but not fanatics and certainly not murderers and assassins.
Consequently, I thought I knew how they must feel when Salman Taseer was killed — in fact riddled with 27 bullets — by his own bodyguard, because he opposed the country’s blasphemy law and offered to help get a presidential pardon for Aasia Bibi, whilst the rest of his security staff simply stood by and watched. I thought I understood what must have gone through their minds when they found the killer being garlanded and showered with rose petals as he was escorted to court. And how they would respond when they discovered these hero-worshippers are lawyers.
The sad facts, however, suggest something else. As Ahmed Rashid has pointed out, 500 lawyers have signed up to defend Taseer’s killer but, so far, his widow cannot find a single one to prosecute him. Not even one registered mullah out of Lahore’s population of 13 million was prepared to read the funeral prayer. They were too scared to do so. Meanwhile, Qadri, the murderer, is busy placing videos of himself singing hymns on Youtube. He must be the first prisoner to have such extraordinary access.
Rashid also points out that the all-powerful army has refused to issue a single comment of support for Taseer’s family, the ruling PPP seems paralysed beyond making multiple concessions to the extremists and civil society has gone into hiding. “Taseer’s death has unleashed the mad dogs of hell”, he writes. “We Pakistanis are at the edge of a precipice.”
So has Pakistan changed? Are we today facing a very different country to what it has so far been or was assumed to be? Have the militants suddenly got the upper hand and are they now challenging the entire state?
I don’t think so but, the truth is, that could still happen. Pakistanis have not changed but their State most certainly has. It’s considerably weakened and may be heading towards collapse. This is why lawyers, judges, scholars, mullahs, civil servants and politicians seem to be cowering. This is why my friends in Pakistan are disturbed and depressed.
It’s not unknown in history for a small, determined vanguard to overwhelm the perplexed silent majority when the State has atrophied and can no longer defend itself, leave aside the principles it purportedly supports. Isn’t that how the Bolsheviks under Lenin captured power in Russia in 1917?
Pakistan could be at a similar juncture today. The problem is you can’t be sure except in hindsight and then it is too late. When the Romanovs were overthrown who, at the time, thought Kerensky would not last? Hence I ask, is the regime that succeeded General Musharraf just an interregnum before something else?
The thought makes me tremble as I wait for the future to unfold.
The views expressed by the author are personal.