Dig­ging our way out of the cave

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Moshar­raf Zaidi

The out­come of a de­bate of­ten de­pends on how the ques­tion is framed and who is ask­ing it. In a per­fect world, we would get to choose how to frame the ques­tion, and who poses the ques­tion. The real world is not per­fect. The is­sue of blas­phemy in Pak­istan is an in­ter­est­ing case of a pub­lic de­bate. Let's call one side sup­port­ers of the sta­tus quo, and the other side, op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo. Sup­port­ers of the sta­tus quo do not want any changes made to the sec­tions of the Pak­istan Pe­nal Code that ad­dress blas­phemy, while op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo want changes to parts of the Pak­istan Pe­nal Code that deal with blas­phemy. It is im­por­tant to note that while the range of op­po­si­tion to the sta­tus quo is di­verse (amend­ment, re­peal etc), the range of sup­port is sin­gle file (no­body touches the "blas­phemy law").

What makes the de­bate fas­ci­nat­ing is that it is ef­fec­tively not a de­bate at all. It is a case of two sep­a­rate ar­gu­ments, each pre­tend­ing to be en­gaged with the other. Both sides of the ar­gu­ment whip them­selves into a frenzy and both ar­gu­ments claim moral su­pe­ri­or­ity. The only prob­lem is that one side keeps win­ning, and the other side keeps los­ing.

This isn't like los­ing a de­bate on the pros and cons of re­gres­sive tax­a­tion like the RGST. Op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo them­selves rightly ar­gue that los­ing the de­bate on how the law treats blas­phemy costs lives. The sec­tions of the Pak­istan Pe­nal Code (Act XLV of 1860) that per­tain to blas­phemy egre­giously and un­nec­es­sar­ily in­flate the in­cen­tive to reg­is­ter false cases of blas­phemy, and then egre­giously and un­nec­es­sar­ily cause unchecked threats to the lives of peo­ple ac­cused (al­most al­ways falsely) of blas­phemy. Los­ing the de­bate on the is­sue of how blas­phemy should be treated by the law in Pak­istan has real con­se­quences. It sus­tains the sta­tus quo. Since the sta­tus quo in­volves the in­cen­tivi­sa­tion of false le­gal suits, and since those le­gal suits then cre­ate demon­stra­ble threats to the lives of Pak­istani cit­i­zens, the sta­tus quo has to be un­ac­cept­able to rea­son­able peo­ple.

Of course, sup­port­ers of the sta­tus quo don't frame their ar­gu­ment by ex­press­ing a de­sire to in­crease the quan­tum of false cases, or the vic­tim­i­sa­tion of mi­nori­ties. Sup­port­ers and de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo are win­ning the de­bate not on the ba­sis of a good ar­gu­ment, or nor­ma­tive su­pe­ri­or­ity, or even street power. They are win­ning the de­bate be­cause they have framed the ques­tion on blas­phemy in the pub­lic do­main in Pak­istan. That ques­tion is quite sim­ple, and it is very, very po­tent. No mat­ter what their lips are say­ing, the ques­tion they are ask­ing Pak­ista­nis is this: "Do you want to live in a Pak­istan where of­fen­sive speech against re­li­gious per­son­al­i­ties and sym­bols is a legally pro­tected right?"

Of course, op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo are not ad­vo­cat­ing of­fen­sive speech or blas­phemy. But that doesn't mat­ter be­cause the ques­tion has al­ready been framed. It's a trick ques­tion. It is meant to lo­cate op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo out­side the field of play. Sim­ply put, if your an­swer to that ques­tion is yes, and you are in Pak­istan, sup­port­ers of the sta­tus quo will suc­cess­fully ar­gue that you are in the wrong place. Sup­port­ers and de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo do not ad­ver­tise them­selves as ad­vo­cates of the sta­tus quo, they ad­ver­tise them­selves as de­fend­ers of the faith, and the hon­our of the faith­ful. No mat­ter what ar­gu­ment is em­ployed, op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo can­not win this spe­cific de­bate.

The fight to al­ter the sta­tus quo is a fight to pro­tect in­no­cent Pak­ista­nis from be­ing vic­timised by a so­cial struc­ture, a set of laws, and a state ma­chin­ery that are to vary­ing de­grees, ba­si­cally bro­ken. Chang­ing the sta­tus quo is about the safety, se­cu­rity of all Pak­ista­nis, par­tic­u­larly dis­ad­van­taged Pak­ista­nis such as re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. The PPC's blas­phemy pro­vi­sions rep­re­sent a law that al­lows in­flu­en­tial lo­cals to demon­strate their mus­cu­lar­ity and achieve fame, by egre­giously and un­nec­es­sar­ily reg­is­ter­ing false cases of blas­phemy, and then egre­giously and un­nec­es­sar­ily threat­en­ing (and tak­ing) the lives of those ac­cused. To want to change the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is an ab­so­lutely rea­son­able, non-ide­o­log­i­cal and non-par­ti­san pub­lic pol­icy propo­si­tion. To win this crit­i­cal fight, op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo need to step away from in­stru­ments that have failed them, and the cause of a safe, se­cure and rea­son­able Pak­istan. These in­stru­ments in­clude moral ou­trage, ide­o­log­i­cal rab­ble rous­ing, the use of the word "lib­eral" and a com­plete lack of en­gage­ment with the Pak­istani Main Street, the Pak­istani gul­ley, and the Pak­istani mosque. Pas­sion and moral ou­trage have lit­tle place in the fight for change and for a safe, se­cure and rea­son­able Pak­istan.

In the range of ef­forts to af­fect change to how the state deals with blas­phemy, there are prob­lems not just at the strate­gic level, but also the tac­ti­cal level. Let's take the is­sue of tim­ing. Im­me­di­ately af­ter a blas­phemy con­vic­tion rep­re­sents the worst pos­si­ble time to be­gin or step up a de­bate about the PPC blas­phemy pro­vi­sions. Ar­gu­ing against these pro­vi­sions right af­ter a fresh con­vic­tion, or even reg­is­tra­tion of a case, can eas­ily be painted by mis­chievous par­ti­sans as be­ing an at­tempt to de-Is­lamise Pak­istan's 170-plus Mus­lims. Mean­while, stand­ing up for the hon­our of the sym­bols of Is­lam, at a time when op­po­nents of the sta­tus quo seem to be "in con­cert" with "blas­phe­mers" is a bril­liant op­por­tu­nity to press home the ad­van­tage for de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo. It is a great time to be a ben­e­fi­ciary of the Pak­istani state's dys­func­tion.

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