She’s being called the “daughter of the nation” who needs to be rescued from the fanged jaws of the Americans. Her name is Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Pakistani TV channels and drawing-rooms are buzzing with talk of this gallant woman who was recently found guilty by an American court for attempting murder, and on whose defence the government of Pakistan has already spent a whopping two million dollars.
On February 5, when Karachi became the horrid scene of two bomb attacks that killed dozens of men, women and children, leaders of various mainstream religious parties (especially the Jamaat-i-Islami) were marching up and down the roads and streets of Lahore condemning the American court’s verdict, insisting that Aafia was innocent, and demanding she be released and returned to Pakistan immediately. Not surprisingly, the Taliban followed suit.
A few days earlier, when TV channels were airing the shameful scenes of groups of lawyers outside the Lahore High Court cursing and abusing media men and the relatives of 12-year-old Shazia, who is said to have died at the hands of a senior lawyer and his family, these religious parties were behaving as if the young maid’s torturous death meant absolutely nothing compared to Aafia’s plight in the US.
Not a single rally or a word of condemnation in this respect slipped out from any of the many defenders of Aafia’s cause. Clearly, her champions are not bothered by the plight of those women who face humiliation and rape every day and then linger in a depressing wilderness and a psychological void. How come these women too are not the daughters of this immaculate bastion of faith called Pakistan?
What’s more, never have these highly vocal keepers of Aafia’s sanctity even superficially censured the aggravating antics of monsters like the Taliban and Al Qaeda at whose murderous hands thousands of innocent Pakistanis have lost their lives. None of the many women, children, and men who were mercilessly slaughtered by these monsters, it seems, were noble, good, or innocent enough to also be celebrated as the brothers, sisters, and children of this nation by the Aafia brigade.
In an excellent piece written by Anas Abbas on the issue, the writer rightly questions the validity of the vocal frenzy exhibited by the religious parties and their skewed mouthpieces in the popular mainstream media about the ‘insults’ that Aafia has supposed to have faced in custody.
Abbas is on the ball when, after pondering the Aafia fan club’s protests, he asks, “why did we not see this in the case of two other missing Pakistani women?” In other words, why such a hue and cry for a convicted felon and not a peep about women like Zarina Marri, who also went missing? Accused of harbouring Baloch nationalists, Marri was abducted by the Pakistan Army from Balochistan in 2005 and is believed to have been kept in an army torture cell in Karachi.
For that matter, why hasn’t the Aafia brigade previously taken up the case of Dr Shazia Khalid, a medical doctor and an employee of Pakistan Petroleum Limited, who was beaten and raped by Captain Hammad at Sui Hospital in 2005. She was then drugged and moved to a psychiatric hospital in Karachi. Later, she was put under house arrest and prevented from contacting lawyers, doctors and human rights officials. After her release, she managed to leave Pakistan after facing death threats.
For every single Aafia, there is a Zarina, Shazia and, of course, a Mukhtaran Mai – victims of either violent feudal traditions, untouchable establishmentarian arrogance, and the maddening forms of social hypocrisy that have been eating up the moral fabric of Pakistani society for decades now.
In the context of the unprecedented and highly subjective media attention that Aafia is getting in Pakistan, Abbas is absolutely right in asking: “Why was Shazia Khalid’s and Zarina Marri’s families never interviewed by Pakistani TV channels? Why was Shazia Khalid’s interview to the BBC never aired by the so called “free” Pakistani electronic media? Why have we not seen mass scale demonstrations in Pakistan for the justice for these two women? Why are pictures of Shazia Khalid not the highlight of every newspaper, TV channel and Pakistani activists’ blogs as pictures of Aafia are?”
The truth is, politico-religious parties and conservative flash-in-the-pans that have sprung up within the country’s electronic media and political spectrum, stand ideologically bankrupt, operating in a vicious vacuum created by the constant failure of Political Islam and ‘militant jihad’ to impose their own versions of ‘Islamic rule’ and revolution in the Muslim world.
Cleverly ignoring the brutality of an experiment gone wrong (i.e. state-sanctioned jihad and a lopsided, undemocratic mixing of religion and politics), these parties and individuals now concentrate on utilising all kinds of modern electronic and communication media.
Mainly using the internet, they bypass conventional political routes (where they have failed), and instead operate like large cyber fringe groups. But they have enough demagogic appeal to attract the commercial and ratings-hungry attention of the mainstream populist media (especially television).
They are likely to fare badly in an open (and real) democratic and political playing field, so keeping in mind the above-mentioned scenario, their constituencies cannot be found in the physical electoral geography of Pakistan. Instead, their constituencies lie in the nation’s drawing-rooms and cyber cafes.
Thus, unlike in the past when their agenda aimed to pressurise the state and schools of the country to impose their version of Islamic law and doctrine, today, these parties and individuals are reaching out to a cyber-savvy and TV-viewing audience through websites crackling with the most conspiratorial assumptions about Pakistan, Islam and their relation to the rest of the world.
The idea behind this (both directly and otherwise) is not all that new. It smacks of Abul ala Maududi and Syed Qutb’s insistence many years ago on the need to socially prepare and indoctrinate the society so it can be readily mobilised for that final ‘Islamic revolution.’
Whereas conventional Islamist organs like Jamaat-i-Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood initially used university and college campuses and even the electoral dynamics of democracy for the above purpose, by the early 1980s, the JI, excited by the prospect of grabbing state power (when it was invited to join the Ziaul Haq dictatorship), short-circuited Maududi’s evolutionary Islamist mantra by encouraging Zia to implement Islamic laws and doctrines that were alien to Pakistan’s Islamic polity and traditions and thus began to mutate the society’s natural religious evolution.
Islamist terrorism today is clearly symbolic of the frustration the once heroically perceived ‘mujahideen’ and jihadis began to experience when, buoyed by the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan, they failed to convert other Muslim countries towards their brand of faith and jihad.
Interestingly, this failure and its violent consequences has seen the jihad brigade’s indirect spokespersons and sympathisers in cyber space and the media go back to the Maududdist drawing-board, that of initiating the Islamic revolutionary process on a social level, specifically through the media.
But the problem is, as mentioned before, the world-view being popularised by the sympathisers has already mutated Pakistan’s social evolution. In other words, instead of Pakistan’s social and cultural polity taking a natural and modern evolutionary course towards developing a collective democratic mindset that respects ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity and understands the elements that make a country develop a progressive relationship with other nations and peoples, the Islamist worldview has only managed to make the society collapse inwards, hiding from imaginary demons in the shape of ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-Pakistan’ forces which are supposedly obsessed by the idea of destroying the country and its religion.
This is the mindset and worldview from which many Pakistanis are screening Aafia’s case. However, this worldview is blind to the fate of various Pakistani women who have suffered miserably at the hands of religious bigots, feudal lords and military regimes at home. Since Aafia’s image falls well within the precepts of this worldview (hijab-wearer, anti-America, Jew-hater, etc.), she is automatically raised to the status of being a cross between a heroine (a sort of Lady Saladin), and a helpless damsel in distress.
The truth is, if one is ready to face being socially ostracised by allowing himself to closely study the Aafia case objectively and without the crippling sight of the Islamist worldview, he is likely to concur with the American courts’ decision that, yes, Aafia was not innocent; at least not as innocent as her many sympathisers would have us believe.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.